UC Davis Whistleblower Gains Settlement After Retaliation in Theft Case

universitycat.pngLast week a nutrition specialist at UC Davis received a settlement from the university after she claimed she was subjected to retaliation for blowing the whistle on fraud perpetrated by a subordinate.

Amy Block Joy filed her complaint in September 2007 and a subsequent investigation by the university verified many of her allegations.  These included activities of another employee over a 6 year period.  The employee pled guilty in 2008 to theft in 2008, admitting to spending federal funds on hundreds of items.  Remarkably, the employee was only sentenced to a year in prison and ordered to pay government restitution of $128,681.80.

According to her complaint, Dr. Block Joy said, “People told others she was mentally ill; at a conference, it was falsely announced that she had left the university; mail was taken from her mailbox, torn, and pictures were drawn on it; she was shoved; she was not invited to meetings and people did not reply to her emails, even though she was director of the program; her car was ‘keyed’ in the parking lot; employees sitting next to her wouldn’t speak, even when she addressed them warmly.”

The Vanguard recently spoke with Amy Block Joy.  She said that she discovered the embezzlement in March of 2006 and confronted the female employee at that time.  However she said, “Because my reporting it through the usual channels didn’t work, I filed a whistleblower report in August 2006.”

While she believes others knew about the fraud, as was reported by auditors and also explained in a 2007 Sacramento Bee article, she knew little about the investigation.

“UC Davis had a lot of internal controls at the time.  The reason I believe it was good to blow the whistle is because there are loop holes and ways around the institutional controls,” she told the Vanguard.  “This is true for all organizations. However, the investigation allowed the university to make adjustments and improvements.”

According to the 2007 article, Dr. Block Joy filed a “whistle-blower” complaint with the university asking that various funding irregularities be investigated.  A campus police officer told the Bee that she used the whistle-blower system because “she felt her concerns with Benford’s theft of grant funds would go unaddressed.”

The article reported, “Block Joy theorized to campus police that Benford was being shielded by higher-ups because she helped others obtain equipment improperly for campus operations.” 

It continued, “The officer wrote that that theory seemed to be consistent with a spreadsheet detailing nine years of program equipment purchases, which showed that of the $1.24 million spent on equipment over that time, UC Davis received $798,826 worth of items.”

“The alleged misuse of funds was outlined in a document drawn up by campus police to prepare to ask a judge for permission to search the employee’s office cubicle and home,” it continued.  “That document was never filed, and an affidavit for search warrant, prepared in October by Colleen Hackney, a special agent for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General, makes no mention of who else may or may not have gotten the food stamp funds.”

The question of why the university would retaliate against an employee who was attempting to blow the whistle on misuse of university funds is a question that even Dr. Block Joy cannot readily answer.

“Why people got mad at me is hard to explain,” she said.  “I think they believed I made things harder for everyone–instead of seeing that the person who committed the fraud did that!  I became a scapegoat because I called attention to the wrong-doing.”

“Dr. Block Joy did what she knew was right and stood up to those who wanted her to fail.  She showed strength and determination throughout this case,”  her attorney Michael Hirst from the Hirst Law Group in Sacramento told the Vanguard.

On the one hand Dr. Block Joy said, “There are tons of good employees at the university that have integrity, are fair-minded and respectful.”

“However, during the investigation people got very angry at me for a variety of reasons, most of them I will never know and probably never understand,” she continued.  “I think it’s important for future whistleblowers to see that sometimes the actual theft is just the tip of an iceberg.”

“Whistleblower retaliation is a form of discrimination,” Amy Block Joy told the Vanguard.  “It’s complicated and I’m not sure why people feel it’s OK.  The university has policies and enforces them and I think this is really important for everyone to know that this is against the law.  Whistleblowers need to be protected and the university did its job in protecting me.”

Mr. Hirst told the Vanguard, “The University, like every employer, must be vigilant in protecting its employees from retaliation.  Whether the discrimination is subtle, or open and obvious, employees have a right to rely on their employer for support.”

“Certainly, any entity accused of fraud will initially react defensively,” he continued.  “But when the facts show a crime has been committed, the focus should turn to preventing future recurrence, rather than hiding the problems or retaliating against those who disclose them.”

The University in this case has acknowledged that retaliation occurred and has taken steps to rectify the situation.  “The university takes all allegations of retaliation, including whistleblower retaliation, very seriously and investigates them diligently,” Claudia Morain News Service Director at UC Davis said in a statement to the Vanguard.

“In this instance, a university investigation determined that Dr. Block Joy was retaliated against for her whistleblower complaint concerning fraud and misuse in the Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program,” Ms. Morain continued.  “Administrative action was taken in response to this substantiated allegation of retaliation.  We’re pleased that we were able to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement with Dr. Block Joy.”

In the end, Dr. Block Joy was transferred to a different department, a development that she said she is pleased with.  “I was very pleased with the way the university handled my case,” she said.  “I am now in my own department but I have found many new colleagues–as well as a handful from my old department– that remained supportive during and now.”

In response, UC Davis has changed their policies to fix the problem, not only of retaliation, but of the fraud that Dr. Block Joy helped bring to light.  “UC Davis is confident that the lapses have been corrected and that the program today continues to provide excellent service to thousands of food stamp recipients throughout California,” Ms. Morain told the Vanguard.

According to University’s statement, in the years since Dr. Block Joy first raised questions about fraud and misuse of funds in the Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program, UC Davis audits identified fraud and found failures in internal financial controls and management oversight of the program. The lapses were reported to the California Department of Social Services, which administers the program funding on behalf of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and to the federal government. In January 2009, a former UC Davis employee pled guilty to using $160,000 of funds from the program for her own purposes and was sentenced to pay restitution and serve a prison term.

The Vanguard has unfortunately had to report on a few of these cases of whistleblower retaliation at the University, however, in this case, the university has taken strong measures to rectify Dr. Block Joy’s personal situation and prevent future cases. 

Dr. Block Joy hopes her experience will help others to come forward and do the right thing.

“I hope my experience has made it easier for future whistleblowers–if the need should arise,” she said.  “It would be great if this kind of situation never happened again, but we need to be realistic.”

“Those with information about fraud against the government should be encouraged to come forward.  If retaliation against them is permitted, no whistleblower policy will ever be effective,” Attorney Michael Hirst said.

As reported last week by the Sacramento Bee, Dr. Block Joy received a settlement from the University of $89,611.  Last week, the Assembly Judiciary Committee approved SB 650 authored by Senator Leland Yee that would provide UC employees who report waste, fraud and abuse with the same legal protections as other state employees, including those at California State University.

The bill will ensure that UC employees can exercise their right to seek damages in court if the university has either reached or failed to reach a decision regarding a complaint within the time limits established by the Regents and Trustees respectively; or if the university has not satisfactorily addressed the complaint within 18 months.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

Vanguard intern Brian Vu also contributed to this story

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. E Roberts Musser

    DMG: “As reported last week by the Sacramento Bee, Dr. Block Joy received a settlement from the University of $89,611.”

    I’m confused. If Joy is saying that the University truly handled things in an exemplary fashion, why did Joy have to hire a lawyer to sue the University in the first place; and why did the University agree to pay Joy a settlement of nearly $90,000? It seems the University originally did not handle the situation well at all; then received enough bad publicity from its abusive behavior towards a whistleblower to give pause and force the University to have second thoughts; then and only then did the University change its tune. Did I miss something here?

  2. Miwok

    I had a similar situation 20 years ago, but was not a director. The university violated its confidentiality, then tried to hang me with the theft and fraud going on in a department. After filing claims and trying to pursue legal action I could not afford I was laid off, and told during an exit interview I “pissed off the wrong people”.

    The proof I had in my hands, and the Internal Audit investigation clearing me, only protected me from arrest but not the harassment and physical intimidation. The department heads were complicit, and I experienced the same mistreatment. I am glad to hear Dr Joy at least could see a positive result. I know what she went through.

    The $90K probably went to the lawyers – I could not come up with enough for any lawyer to sue UC. And on it goes…

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