In 2011 and the first half of 2012, Humboldt County spent more than $700,000 on salaries and benefits for people who weren't coming to work -- they were on paid administrative leave. Department heads order these leaves to protect employee rights while an investigation is conducted. That can happen for a variety of reasons: a sheriff's deputy involved in a shooting, a manager accused of sexual harassment or a victim of alleged misconduct by fellow employees, for example.
Sometimes the accusations have merit; other times they're baseless. And not every employee placed on investigative leave is suspected of wrongdoing. But before any employee can be disciplined, a thorough investigation must be conducted, during which employees get their paychecks and accrue benefits as usual. This is the law for public employees in California, and the system works the same way in every county.
But not every county puts as many people on leave -- or keeps them there for as long -- as Humboldt County has over the past two years. During the 18 months from the start of last year through June 30 of this year, Humboldt placed two dozen workers on paid administrative leave for two weeks or longer -- some of them much longer. All but four of those 24 were on leave for more than three months.
If you look beyond that 18-month window you'll find some truly extended leaves. Three women employed in the county's social services department haven't gone to work since December 2011, though that hasn't kept them from earning, cumulatively, nearly $100,000 in salaries and benefits.
Another employee, a government aid eligibility worker named Dawn Schultheis Musselman, was paid to stay home for more than two years. Actually, "stay home" isn't quite accurate. "I was out partying, having a good time," she told the Journal. Before her leave ended, Musselman had moved with her two sons to San Diego, where she now lives and collects unemployment. Her last paycheck arrived in March, by which time she'd collected $51.499.84 in salary plus nearly $22,000 worth of benefits without showing up for a single day of work.
(Chart: The county has paid these people to stay home while it investigates whether they are victims of workplace wrongdoing or may have done something wrong themselves. The paid leaves aren’t discipline and do not imply any guilt. Click to enlarge.)
All this at a time when the county is struggling under major budget constraints -- cutting positions, maintaining hiring freezes and denying raises to minimum-wage workers. A Humboldt County official argues that these long leaves are the inevitable result of some difficult balancing acts -- discipline versus due process; union demands versus shrinking budgets; the cost of thorough investigations versus the cost of sloppy, inconclusive ones. But former employees and their union rep say the county is wasting their time, and our money.
Much of the information in this story was the result of a Public Records Act request, which at first was granted only partially. County staff initially refused to release the names of almost everyone who'd been placed on administrative leave. The county's legal counsel argued that releasing those names "would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy." Only after the Journal hired an attorney to explain state law did the county relent. California's Supreme Court holds that names and salaries of public employees are public information, part of the state's "strong public policy supporting transparency in government."
In that spirit of transparency, we take a closer look at the people and departments most affected by these long absences, and the process that's causing them.
Of the two dozen employees placed on leave, three quarters were, or remain, employed in the Health and Human Services department, which accounts for just over half of the county's total workforce. Ten of the 24 (42 percent) came from the social services branch, which accounts for less than a quarter of the county workforce.
Katie Koopman worked in that branch for more than a decade. In early 2010 she was a lead eligibility worker managing a complex caseload of clients who were on or applying for public assistance programs such as Medi-Cal and food stamps. She was, by her own account, a star employee. Her most recent performance review, which she showed to the Journal, had nothing but positive things to say. So she was shocked on the morning of Friday Feb. 5, 2010, when she was unexpectedly placed on administrative leave.
"It really blindsided me, to be honest with you," Koopman recalled in a recent interview.
Her coworker and friend, Dawn Shultheis Musselman, an eligibility worker 2, was placed on leave that same morning. Musselman said she was called into her boss's office, informed that she was being placed on leave and ushered out of the building. "I couldn't even go back to my desk," she said.
Neither woman knew why they were being placed on leave, and they didn't hear anything for weeks, they said. Eventually they learned that Koopman was being accused of interfering with the interview of a man who lived with her. He'd come in to apply for social services and, during an intake interview being conducted by Musselman, Koopman had emerged from her office -- just to say hi, she said, though the county was accusing her of preferential treatment. Both women denied any wrongdoing. They looked to their union representative to handle negotiations with the county.
The county hired an outside investigator named Cindy Manos who took months to contact the women, they said. After an interview with Koopman, it emerged that Manos had a conflict of interest in the case. (She knew Koopman's ex-boyfriend, who had a tangential connection to the case.) So the county hired another investigator, Diane Davis, who's based in Redding. More months went by without contact.
Musselman didn't mind the delay. "Oh, I was having a blast," she said. She loved knowing that she was getting paid not to work, and even accruing benefits. "I accrued sick leave. I accrued everything -- my retirement, my health benefits -- everything was paid."
But for Koopman, the wait was excruciating. "It created so much stress and anxiety in my life that I just wanted a resolution," she said.
That's a much more typical response, according to Harriet Lawlor, the local rep of Koopman and Musselman's union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). "The whole time you're on administrative leave, you're thinking that someone believes you've done something [wrong], whether or not you've done it," Lawlor said. "It's terrifying. And your income relies on it."
Diane Davis delivered her completed investigation of Koopman to the county on Jan. 4, 2011, 11 months after Koopman had been placed on leave. Davis submitted a three-ring binder containing a 35-page report along with transcripts of interviews with 15 of Koopman's coworkers. This might seem like an exhaustive amount of information, yet Koopman wasn't contacted for another four months.
On May 3, Health and Human Services Director Phillip Crandall sent her a letter notifying her that he intended to fire her for committing fraud. She vehemently denied the allegations and considered appealing her case to the state but ultimately decided that the fight wasn't worth the hassle and anxiety, she said. She resigned on May 27, one year, three months and three weeks since she'd last been to work. In that time she made more than $73,000 in salary and benefits. Since resigning she's been collecting unemployment.
Musselman's case is even more confounding. The county didn't resolve her investigation until the following October. According to both Musselman and Lawlor, the county told her to come back to work. But by that point, she'd decided that she didn't really want to work for the county anymore. And the county didn't really want her back, either, she said. During her five-year employment she'd filed grievances against a couple of coworkers and didn't get along with all of her superiors. As she put it, "There was a handful of us at work that weren't butt-kissers, and I'm one of them."
So what did she do? She talked turkey -- tried to get the county to keep paying her salary in exchange for not coming back to work. "I told 'em to pay me for a year. They said, ‘You're crazy.' They came back with two months, and then we bartered. The final decision was five months."
Musselman forwarded the Journal a copy of the settlement agreement between AFSCME (her union) and the county. The agreement, which was emailed to her on Oct. 25, 2011, says that in exchange for an irrevocable letter of resignation submitted on or before Oct. 28, 2011, "Ms. Musselman will remain on full pay status until 5 p.m. March 21, 2012, at which time the employee will be separated from County service."
Musselman still can't believe the county agreed to it. "They continued to pay me, full pay, for an additional five months," she marveled. By the end of her two-plus years on leave she'd collected more than $127,000 in salary and benefits. The county's investigations into Koopman and Musselman cost an additional $14,684, bringing the total taxpayer-funded expense of the duo's time off to more than $200,000.
"The amount of money that they spent just on the two of us was obscene," Koopman said.
As Humboldt County's director of human resources, Dan Fulks was saddled with the unenviable task of explaining the nuances of administrative leave without addressing any specific cases. Legally he's not allowed to talk about individual employees, and he's a disciplined adherent to this policy: He's very practiced at saying, "That's a personnel matter. I can't comment."
But it's easy to draw at least one distinction between private- and public-sector employees in California. In the private sector you can be fired with little fanfare. If you work for the government, on the other hand, you have "Skelly rights." In 1975, the California Supreme Court ruled in Skelly vs. State Personnel Board that before being disciplined, a public employee has a right to know what's being alleged, confront his or her accusers and respond to the charges.
"The only way to protect the legal rights of the county as well as the employee is to place 'em on paid administrative leave, because that's not disciplinary," Fulks explained.
Next, the county has to investigate, either with its own staff or, increasingly, due to staffing cuts, by hiring an outside investigator. If wrongdoing is discovered then the county has to build a solid case against the employee, which can get complicated, Fulks said. Investigations rarely lead where he expects them to. "It's very common that you start an investigation into employee A, and then you find you're not only talking about employee A but you're talking about employee B, C, D and F. Or other conduct comes out."
Once an employee has been disciplined, he or she has five days to appeal, which works like this: Each side, the employer and the union, selects a representative. Those representatives choose from a list of five possible arbitrators provided by the State Mediation and Conciliation Service. The arbitrator then considers the evidence and makes a binding decision.
When Fulks was first hired by the county in June 2010, at least three disciplinary actions were pending, he said. Two of those would have been Musselman's and Koopman's. Fulks suggested that the turnover in his position (his predecessor was only there for a few months), could have been partly responsible for their long leaves.
But he also feels that it has gotten progressively more difficult for employers to win in the arbitration process. He characterized the county's position as similar to prosecutors building a court case: A lot of evidence must be gathered. "That's what takes time," he said. Every time the county disciplines an employee it must cite what rules were broken, outline the behavior that violated those rules and provide evidence. Arbitrators, he said, are supposed to side with whichever party has a preponderance of evidence in its favor, but in his opinion they treat the process more like a criminal hearing, where even a reasonable doubt is enough to acquit. "They hold us to a standard that is not reasonable."
Lawlor, the union rep, laughed when she heard that. "It's always weighted in management's favor," she countered.
Ultimately, Fulks said that without going into detail on individual investigations, he couldn't explain why Humboldt County has been placing more people on leave, and leaving them there longer, than other counties with similar populations.
Here's the data we tracked down that revealed that fact. According to the U.S. Census, Humboldt County's 2010 population was 134,623. Among the 24 administrative leaves of two weeks or more last year and the first half of this year, the average lasted more than seven months. Compare that to the following counties:
In Sutter County (population 94,737), just five people were placed on leave during the same timeframe. The average lasted 26 calendar days; the longest, 39 days. When told that Humboldt County had employees out for more than a year, Sutter County Personnel Assistant Christine Luigard was taken aback. "With pay?" she asked. "Oh, no, that's way too long."
Nevada County (population 98,764) placed almost as many people on leaves of two weeks or longer (20) as Humboldt, but only one was kept off work for more than three months. The average was less than eight weeks.
Kings County (population 152,982) placed 15 workers on leave for two weeks or more, with the average lasting less than eight weeks.
And Napa County (population 136,484) placed just six employees on leaves of two weeks or more, with the average lasting just over three weeks. Nonetheless, Napa County Human Resources Director Suzanne Mason took Humboldt County's statistics in stride, saying it's not possible to determine what's normal and what's unreasonable without knowing more about the individual cases. When an employee is charged with a crime, for example, the employer often has to wait for the criminal justice process. Some investigations are more complex than others, and when staff is conducting the investigation it usually takes longer. "There are so many variables," Mason said. "I don't know how you can make a generalization."
With that in mind, let's look at a few other examples here in Humboldt County. Several did involve criminal charges, including the case of Humboldt County Sheriff's Deputy Joseph Marsh. On the Fourth of July 2010, Marsh enlisted the help of a friend's 10-year-old daughter to hold an illegal Roman candle firework. It exploded in their hands, injuring Marsh and blowing off the fingers on the girl's right hand, leaving just the pinkie. After the incident, Marsh was kept on paid administrative leave for more than 6½ months, costing taxpayers $62,480. He pleaded no contest to misdemeanor child endangerment last September and is no longer employed with the county.
Last January, the Humboldt County Drug Task Force and California Department of Justice were wrapping up a major marijuana trafficking investigation. They'd been targeting a Eureka couple named Brandon and Christina Savio. On Jan. 2, they pulled Brandon over near Benbow and arrested him.
Meanwhile, agents monitoring the Savios' Eureka house saw a neighbor walk in and out several times, hauling out an armload with each trip. This neighbor proved to be Gordon Glynn, then a deputy public guardian in the county's Health and Human Services Department. His wife, Mari, was a mental health case manager in the same department. Officers searched their house and discovered that the Glynns, who'd been tipped off to Brandon Savio's arrest by his wife, were hiding some of their neighbors' belongings -- two pounds of processed marijuana, four firearms and a large sum of money, according to a press release issued the following day. Officers also found that the Glynns had a growing operation of their own, with more than 500 marijuana plants, processed bud, packing materials, more firearms and more money.
The Glynns were placed on administrative leave the following Monday. They remained on paid leave for nine months and a week, earning more than $100,000 in salaries and benefits. Four months after their leaves ended, Gordon Glynn was sentenced to two years' probation and the charges against Mari Glynn were dismissed. Neither is currently employed by the county.
Other cases remain a mystery. Humboldt County Airport Manager Jacquelyn Hulsey, for example, was placed on administrative leave from Oct. 3, 2011, through Jan. 28, 2012, and despite numerous inquiries the Journal couldn't find out why ("Where's the Airport Manager," Dec. 22, 2011). Hulsey's job performance has been criticized by former employees, business leaders and former members of the county's Aviation Advisory Committee. Following an investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board blamed a miscommunication between Hulsey and one of her employees for causing a 12-hour delay in search-and-rescue efforts after a plane crashed off the coast of Trinidad in March 2009. The bodies of the two men on board that plane were never recovered ("The Plane That Wasn't There," Dec. 17, 2009).
Hulsey earned $32,770 in salary and benefits while on leave. She remains employed with the county.
As mentioned above, not everyone who has been placed on leave is suspected of misconduct. Last year, Jeannie Duncan, a legal business manager in the District Attorney's Office, filed a claim for damages against the county, alleging that she was the victim of retaliation after complaining of sexual harassment and office misconduct, including "unlawful polygraph practices" and improper use of office resources and employee time for DA Paul Gallegos' re-election campaign.
The county has yet to resolve Duncan's claims. She's been on leave for almost a year and a half, collecting $134,000 in salary and benefits.
No one the Journal spoke with could explain why the social services office has been placing more employees on leave than any other in the county. We sent an email through a county public information officer asking if Katherine Young, the county's director of social services, could explain why 42 percent of employees placed on leave came from her branch. She sent a reply through the same public information officer, saying only, "Careful adherence to the terms of the MOU," referring to the memorandum of understanding that dictates contract conditions that the county has to follow. But since the MOU applies to all county departments, this doesn't really answer the question. We also asked to speak with DHHS Director Phillip Crandall but were referred back to Dan Fulks, the HR director.
Fulks said that the appeal process for disciplinary actions is different for employees in social services and child support services, under rules that apply statewide. Rather than being referred to an arbitrator, appeals from these two groups of employees are sent to an administrative law judge from the state's department of personnel, aka CalHR. Fulks actually prefers dealing with administrative law judges. "I have much more objective decisions come from the ALJs," he said. He didn't indicate that this process should take any longer than arbitration.
On Dec. 13, 2011, three social services employees -- former colleagues of Koopman and Musselman -- were placed on administrative leave. One of them was office assistant Shannon Noonan, who, six months later, was arrested at her home by the Eureka Police Department. Officers were responding to reports that she was selling methamphetamine, and a search of the house turned up an ounce of crystal meth hidden in Noonan's bedroom as well as bags and digital gram scales, according to the EPD.
Koopman and Musselman heard through the grapevine about Noonan's arrest. Neither was exactly friends with Noonan (Musselman said Noonan once made false allegations against her). They knew she'd been on administrative leave, and they were curious to see what happened next, as were their friends. "Everybody was like, ‘Well, it's a slam dunk. They've got to fire her now,'" Koopman recalled. But the county didn't fire her. Not yet, anyway. She remains on leave, along with the two coworkers who were sent home the same day. "She's still getting paid," Koopman remarked. It has been four months since her arrest.
Lawlor, the union rep, said she appreciates that social services employees deal with sensitive issues like child protection and welfare, which makes it all the more important to ensure that these workers are trustworthy and competent. The county, she said, has "an obligation to make sure that all of the actions of the workers are above board. But it shouldn't take 'em a year to do it."
The money that the county spent paying people not to work during the 18-month stretch we examined -- $706,106.23 -- could have paid the salaries of 10 fulltime sheriff's deputies over the same time period. Or seven public health nurses. Or 17 child care workers.
Last month, the county refused to grant a raise of 75 cents per hour to local in-home support services workers, who currently make minimum wage ($8 per hour) and receive no benefits, insurance, pension or sick time while caring for the community's elderly, disabled and poor.
County officials, including DHHS Director Crandall, said the county was under too much financial pressure to grant the raise, which, according to the county's own estimates, would cost $245,025 annually. If the county granted the workers' request for another raise the following year -- to $9.50 per hour -- it would cost $490,051 annually. An independent fact-finding report looked into the matter and concluded that "the County clearly has the ability to pay the modest increases sought." But in a closed session, the Board of Supervisors rejected the raise anyway.
If you do the math you'll see that, for less than the county spent paying a few employees not to work, it could have given a raise of at least a dollar per hour to all 1,450 of the county's in-home support services workers, who currently make sub-poverty wages.
But according to Fulks, this is just the way the system works. A report of wrongdoing comes in, and the county has a legal obligation to look into it. That takes time. "When I see a violation of the rules, I'm going to move forward and investigate it," he said. "And the reason I do that is to protect the taxpayers' dollars."
But what about Koopman and Musselman, whose case dragged on for years and cost taxpayers $200,000? "Sounds like an important case then, doesn't it?" he responded. Asked to elaborate, he just repeated himself. "Sounds like an important case then, doesn't it?"
So, are huge expenses inevitable? "I would love to be able to tell you, ‘No, it's not inevitable,'" Fulks said. "But the answer, I think, [is that] there will be a certain amount of paid administrative leaves that go into the future."
Especially here in Humboldt County.