HR personnel in multiple departments claim city’s Dept. of Human Resources has edited racial grievances out of workers’ complaints
The terms “cinematic” and “Human Resources manager” are not a natural match. But it’s San Francisco in 2020, and this city does provide.
As such, the mayor, every supervisor, and literally hundreds of city employees were jolted by a Sept. 18 email from Micki Callahan that was so over-the-top that several veteran government hands told me they seriously questioned if Callahan had been hacked and this email was a forgery.
Considering Callahan is the longtime head of the Department of Human Resources (DHR) and the subject line of her email was “Corruption at DHR … ” this was not an unreasonable supposition.
And forgery was the subject of this email.
In it, Callahan blamed a former HR manager named Rebecca Sherman for misleading a Black female Muni worker who’d filed a discrimination case. Sherman, she said, misinformed the employee that the city would provide her with a fat settlement and promotion. What’s more, Callahan blamed Sherman for forging this settlement, forging the signatures of two deputy city attorneys and Muni director Jeffrey Tumlin, forging texts and emails from a payroll manager ensuring the worker that money and a promotion was coming, and deleting internal records of this case to cover her tracks.
Even with all of these cinematic details, people tend to glaze over when they hear the term “HR.” That’s too bad. It’s an influential and powerful department with an incredibly broad reach — remember, San Francisco has tens of thousands of employees earning billions and billions of dollars.
But if it’s cinematic details you require: A copy of the alleged bogus settlement agreement obtained by Mission Local (embedded below) puts the dollar amount promised the aggrieved Muni worker at just under $514,000.
Sherman allegedly copped to all this and more in a written statement offered along with her resignation. Your humble narrator asked for that document via a public records request but was rebuffed, as it’s part of an ongoing City Attorney investigation.
We get it. That’s understandable. But one can’t escape that we are being asked to trust many allegations that reveal a breakdown of trust. At least for now, we are being asked to believe things that are — by their very nature — not believable.
Copy of Letter From City At… by Joe Eskenazi
Across the city, friends and former colleagues of Sherman’s were blindsided. “Becca” was described, repeatedly, as a smart, caring young woman who was “Southern friendly.” More relevant, she was also a “capable lawyer” — though a perusal of the state of Alabama bar association site reveals her license to practice law is suspended. (Alabama bar officials said this occurred in July and characterized it as a “disciplinary issue” — but haven’t yet responded to queries for details).
But, most relevant of all, she was a manager in this department who had handled other negotiated settlements.
So that means she knew this alleged cockamamie scheme had zero chance of success.
That’s because there are many, many steps between concocting a stack of bogus legal papers adorned by bogus signatures and being handed a big bag of cash; for one thing any settlement over $25,000 requires public approval from the Board of Supervisors. You’d think that somewhere between the onset of this alleged forgery and the settlement being approved by the board — on second reading — the truth would likely be discovered by one of many workers across many departments involved in a large-scale settlement.
As it was.
Sherman has not returned our calls or texts. That, too, is understandable. So everyone is left to ponder the motivation for these brazen and illogical allegations. One thing that doesn’t appear to be an incentive for Sherman was financial gain — there is no apparent path toward self enrichment in this doomed scheme.
Perhaps Sherman felt she was, in some way, helping a worker she believed deserved a better deal. And perhaps, in a self-immolating move, she was drawing attention to DHR.
Well, that’s happening.
City workers — particularly city workers of color — have complained about the state of the Department of Human Resources and its leadership for years. Those complaints about an ill-run office where cases languished for ages without being investigated came before a so-called “rogue employee” somehow executed this purported long-running scheme without the knowledge of DHR leadership.
And now: Now people are paying attention.
RS Settlement Agrement Redacted by Joe Eskenazi on Scribd
The City Attorney’s office has confirmed it is undertaking an investigation in the wake of this bombshell — but would not disclose the scope. The Controller’s office will perform a policy review and DHR will audit itself.
It’s a safe bet DHR’s sharpest critics won’t be satisfied with that. Regardless, whatever body conducts an investigation of this department, make no mistake: It should be broad. And it should start at the top.
To wit: Multiple departmental HR professionals have spelled out to Mission Local that complaints they submitted to DHR on behalf of workers alleging discrimination were neutered to merely indicate discontent.
Says one: “There are experiences I have had with reports to [DHR] where, if it wasn’t the way the department wanted to receive it, it would be sent back to be changed.”
The changes described by this departmental HR professional were not trifling: “A complaint about not getting a job because of race or discrimination would be categorized as a ‘work assignment issue.’ And then not get addressed.”
In short: Someone alleging discrimination was recategorized as merely disgruntled — and then they were ignored. And HR professionals at different departments described similar circumstances.
“I can think of many times where we’d do an investigation, turn in a report, and they’d sit on it for a really long time and then send it back with instructions to edit it. If it’s leaning against the city, it would have to be rewritten and resubmitted to DHR before they accept it.”
When pressed if these edits would mitigate specific complaints regarding racial, sexual, or other forms of alleged discrimination, this HR professional replied “the way it’s set up is designed for that purpose.”
When we asked DHR about this, department policy chief Mawuli Tugbenyoh replied “the role of an EEO investigator is to be an objective third party, that neither represents the complainant, nor the respondent. The investigator reviews complaints of harassment or discrimination and makes a determination based on a narrow set of requirements as defined by state and federal law.”
Okay, then. But it’s worth contrasting the experiences of minorities reporting discrimination in their city jobs with the city’s own statistics on its treatment of racial minorities in city jobs.
Citywide, 11 percent of San Francisco employees are Black. But 25 percent of disciplinary actions are taken against Black workers. That’s not a good look, but the breakdown grows worse on a department-by-department basis.
- Black workers compose 7 percent of Airport employees but receive 38 percent of the disciplinary actions;
- Black workers compose 8 percent of Public Utilities Commission employees but receive 31 percent of the disciplinary actions;
- Black workers compose 30 percent of Municipal Transportation Agency employees but receive 51 percent of the disciplinary actions.
“DHR is aware of the inequities that exist for some employees of color in the City workforce with respect to wages, discipline and corrective action, and promotional opportunities,” notes Tugbenyoh. “DHR is committed to working hard each day to correct these systemic inequities and advance equity, diversity and inclusion to create a workplace where all employees are valued, respected, and celebrated.”
And yet, Citywide HR professionals bemoaned a lack of consistent, centralized policy emanating from DHR — which, they say, is revealed by those wildly disparate discipline rates from department to department.
“DHR sets extremely vague policy,” says one. “You just can’t get a straight answer. Whenever I go to DHR, it becomes ‘Who’s on First?’”
All of which prompts a question along the lines of the one Juvenal posed nearly 2,000 years ago about watching the watchmen: Where do you go when you have an HR issue with HR?
In this city, that has long been a political question. HR professionals around San Francisco noted that Callahan — who will retire next month after 13 years atop DHR — is a seminal figure in the HR world, with allies and disciples seeded not only throughout this city but in agencies throughout the Bay Area.
So, that’s hardly an incentive to buck the system or complain about office deficiencies. Nor are the friend networks among high-level DHR employees and other high levels of city government.
As such, elements of the city calling for change at DHR were less than thrilled with Friday’s announcement that Employee Relations Director Carol Isen will become acting director when Callahan retires in October. The city’s Black Employee Alliance, only one day prior, sent out a mass email specifically urging Mayor London Breed to not give Isen — or other senior DHR leadership — this job.
It was an email from the Black Employees on Sept. 17 mentioning fraudulent settlement agreements — yes, plural — that prompted Callahan’s “Corruption at DHR … ” response one day later. Après ça: Le déluge.
Your humble narrator has since spoken to a decent swath of the Black Employee Alliance’s leadership. They repeatedly emphasized that more “fraudulent settlements” — yes, plural — will materialize.
They also emphasized that “the City and County in good faith cannot continue business as usual at this point.”
That seems resplendently clear. And yet, in this city, betting against the status quo is a great way to lose money.
But now: Now people are paying attention.
Good job Joe! Keep digging! Check how much waste ERD is. Officials at HR, esp. Svetlana Vaksberg Retaliates against unions for standing up for their members. She goes directly after shop stewards. She has cost the city thousands of dollars in awards because all her discipline placed on union members are based on her personal agendas. ERD and management, esp Nuru and Dpw, are in bed with each other. ERD acts like the Judge, jury and executioner on every disciplinary case. ERD runs Dpw! Dpw Management can’t even make decisions unless directed by ERD first. ERD and SF HR are definitely not a neutral body. This entire division needs to be cleaned up. It has killed all moral and trust at DPW. We have been complaining about Nuru and all his followers for years. Look where it’s gotten DPW- a huge joke! How can DPW clean a city when their house is so dirty?!
Next step should be investigating the Civil Service Commission. It’s supposed to be a neutral third party that hears appeals from employees on DHR EEO case decisions. But a quick look at their records (or meeting minutes available on their site) will tell you they almost always side with DHR.
They don’t perform their work in good faith, they are there to give the appearance of impartiality and another recourse for employees, but in reality protect the City.
The Executive Officer Sandra Eng is so chummy with DHR top brass – you can see her at 1 SVN often. That doesn’t scream neutrality.
Why did she replace Michael Brown??? He At least seemed to inspire respect and trustworthiness. And he was a person of color in that position before getting booted to DPH and replaced with Sandra who goes along to get along.
Michael Brown was originally at DPH and was slighted when they hired Ron Weigelt as the HR Director. Once Ron was out, Michael decided to go back to DPH as the HR director. He wasn’t booted as far as I know.
Ok, good to hear he is where he wants to be then. Happy for him, wish him nothing but the best.
I stand by what I said about CSC. Sandra Eng will talk on and on for 5 minutes without actually saying anything. Just superficial assurances that she is pro-employee. Please. The records speak for themselves.
I am wondering if Callahan will be allowed to retire, thus collecting a tax payer funded monthly pension and life long health care coverage, or will a pause button be hit, pending further investigation?
Excellent reporting Joe.
Just a few years ago I believe, a very nice gentleman of color employed at the Dept. of Building Inspection, who said he’d filed multiple complaints of harassment by his supervisor, complained he got nowhere at the EEO also.
He said the workplace harassment by his supervisor just continued unchecked.
He’d even had a previous suicide attempt, but the supervisor kept riding him, according to the guy back then.
One night the poor guy took his own life, when he cut his hand off with a skilsaw and bled out all over his house.
When I work for the City, HR director was useless, she control everything and everyone was scared of her, so what ever she says goes.
I wonder if I know the person. If I do and I will never ask her, she deserves every penny for they treated her like dirt.
In a blunt aside …
Angela Alioto is representing the Black people here as she always has.
Hell, she built a kitchen for a village in Zimbabwe for my daughter.
Taught my grandkids to ride her champion horses.
You should interview her Joe.
Only fair for her clients, the African-Americans.
Sorry, that’s smart ass and I’m too old for that.
I’m just glad I’ve lived in a good enough physical condition to watch this entirely Earth-Wide Show.
This isn’t surprising. Of the 150 largest US cities ranked best to worst, SF is ranked 149. Only Washington, DC, is worst run. Decades of one-party rule has failed. https://wallethub.com/edu/best-run-cities/22869/
This ranking has some interesting information but it seems odd that while SF is #22 out of 150 cities in Quality of Services (which is not bad – top 15% of the cities), it is shown as the 149th worst run city out of 150. Seems the overall ranking is weighted incredibly heavily toward the Total Budget per Capita. If SF had poor quality of services AND a high budget, this overall ranking might make sense. Hard to take these results seriously
Excellent reporting Mission Local! In all I have read on this so far however, there has been no word from Linda C. Simon, the EEO/Leave Programs Director for DHR, who reports directly to Micki Callahan, HR Director. Linda Simon managed Rebecca Sherman and all EEO staff. Linda Simon implemented SOP’s for the investigation and settlement of discrimination complaints. It is difficult indeed to conceive of a “rogue” EEO employee, acting alone to undermine the integrity of a City office during the watch of an EEO Director known for her exacting attention to detail.
Linda Simon is so detailed it’s hard to imagine that this went unnoticed until now.
Also, Mawuli Tugbenyoh’s response is laughable. EEO investigators should be neutral third parties, but very often Linda Simon and former EEO manager Svetlana Vaksberg were never neutral. Simon and Vaksberg frequently spun and mischaracterized legitimate EEO complaints into “personality conflicts between the complainant and the supervisor” that are not protected by law. They frequently asserted “the complaint is outside our jurisdiction,” even without actually investigating the matter. Very often, complainants are not sophisticated enough to understand that they must meet the elements of the cause of action and connect those elements with the facts of the complaint. Simon and Vaksberg exploited the complainants’ lack of sophistication to “administratively” close complaints. They took advantage of them. In the end, Simon’s and Vaksberg’s “administrative closures” chilled the workforce so the workforce would not bring forward discrimination complaints. This is why we’re having this reckoning. Heads will role and those heads should be Simon, Vaksberg, and Callahan.
Well said! Well known DHR is a big ol dead end. Let’s not forget the departmental HR officers who are paid to twist the truth. MTA, SFPUC are notorious. Lesson: if you get treated unfairly, don’t go to your HR director, got get a lawyer.
Can confirm. Unless a complainant specifically lays out why their complaint is a under a protected class, your complainant will be administratively closed. EEOs job is to ensure the city doesn’t get marks on their annual report, so they make sure to get just enough information from you to close your case.
Case in point – if you were sexually harassed, but it “only” happened once; administrative closure. They’re not going to push and ask if it happened more than once, if you believe it’s perverse, etc. they’ll do what is necessary to close it.
You’re right — DHR knows how to protect the City, under the veil of a “neutral third-party” investigation.
Thank you for the follow up article. The corruption seen in dhr is systemic. It’s abhorrent micki Callahan is being lauded as she retires as this great public servant when in fact she was the head of an evil empire that harmed countless number of black employees. Find a new director who then needs to clean house.
The Black Employee Alliance needs to talk to people outside the City and get a lawyer to help them fight this because Isen will not bring an ounce of change. FBI is already spending quality time at these departments run by Nuru, the Kellys, Wongs – so do you think their HR people have done some sort of amazing job? Do the city HR departments not enable improper hiring in these departments and then try to get out of it with the civil service commission after it gets reported? …to help protect the department heads that they report to? The PUC employees just got all of their HR records SUBPOENAED because the PUC brass are just that stellar and respectable…and then they didn’t tell any of the employees this was happening until it got forced out….yah. better look to some cities less corrupt for a Mick replacement…like Chicago.
If there were far fewer public-sector employees, we’d have have far fewer problems like this nonsense.
Over the past 60 years, SF’s population has increased by about 20%, yet the number of public sector employees has increased by nearly 330%.
Yes – the ever rising number of City employees is something that pops up every now and then.
But on a year to year basis it’s a gradual creep and generally unnoticed.
What is partially hidden is the number of non-profit employees/managers/directors working on behalf of The City supported by a very large chunk of the discretionary budget.
Not technically City employees but paid by The City (in an indirect manner) nevertheless.
Add the numbers together.
On second thought don’t – why start off the week all huffed up and bothered?
Mr. Eskenazi and Mr. Wachs had some recommendations within the seminal 2009 SF Weekly article “The Worst-Run Big City in the U.S.”
A few selected entries:
“Emphasize best practices in each individual city department, and let go of workers who aren’t needed because of productivity gains.”
“Eliminate all budget set-asides and mandatory staffing levels”
“Fire people who are incompetent — and that includes those at the top-heavy manage-ment level.”
But then a return back to reality:
“The far more likely scenario is that nothing will happen. The city will continue its orgy of waste and incompetence.”
Almost an accurate prophecy.
The reality may be worded as “an ever increasing orgy of waste and incompetence”.
This is what engaging in identity politics gets the tax payers of San Francisco. I say burn baby burn! But fear not. They will just raise everyone else’s taxes to compensate for the city’s social justice lackeys incompetence. You reap what you sow. F’ morons.
Go away crybaby, you have no idea what this is about. Go teach yourself to read, GOP.