Report backs claims of bad behavior by Merced County tax collector

Elected official is facing a reprimand -- or worse.

mnorth@mercedsunstar.comNovember 22, 2011 

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story quotes extensively from a report prepared for Merced County that uses language that many will find offensive.

Graphic sex talk, nepotism and retaliation against employees are all detailed in an investigative report on one of Merced County's leaders -- who's been at the helm of a seemingly dysfunctional department for several years.

Karen Adams, treasurer-tax collector, clerk and registrar of voters, is facing at least a reprimand from the Board of Supervisors during today's meeting since several claims against her, including creating a hostile work environment, have been substantiated by an independent investigator, the law firm Liebert Cassidy Whitmore.

Two agenda items will deal with the issue during the meeting. One calls for Adams to be censured, the other for her to be stripped of some of her duties.

Work on the report started around the first of the year. It was released to county administration in July and includes several employee accounts of Adams' language and behavior -- much of it odd and inappropriate in the workplace.

Adams' reaction

Adams, who's hired an attorney, released a written statement Monday about the allegations.

She went into little detail when reached by phone. "The complaint findings lack competent evidence and have not been substantiated," she wrote in an emailed statement.

Adams, whose annual base salary totals $155,251.20, claims the investigation was prompted by a disgruntled employee after her annual pay increase was denied because of poor performance.

"She filed a claim against me asserting I had created a hostile work environment and was discriminating and retaliating against her in violation of county policies and the law," Adams' statement reads. "She brought forth other employees who had received warnings and reprimands regarding their deficient performance to support their claims."

Adams said she was forced to wait more than four months for a copy of the report, not allowing enough time for her to review the allegations and discuss issues she has with the report.

Lewd comments

The report states Adams uses flurries of foul language, and claims she's known for discussing sexual topics in the workplace -- discussions that commonly make the employees she supervises uncomfortable.

An account taken from an employee gave an example of one of Adams' comments at the office while confronting someone about taking credit for her work. "If you're going to talk about me, you should at least tell the truth," according to the interview taken from the employee. "You should tell people I like to suck (slang for penis), because I do. Yeah, I like to give head and get head."

Adams has mentioned her personal life during work hours, once saying a trip to the doctor was because of "an issue regarding sex with her boyfriend," according to the report.

Much of Adams' language in the workplace includes profanity and makes employees feel uncomfortable, according to the report. One employee recounted hearing Adams say, "Oh, if I had a (slang for penis) instead of (slang for breasts), I'd get what I wanted."

The investigator mentioned a witness' comment that Adams also made a statement about killing an employee. "I credit (redacted name's) assertion that Karen made a statement to (redacted name) that she wants to kill her," according to the report's findings, which later read, "Karen agreed the work environment was hostile, and at that point indicated she thought about killing (redacted name)."

The report concedes that it's likely the statement was made out of frustration, but confirms that Adams has contributed to a hostile work environment by verbally abusing employees, which could be problematic if an employee wanted to seek redress from the county over emotional damages.

Adams said she never told an employee she was going to kill her, but rather said the employee's poor work performance was instead killing her (Adams).

Spiritual references

Employee statements also claim Adams commonly consults with the "universe" when making vital county decisions and once brought a statue of a goddess into a meeting.

"Karen made religious references at work by referring to seeking guidance from the 'universe' and bringing a goddess statue into a staff meeting," according to the report from the independent investigator.

Adams made several comments during the interview with the investigator -- some admitting to allegations, such as her use of profanity. Other times, she justified her actions or denied the claims.

During the interview, she hinted at leaving Merced County. "My career is more important than boinking," she said to the investigator. "I can't trust my assistant, and so now I'm thinking about leaving the county."

Adams also told the investigator her acupuncturist "said something about the universe, and her needing to eat less chiles, and her being a hyper child -- a child of fire," according to the report.

Personality

Accounts from employees describe Adams as having an abusive, unreasonable personality -- a manager who commonly engages in screaming outbursts.

A witness said everyone "cringes when Karen walks into the office," according to a statement. "They all wonder, 'What is she going to throw at us now?' "

The investigator's findings determined there was sufficient evidence to conclude that Adams refers to smoking marijuana at work. "Karen references her hippie days," the report reads. "She says, 'I must have been smoking wacky tobaccy.' "

Allegations of micromanaging, favoritism and unpredictable mood swings surface throughout the report.

During an interview with the investigator, Adams compared training employees to teaching a dog how to urinate.

Personnel decisions have been made based on who Adams and her boyfriend like and dislike, according to the report, which said those circumstances are "more than likely" to have happened.

On at least one occasion, a personal dispute between Adams and an employee led to a cut in hours for that person -- and she's capable of terminating employees solely to get back at them, the statements allege.

During one such argument, an employee recalled Adams saying, "I don't give a s--- about the public."

Nepotism

Interviews included in the report go into detail about Adams has fired people simply because she didn't like them.

"Karen's hiring and firing of people is based on personal issues," according to an interview in the report. "Karen's boyfriend didn't like (redacted name) so Karen terminated (redacted name)."

Adams' boyfriend worked on a past election, and she signed his timecard, according to a statement in the report.

"Karen's boyfriend thought (redacted name) was bossy, so (redacted name) got talked to," according to a statement in the report. "Karen told (redacted name) that she consulted with the universe and (redacted name) her boyfriend regarding her reprimand."

The interview alleges that Adams hiring of her boyfriend isn't the only nepotism that's taken place.

"(Redacted name) complained to (redacted name) about Karen's nepotism," the report reads. "She hired her nephew and boyfriend. The nephew is no longer employed, but the boyfriend is. Karen's hiring practices are unfair to the public."

However, during elections it's common for family members of employees to work because on the need for additional election workers, Adams said. Even those who made the complaints had family working on elections.

Another charge was that it's common for Adams to use personal issues against her employees, and an employee mentioned during the interview with the investigator that Adams may retaliate against everyone as a result of the investigation.

Investigator's findings

Considering all the interviews and findings, the investigator determined Adams has contributed to creating a hostile work environment with her abusive language, disruptive behavior and sexual comments.

However, the harassment was verbal and not physical in nature. Some employee interviews credited Adams with bringing efficiency to the department. She increased county revenue, for example, by putting auctions for tax-delinquent properties online.

"Unfortunately, if Karen Adams is allowed to remain in her current supervisor's position over (redacted name) and the other employees, based on what was revealed in this investigation, it is more than likely than not that she will continue to engage in conduct and make statements that could be perceived as a trier of fact as retaliatory," according to the report.

The conclusions hint that without censure and corrective action, a continuation of Adams' conduct could expose the county to litigation.

"What would be even more troubling is if these various individuals combined together to form some sort of class action," according to the report.

The report also mentioned that the county's human resources department or county counsel may want to look into other claims that came up in interviews during the investigation.

The alleged misdoings include falsified timecards, a $95 cart bought with county funds for Adams' personal use at home and having an employee complete a form for one of Adams' campaigns.

County leaders react

Board of Supervisors Chairman John Pedrozo said all board members have read the report and will discuss the matter today.

Supervisor Jerry O'Banion said because Adams is an elected official, the board can only take action on her elected duties.

Supervisor Deidre Kelsey said the allegations have been substantiated, and that the board has a duty to protect county employees.

County officials are required to participate in harassment training every other year.

Several county officials said despite Adams' issues managing employees, she has brought many positive things to her position, including increased revenue, a straight-forward attitude and ingenuity.

The investigation, which consisted of the initial study and a series of follow-up interviews and investigations, cost the county about $12,000 to $14,000, said Richard Flores, assistant county counsel.

When harassment claims surface in the county, they go to the human resources department first, Flores said. Some are taken care of internally, but for others that are more serious or involve elected officials, the county uses an outside, independent third party to maintain the integrity of the investigation.

Today's regular board meeting starts at 10 a.m. in the Board of Supervisors Chambers on the third floor of the County Administration Building.

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsunstar.com.

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