More fallout from nepotism report: California state worker receives $250,000 from lawsuit

A former California state worker who said in a lawsuit that she was fired for cooperating with a nepotism investigation has settled her case for $250,000.

Socorro Tongco, a former Department of Industrial Relations investigator, claimed she was fired in retaliation for meeting with auditors who were investigating former department Director Christine Baker.

Baker resigned before California State Auditor Elaine Howle released a report that said Baker had violated state civil service rules in advancing the careers of her daughter and a friend, and that Baker had tried to undermine the audit.

Tongco in her lawsuit said she communicated with one of the auditors by email and text messages in 2015 and in 2016 about Baker’s daughter. Tongco was fired in November 2018.

Her termination letter said she misled supervisors to carry on a romantic relationship with a department attorney, citing emails that showed her traveling to Los Angeles to see her boyfriend when she told her supervisor she was at home and sick. The notice said she spent a lot of work time on personal business and disclosed information to her colleagues that should have been confidential.

“DIR cannot tolerate your dishonesty, lack of judgment, disclosure of confidential information and excessive misuse of state time and resources,” former acting director Andre Schoorl said in the letter.

Tongco’s lawsuit said department leaders targeted her because they knew she met with and cooperated with Howle’s team. Howle’s report, released this spring, said fear of retaliation from the director was widespread in the department.

Tongco settled with the department in June, according to the agreement. She cannot apply for work at the department or other offices in the Labor and Workforce Development Agency for five years.

Tongco agreed to resign from her former job and withdraw all her legal claims. She was represented by her union, the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association.

The department in turn withdrew its notice of adverse action that ended her employment, according to the agreement.

“This was a very trying time for both my loved ones and I,” Tongco said in an emailed statement Monday. “But what matters most today is that the DIR withdrew its adverse action against me; that speaks for itself.”

Baker has said she followed state rules in hiring her daughter and the other employee as she tried to quickly re-staff the department after a state hiring freeze was lifted. Baker said evidence cited in Howle’s investigation mischaracterized her communications with managers related to the hires, and said the investigation of her was driven by employees who didn’t like the changes Baker was making at the department.

Consequences from Howle’s audit are still playing out at the Department of Industrial Relations.

The State Personnel Board directed the department to weigh disciplinary action against seven employees based on the auditor’s findings and to revamp its hiring practices. The department has reported that many of the employees, including Baker’s daughter, have left.

The department voided one promotion last month, but the statute of limitations has expired to take action against several employees, according to a follow-up report from DIR. The department’s broader efforts to address the nepotism findings include surveying all current employees on their personal relationships with coworkers.

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Wes Venteicher anchors The Bee’s popular State Worker coverage in the newspaper’s Capitol Bureau. He covers taxes, pensions, unions, state spending and California government. A Montana native, he reported on health care and politics in Chicago and Pittsburgh before joining The Bee in 2018.