Assessed damages

As election looms, internal dispute roils office that sets property taxes

From left: Sacramento County assessor’s office employees Seth Jarrett-Lee, Tamara Sturgis, Scott Graves, Vicki Korsak and Rick Reeve, outside their union hall May 25 in Sacramento. All except Graves were there to meet with county representatives and a private attorney to discuss the results of an investigation they spurred of their office.

From left: Sacramento County assessor’s office employees Seth Jarrett-Lee, Tamara Sturgis, Scott Graves, Vicki Korsak and Rick Reeve, outside their union hall May 25 in Sacramento. All except Graves were there to meet with county representatives and a private attorney to discuss the results of an investigation they spurred of their office.

Photo by Graham Womack

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the May 31, 2018, issue.

On June 5, Sacramento voters will decide between Christina Wynn and Kate Van Buren for county assessor. One week later, Vicki Korsak faces her reckoning.

Korsak is an associate real property appraiser in the assessor’s office, having worked there since 1998. A Vietnam-era Navy veteran who lives in Citrus Heights, Korsak turned 63 on May 11. She’d like to stay in her job long enough to qualify for Medicare and higher Social Security benefits and get her house paid off.

It’s unclear if she’s going to make it.

Over the past few years, Korsak has been among a handful of employees calling attention to what they see as a wide range of questionable dealings within their office, which sets tax values for the more than 500,000 parcels in Sacramento County. Their efforts helped spur an article in the Sacramento Bee and the abrupt retirement of prior assessor Kathleen Kelleher in May 2017. But it’s also made them pariahs in the office.

Since the first Bee article appeared, the five employees say, they have faced blowback from coworkers and disciplinary action from management. The employees believe they’re being retaliated against, which would be illegal under the federal Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989. Korsak, who has an arbitration hearing June 12, fears she could be out of a job within weeks.

Four of the five employees met May 25 with attorney Eli Makus, who the county commissioned in early 2017 to investigate the issues they raised. As has become typical for the internecine problems roiling this office, the employees claim some of their complaints were validated while others were improperly investigated.

The county assessor’s race hinges on voters deciding between two vastly different accounts. Wynn, who has worked for the department 17 years and was appointed assessor after Kelleher’s departure, denies most of the allegations associated with her office, blaming them on employees she calls disgruntled. Van Buren, a realtor and political novice, has positioned herself as a reformer.

Much gray area remains and satisfactory answers might not come in time to affect the outcome of an election. But if what the critics are claiming is true, it might take a lot more than one person to fix this office.

Along with Korsak, the whistleblowers include Tamara Sturgis, an associate auditor appraiser; Rick Reeve, a senior auditor appraiser; and Seth Jarrett-Lee, a clerical worker. Scott Graves, a level-two auditor appraiser, joined their efforts more recently.

Each of the five agreed to an interview with SN&R and to have their names published, though it’s no secret within their office who they are.

“Everyone knows that we’re the whistleblowers,” Jarrett-Lee said.

Everyone except Graves first met in September 2016 with David Devine and Cori Stillson from the Sacramento County Equal Employment Opportunity Office. The meeting also included Mike Collins, who serves as business agent for their union, United Public Employees, and has been one of their few supporters.

From the meeting, Stillson compiled a letter detailing 54 allegations against the office. The letter is one of more than 200 documents and publicly-available records obtained by SN&R. Taken together, they suggest that some of the claims might be overblown, but at least a few raise red flags.

For instance, Korsak claims that a number of employees, including chief Larry Grose and retired chief Gary Young, participated in an investment club on county time, using a multiple listing service to find distressed properties.

“They would all hover around a desk and look for properties that were, like, low-priced or that they could get a deal,” Korsak said. “They’d pool their money, they’d buy it. They always get put on the roll for a real low price, too. Then they’d flip ’em. They’d sell ’em.”

County records show that Grose, Young and his wife Susan Young purchased a condominium at 2320 American River Drive in Sacramento in December 2004 and sold it less than four months later. According to the website, they paid $245,000 for the condo and sold it for $320,000.

A document sent to a county district attorney’s investigator in April 2017 claimed that Grose had a subordinate appraise his property and that the improvement value wasn’t placed on the roll until after the property sold. County records show the improvements being added to the roll during the 2008-09 tax year.

Grose didn’t respond to an email seeking comment. The employee who allegedly performed the appraisal isn’t being identified because they didn’t respond to a request for comment and no corroborating documents could be located showing they did the work.

Nothing’s happened to Grose thus far. Korsak, on the other hand, is a different story.

All five employees have faced blowback since they’ve come forward, perhaps none more than Korsak. Some of it’s come at the hands of Grose and a supervisor, Rebecca Wright.

“He’s still writing me up,” Korsak said. “He gave me unpaid suspensions. They’re leaving him in a position to do it.”

The whistleblowers claim that shortly before The Bee’s first story appeared in May 2017, Kelleher contacted 13 employees, including Wynn, telling them they would be named in the story and identifying the accusers.

While only Jarrett-Lee was named, the five employees say it’s not uncommon for complaints to be passed back to managers.

Grose and Wright were soon at odds with Korsak. Wright emailed Korsak on June 30 requesting a meeting to discuss work expectations. Wright elaborated on this request July 5, writing that it was “not a disciplinary meeting and you should have no expectation that discipline will follow as a result of my intended interaction with you.”

However, on the day of the meeting, July 11, Korsak received a counseling memo from Wright. Wright followed this with a letter of reprimand July 20, based on Korsak’s alleged conduct at the July 11 meeting. Grose emailed this letter to Korsak after she refused to sign it.

The union’s business agent, Collins, who was present for the July 11 meeting with Korsak, Wright and a county personnel analyst, Quinn Johnston, objected to the approach.

“It is becoming more apparent that the County is harassing the Whistle blowers and in violation of the Whistle Blowers [sic] Protection Act,” Collins wrote in a July 12 email to Johnston that he copied Wynn and county executive Nav Gill on.

Collins demanded a meeting with Wynn to discuss the conduct of Grose and Wright, who also didn’t respond to requests for comment. It doesn’t appear this meeting happened. Two all-staff emails obtained by SN&R show Wynn requesting that staff members treat one another with respect and confine non-approved union activities to off-work time.

Wynn declined to be interviewed for this story, saying via email, “Employee complaints are confidential personnel matters and we don’t comment on specifics.”

She spoke to SN&R earlier this month, saying at the time, “If people have legitimate concerns, I would definitely want to deal with that that. But so far I haven’t had anything brought to me that was of that level.”

Grose has remained Korsak’s chief. While Korsak and the others see themselves as whistleblowers, their supervisors do not.

“You see these issues as retaliation and I see these issues as an employee who refuses to take direction from lead workers and supervisors,” Grose wrote in an August 25 email to Korsak.

Korsak has since served two unpaid suspensions. Reeve’s been subpoenaed for Korsak’s hearing June 12.

“If she loses this arbitration, I don’t think she’s going to be in this job another three months, max,” Reeve said.

The writing’s been on the wall to Sturgis.

“What they’re doing is they’re making her look crazy on paper,” Sturgis said. “That is their whole goal. Get rid of her and she won’t have any recourse.”

Granted, not everyone in the office feels this way. Multiple petitions have circulated in support of Wynn since The Bee’s first article, with more than 100 employees signing a recent one.

Hawkinson was able to identify “those five so-called whistleblowers,” as she put it, saying that they make it easy with their conduct in the office.

“There’s not been any heat in this office other than with that group of people,” Hawkinson said.

Hawkinson’s been on the wrong end of one allegation from the group, stemming from a 2010 photo that circulated on social media of a retired manager and four female coworkers on a boat. Hawkinson and two of the other women wore bikinis. The fourth woman was photographed wearing pasties over her nipples.

The group’s allegation is that the women were promoted because of the boat ride. While three of the women have been promoted in the eight years since, Hawkinson, a 17-year employee of the office, needed until 2016 to advance.

“It took me 10 years to get promoted in that office because of that incident,” Hawkinson said.

The employee circulating the recent petition, Andy Wolfe, said via email that he’d “personally spoken to over one hundred of my coworkers during our personal time, and what we don’t appreciate is a few disgruntled employees presuming to speak for the rest of us. Over a hundred [employees] have expressed their support for Christina Wynn for Assessor in the upcoming election as do I.”

Fabrizio Sasso, executive director of the Sacramento Central Labor Council, said he learned of the allegations only in recent weeks. He conceded that if the whistleblower allegations were untrue, they’d likely be politically motivated.

“But I do not think that anyone would put their jobs on the line to affect the outcome of an election,” Sasso said.

Bob Milbrodt, who formally worked in the Yolo County assessor’s office, feels differently.

“If you have a whistleblower that’s come forward, almost 100 percent certainty what they’re telling you is correct,” said Milbrodt, now an appraiser in Roseville. “They cannot come forward and say that without risking their jobs and the people are not going to risk their jobs for something that is trivial. That’s just not going to happen.”

But Milbrodt also has personal reasons to doubt that anything will change. He said intended safeguards such as the county appeals board, the State Board of Equalization, local courts and legislators can merely act as rubber stamps, unwilling to take action against the assessor’s office.

Milbrodt says he blew the whistle back in the early 2000s while working in Yolo County. The Board of Equalization quickly cleared the assessor. Milbrodt said the issues he complained about “continue to this day.”