Mary-Alice Doesn’t Work Here Anymore
An attorney was run out of her job for revealing a death threat by a fellow state employee. Then she found shredding of evidence and a purging of her file. Now she’s filed suit.
A middle-aged woman sits at a long table in a courtroom in Sacramento County Superior Court, Department 45. The Honorable Sheldon H. Grossfeld is presiding. A few feet from her is a metal tripod upon which rests a 4-foot-high piece of poster board. Printed on the poster board in black block letters are these words:
“Mary-Alice is a liar.
Mary-Alice cannot be trusted.
Mary-Alice is a bitch.
Mary-Alice is subversive.
Mary-Alice is a malingerer.”
The woman, Mary-Alice Coleman, a 48-year-old with dark-blond hair and pale hazel eyes, considers the statements, frowns, then stares at the floor. Judge Grossfeld, with a deep gravelly voice, reads the words aloud, substituting the words “plaintiff” in the place of “Mary-Alice.”
Next to Mary-Alice Coleman, at the same long table facing the judge’s bench, is her lawyer, Patricia Tsubokawa-Reeves. Farther down the table the opposing lawyers, Steve Horan and Mike Pott, with similarly well-moussed short spiky haircuts, shoot each other glances as Judge Grossfeld intones the last phrase, “Plaintiff is a malingerer.”
The poster board is an exhibit in Mary-Alice Coleman’s lawsuit for defamation against her employer, the California Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA). The statements printed on the board are the distillation of what Coleman claims her superiors said about her after she discovered—and tried to bring to light—political corruption and death threats against employees in the DCA.
Nearly four years ago, Coleman, then a lawyer for the DCA, was given an assignment that would ultimately ruin her career, her health and her faith in the system.
During her work on that assignment, she discovered what she believed to be death threats made by one DCA employee against the lives of two of his female supervisors. Coleman felt morally obligated to warn the unsuspecting women of the threats. But after she revealed them, she says she was vilified by her superiors, her professional integrity was impugned in public, and she was accused of sabotaging the work of the DCA.
As her lawyer, Reeves, explains it to the judge, not only was Coleman unfairly punished for doing the right thing, but other DCA employees hid documents and shredded others in an attempt to cover up the truth about a politically motivated investigation against the very same women who were the subject of the death threats.
“What we are talking about is an entire department smearing Mary-Alice Coleman’s reputation for months after she uncovers the truth,” Reeves explains.
The truth, Reeves says, is a murky and complicated conspiracy by certain DCA employees to build their own bureaucratic empires at the expense of other careers and lives.
Before Coleman’s trial is over, a parade of prominent political figures—including former Assembly members Barbara Alby and Antonio Villaraigosa, Senator Richard Polanco, and Cabinet member Aileen Adams of State and Consumer Services—will take the stand. All are people Coleman believes have information proving that the assignment she was given was the central piece of that complicated conspiracy.
Shortly before Thanksgiving of 1997, Coleman was directed to review an internal investigation of the Board of Pharmacy (BOP), one of several boards that make up the DCA.
Some serious allegations had been made against high-level managers at the board, and the DCA’s internal law enforcement body, the Division of Investigation (DOI), had just completed a five-month investigation. Three members of BOP management, Executive Officer Patricia Harris, Assistant Executive Officer Virginia Herold and a supervising inspector named Dora Gonzalez, had been accused by their employees of serious mismanagement, including harassment of employees, favoritism and forced resignations.
In all, the DOI investigation comprised some eight volumes, each 3 inches thick, and totaled over 1500 pages.
Coleman had just moved into a new office in the DCA building at 4th and R streets when DOI investigator Jerry Smith plopped the stack on her desk. She wasn’t pleased. The attorney knew about the investigation, but had already made arrangements for the review to be done by another department to ensure there was no conflict of interest in the DCA investigating one of its own boards. But when she asked why the assignment came to her anyway, she said she was told by DOI Chief Mike Gomez that there had been a change of plans. To make matters worse, he gave her only until the end of the year to complete her review.
“Even then,” she recalled, “something didn’t seem right.”
Here, some explanation is needed of the complex bureaucracy that Mary-Alice Coleman worked within.
The DCA is one of the main departments charged with protecting California consumers. In all, 35 separate boards and bureaus come under the DCA umbrella, licensing and overseeing a variety of professions that affect people’s health and well-being, from psychiatrists to car mechanics. Many of these boards have their own inspectors who enforce the rules of their particular professions. In the case of the Board of Pharmacy—the board which is at the center of Mary-Alice Coleman’s story— the inspectors ensure that pharmacists’ licenses are kept current, investigate consumer complaints and conduct routine inspections of pharmacies and drug wholesalers. Sometimes BOP inspectors must investigate more serious cases involving fraud or suspected drug abuse by pharmacists. Approximately 20 BOP inspectors—all licensed pharmacists themselves—cover all of the pharmacies in the state. Although the BOP is headquartered in Sacramento, inspectors work from home-offices all over California.
The DCA also includes a Division of Investigation that does inspection work for some of the boards and carries out internal investigations in the DCA as well.
Coleman worked in yet another area, the Legal Affairs Division, where it was her job to review contracts the department entered into, to advise the department on personnel matters and generally help ensure that the department didn’t get in legal trouble.
She got a master’s degree in public administration from Chico State and her law degree from UC Davis in 1980. She and her husband settled in Davis and raised a son, who will soon leave for college. The young attorney worked for the state Legislature out of school, then for the Sacramento Municipal Court and the National Center for State Courts before settling at the DCA.
Along the way she racked up a long list of accomplishments, having published in several legal journals, served on numerous judicial advisory boards and having written legislation that reformed California’s small claims court system. Her whole professional life had been spent as a public-sector lawyer— perhaps not as lucrative as private practice, but in her mind far more rewarding.
“I’ve always been in it for the general public,” she recalled.
Coleman had a pretty good track record, until she was handed the Board of Pharmacy investigation.
In it, there was a litany of allegations including that BOP management showed favoritism in awarding overtime compensation, that supervising inspector Gonzalez went out of her way to create a hostile work environment for employees she didn’t like, and that Herold and Harris went along with it.
The most serious allegation was that Gonzalez had tampered with evidence that had been seized in a Medicare fraud case, the investigation conducted in cooperation with the F.B.I. Herold and Harris were also alleged to have been aware of Gonzalez’s actions.
If proven, the tampering amounted to serious misconduct.
Coleman was to review the work done by DOI to make sure it was done properly and then summarize the investigation and send her conclusions to the members of the Board of Pharmacy, and the director of the Department of Consumer Affairs.
The investigation report itself was 62 pages long, but it also came with those 1500 pages of supporting documents, so Coleman worked nights and weekends to meet the deadline of the year’s end. But, upon reading the report, she immediately got the feeling that something was wrong with the investigation she had been handed.
First, Coleman said, the most important allegation, the one regarding tampering with evidence, was not mentioned in the investigators’ report. She said she then contacted the investigators and was told that this allegation had turned out to be unfounded. Then she contacted the F.B.I. and was again told that no tampering had occurred. Still, given the seriousness of the allegation, it seemed odd to Coleman that the DOI investigators omitted any conclusion about it.
As she moved from the report into the supporting documents and interview material, Coleman grew more concerned. Many of the questions being asked in interviews seemed to her to be unprofessional and heavily biased against the women being investigated. One question that was put to BOP employees being interviewed read: “Why would someone say that Dora Gonzalez ‘lacks a shred of human decency.’ Please give examples.” This question in particular made Coleman think that the investigator was biased, and had already decided Gonzalez was guilty of the allegations against her.
Coleman then discovered that Gonzalez had suddenly resigned in the middle of the investigation. Digging further, she found Gonzalez’s resignation letter. In it Gonzalez said she had brought a representative with her to an interview with DOI investigators, but the representative had been dismissed by DOI Chief Mike Gomez in the middle of the interview. Coleman was troubled to find no mention of the representative’s ejection in the transcript of the interview.
Then, on Friday, December 5, Coleman came upon something that deeply disturbed her, and convinced her that the investigation was not at all what it seemed. In the transcript of an interview conducted by DOI investigator Ken Eldridge, Coleman was shocked to read a long passage during which a board employee named Labib Doumit repeatedly talked about having thoughts of killing his bosses Patricia Harris and Virginia Herold, the same two women who were under investigation.
At one point Doumit says, “I honestly felt like killing both of them and then killing myself.”
The context was that the women had come to Doumit’s house to remove some equipment that belonged to the board. Doumit had been on a psychologist-ordered medical leave since June, for stress, which he later claimed was brought on by his mistreatment at the hands of Gonzalez, Harris and Herold.
Doumit claims that he was routinely insulted and browbeaten by Gonzalez, and that Gonzalez seemed to take pleasure in harassing inspectors, including Doumit.
Doumit was also the one who alleged that Gonzalez had tampered with evidence. In an August 1997 letter to the Board of Pharmacy president, Holly Strom, Doumit repeated the allegation and said that because of it, Patricia Harris and Virginia Herold—who he claims were in a sort of clique with Gonzalez—retaliated by giving him a poor work evaluation, and thus denied him a promotion.
In July, Herold and Harris came to his house and confiscated state-owned computer equipment, his government vehicle, a telephone and a state credit card. The women did this because they believed Doumit was continuing to work despite being on leave, and therefore put the department at risk of running afoul of workers compensation laws.
Doumit saw it differently. Given the bad blood between them, Doumit thought they had come solely to invade his privacy, to harass and intimidate him.
“I believe Executive Officer Patricia Harris wanted me to have a fatal heart attack,” he would later write in his letter to Strom.
During Doumit’s interview with investigators, there is a great deal of back and forth in the transcript during which inspector Eldridge repeatedly asks Doumit if he is really serious about killing the women.
“Do you currently have plans to kill either one of those individuals?” asks Eldridge.
Then later: “Do you currently desire to kill either one of these individuals.”
“I wish them dead.” But then Doumit says he does not want to kill them, he is simply afraid of how he would react if they were ever to mistreat him.
“I’m afraid. I’m not telling you I will kill them, but I’m afraid of how I would react. I hope that things will not happen.”
Coleman said there was no question in her mind that the remarks constituted death threats. The department, she said, had a “zero-tolerance” policy when it comes to workplace violence. Coleman said employees had been fired for less sinister remarks, and that she had approved such firings herself.
With suicide being a component of Doumit’s remarks, said Coleman, she took them quite seriously.
Coleman saw a man who was disgruntled, male, middle-aged. “This [Doumit] was a classic case of someone who could go ballistic,” said Coleman.
To her dismay, the threats were not mentioned in the investigators’ report, had never been brought to her attention and neither Harris nor Herold had been warned about what Doumit said in the interview.
“I just thought ‘Oh my God!’ I was terrified for these women,” Coleman recalled.
But she was also conflicted about how to proceed. She felt she had a strong obligation to warn the women for their safety. But she also had a duty to keep the information in the investigation completely confidential. Herold and Harris, as subjects of the investigation, weren’t supposed to know any of DOI’s findings before the investigation was complete.
She agonized over what to do. But not for long. What she did then would have repercussions that she never imagined.
On Monday, December 8, Herold made an unexpected visit to her office. It was about 4:30 in the afternoon, and Herold had stopped by to ask about a completely different matter.
“But my mind wasn’t on that conversation at all,” Coleman recalls. Instead, she was thinking of the words of Labib Doumit that she had read the Friday before.
“I knew I was going to get in trouble, but I had to do it. When Ginny [Herold] turned to go, she had her hand on the doorknob and I said, ‘Ginny, I can’t let you leave without telling you something.’ ”
Coleman told Herold that she should take precautions for her safety, and that she should pass the warning on to Harris. Coleman says she didn’t reveal the specifics, and that she did not confirm Herold’s immediate suspicion that it was Labib Doumit.
After that, says Coleman, all hell broke loose.
Coleman recalls that Herold was shaken by the news, and furious that Doumit’s statements were never revealed. According to a letter Herold sent to the department’s equal employment office, she claims that when she expressed her frustration to DOI Chief Mike Gomez, he tried to assure her that she was in no danger, and that she was not to tell anyone of what she heard.
“I find such disregard for my safety unbelievable—and unconscionable, unprofessional, unethical, likely contrary to a peace officer’s responsibilities and a number of other issues including illegal,” wrote Herold.
Meanwhile, Coleman was also told that DCA director Marjorie Berte was furious with her for what amounted to violating attorney-client privilege. Berte says in court documents that she felt Coleman had been given a direct order not to breach the confidentiality of the DOI investigation to anybody.
Berte also said she was aware of the statements Doumit made during the interview, but that she left their importance to the judgment of Mike Gomez. Gomez determined that there was no real threat of violence, and indeed, Doumit never did harm the women.
Gomez then confronted Coleman, chastising her in front of her co-workers.
“Mike was livid. He starts screaming at me that I had compromised the investigation,” Coleman said.
But to Coleman, the investigation had already been compromised—and perhaps corrupt—from the outset. And what, she wondered, would the investigation matter when people’s lives were in danger?
“It was so irrational, so unfair to people’s lives, that I just couldn’t make any sense of it,” she said.
She asked her boss, Derry Knight, to take the investigation off her hands, but he refused. On Christmas Eve, 1997, Coleman turned in her report on the investigation, saying that most of the allegations in the BOP case regarding harassment, retaliation, and favoritism in awarding overtime compensation were unfounded.
The recriminations against Coleman continued for months after that.
On February 24, 1998, Barbara Alby, the Republican assemblywoman from Fair Oaks who had taken an early interest in the investigation because of several anonymous complaint letters she received from BOP employees, fired off a letter to then Governor Pete Wilson complaining that Coleman had sabotaged the investigation.
“[Coleman’s] summary appears to have been purposefully designed to keep from shedding any light on mismanagement by Patty Harris, and the entire investigation is being whitewashed,” Alby wrote.
The assemblywoman would later be quoted in a pharmacy trade newsletter making similar accusations. Despite the agitation of Alby and some members of the Board of Pharmacy, the investigation went no further.
According to court documents, rumors began to circulate that Coleman was a friend of Patricia Harris’ and that she sabotaged the investigation to protect her.
To make matters worse, Coleman began to hear other rumors that the investigation was actually motivated to run Herold and Harris out of their jobs and give the positions to others as a political favor.
The investigation occurred in 1997, near the end of then-Governor Pete Wilson’s second and final term. Around this time, Wilson’s political appointees were starting to look around for other jobs.
In a sworn deposition, former DCA employee Chris Grossgart says that he had heard that the real reason behind the investigation was to get Herold and Harris fired and then give one of the jobs to Wilson appointee Curt Augustine. Other rumors included another appointee named Ray Saatjian. In Coleman’s lawsuit, she would later claim that she was retaliated against because her legal review “thwarted the career plans for Ray Saatjian and Curt Augustine.”
According to Grossgart’s deposition, he was told this by a Wilson appointee who worked at the DCA, a woman named Cathy Nelson Turner, and Turner told the same story to LaVonne Powell, a Board of Pharmacy attorney.
(Grossgart would not comment to the SN&R about his deposition. Powell also would not comment because of the lawsuit. Cathy Nelson-Turner, after transferring to another state agency, recently left state government and could not be reached.)
Coleman said she was taken into DCA director Berte’s office on March 20 and told that she had single-handedly derailed the BOP investigation and that Berte had never been so angry with any employee in her life. In Berte’s deposition, she said she doesn’t remember those exact words but that she was indeed “very angry.”
At the end of March, Coleman was denied a promotion that she believes she was qualified for. She said that her boss Derry Knight told her that the problems she had caused in her handling of the Board of Pharmacy case made it unlikely she would ever get a promotion at the DCA.
The constant recriminations against her began to take their toll.
Coleman was beginning to have doubts about her career at the department, and doubts about her career as a state lawyer—feeling that she might be damaged goods.
“All I really had was my reputation. And they totally blacklisted me,” said Coleman.
The stress began to take its toll on her health as well. She said she began to suffer (and still suffers) from migraines, insomnia and depression. Eventually, in October, she went on medical leave for good. Finally, she decided her only recourse was to sue.
At first she wanted nothing more than a settlement of $1, an apology and the promotion she asked for.
That was before Coleman realized just how far the DCA would go to stop her.
Coleman’s lawsuit would turn out to be only one of four that would ultimately spring from the initial Board of Pharmacy investigation.
Officials at the DCA have steadfastly refused to answer specific questions regarding Mary-Alice Coleman’s lawsuit. Department spokesman Mike Luery downplayed the department’s legal troubles, saying, “These kinds of internal problems happen in every department.”
Luery referred questions to an outside legal counsel handling the case, Steve Horan from the firm of Porter, Scott, Weiberg and Delehant. Calls to other key actors in the case, including Virginia Herold and Mike Gomez, were similarly referred to Horan. Horan, however, refused to answer any questions, citing the ongoing trial.
One person who did have a great deal to say about Coleman’s case is Labib Doumit, the employee who made the comments that Coleman considered death threats.
Doumit brought his own lawsuit in Sacramento County Superior Court claiming harassment and retaliation by the women after he reported the alleged evidence tampering.
In December 2000, a jury awarded Doumit $3 million. The allegation that Gonzalez tampered with evidence was never proved to have occurred. But the jury agreed unanimously that the poor performance evaluation given to Doumit was retaliation. The jury also found, 11-1, that the visit made by Herold and Harris to Doumit’s house, also made after his complaint about Gonzalez, constituted harassment and an invasion of privacy. Lawyers from the Attorney General’s office, who were defending the BOP, brought out the transcript of the so-called death threats, but the jury decided that Doumit was merely venting. For his part, Doumit said the words were an expression of his frustration, and that he would never have committed violence because that would only ultimately hurt his wife and three daughters.
Doumit, a stocky 53-year-old native of Lebanon, with white hair balding on top, is now retired. The money he was awarded, if it withstands appeal, will allow him to go on with his life free of financial worry. But he is hardly ready to let what happened go.
He said the treatment he received at the hands of BOP management has effectively ruined his life. The night Harris and Herold went to his house, Doumit said he started having chest-pains and had to be hospitalized. In March 1998, Doumit had to undergo open-heart surgery. He attributes his ongoing heart problems to the stress and harassment he received.
“Do you think I can be happy? After what they did to me, and to my family. After this?” At which point Doumit stretched open the collar of his shirt to expose the scars from his heart surgery. He still keeps the blue and white pinstripe shirt that the doctors cut off him when he had his first heart attack.
“This is my retirement present from the Board of Pharmacy,” he said, fingering the ragged edge where the shears cut through. “This is the souvenir for my wife and children.”
Doumit and Coleman have never met. But they speak of each other as if they were enemies.
To Coleman, Doumit is a psychologically damaged and dangerous person.
To Doumit, Coleman is the woman who helped his torturers escape justice. He also believes that Coleman was protecting a friend. When Coleman came across Doumit’s interview, he said, she seized on the opportunity to try and discredit the investigation and save her friend, Virginia Herold, from losing her job.
Whatever the motives behind the initial Board of Pharmacy investigation, it does appear that the managers, particularly Harris and Gonzalez, were unpopular, and in some cases feared by BOP employees.
The BOP investigation was prompted by Doumit’s allegations against Gonzalez, as well as several letters that were sent to legislators and other officials.
One letter sent to BOP board members, as well as DCA director Berte and Governor Pete Wilson, details examples of inspectors who were forced to resign because of “mental harassment” by Dora Gonzalez. She also made a point of punishing anybody who disagreed with her in meetings, the letter said. The alleged punishment included canceling inspectors’ vacation time, or requiring inspectors to travel great distances from their home offices. And the inspectors lamented that Gonzalez herself had allowed her pharmacist’s license to lapse, and that Harris looked the other way. The letter is signed “Board of Pharmacy Employees, Anonymous Only Because We Fear Retaliation.”
By press time, SN&R was unable to reach Gonzalez for comment on the allegations against her.
Doumit continues to talk to many of the current BOP employees, and he said that even with Gonzalez gone, the hostile work environment has lingered.
One current BOP inspector, on condition of anonymity, told the SN&R that managers run the board as if it were their own “fiefdom.” Other inspectors describe constant browbeating from managers. Still others complain of favoritism in awarding overtime pay and promotions, all complaints in the initial BOP investigation that Coleman found either unfounded, or not serious enough to warrant action.
None of the inspectors currently working at the BOP who were contacted by the SN&R wanted to speak for attribution because they were afraid of losing their jobs.
Management is also currently at odds with inspectors and their union, AFCSME Local 2620. The union is complaining over what they call “draconian” work rules, such as a requirement that inspectors work at home without compensation for home office expenses such as electricity.
Union representative James Smith said that when he first began working with inspectors two years ago, “People were incredibly overworked, conditions were terrible.”
On April 4 of this year, just one week ago, the Bureau of State Audits (BSA) issued a report blasting the BOP for long backlogs of consumer complaints, and failure to pay its employees overtime compensation.
Dora Gonzalez would also bring her own lawsuit, retaining Patricia Tsubokawa-Reeves, the same lawyer who is representing Coleman. Gonzalez claimed that she was unfairly targeted by the original investigation and was discriminated against by investigator Ken Eldridge, as well as her co-workers, because she was a woman and because she was a Latina.
As Reeves tells it, Gonzalez was the victim of a classic culture clash in state government. She was younger, energetic and determined to make changes that the demanding board members wanted to see. Her aggressiveness upset many of the inspectors, many of whom had been there for 10 or 20 years.
Gonzalez’s case also revealed more political intrigue.
Gonzalez claimed that the representative she brought into her interview with the DOI investigator was dismissed from the meeting. That representative turned out to be Andrew Bustamante, the younger brother of former Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante. The younger Bustamante went with Dora as a friend, but he also worked for the Latino caucus at the Capitol. Court documents show that when Mike Gomez realized that Bustamante had come with Gonzalez, he took Bustamante out of the interview and he called Bill Chavez, Bustamante’s boss. Chavez was chief of staff for Senator Richard Polanco, who had earlier written a letter on Gomez’s behalf, discouraging other legislators from getting involved in the BOP investigation.
Then, according to a deposition given by Mike Gomez, Chavez and Bustamante spoke briefly on the phone, and Bustamante said that he needed to leave.
Dora Gonzalez felt that Gomez had used his political connections to deny her representation, and further rig the investigation against her.
Gomez’s political connections will continue to be a theme in Mary-Alice Coleman’s case.
As Coleman and Reeves were ppreparing her case, they subpoenaed dozens of people and reams of documents.
Among these were Coleman’s own personnel file and all of the documents associated with the initial Board of Pharmacy investigation.
But when Coleman got a copy of her personnel file, it was missing several items that reflected favorably on her, including several letters of commendation and positive performance evaluations.
Exactly who withheld the documents from Coleman’s file remains a mystery. Nonetheless, the court issued a harsh rebuke of DCA and fined the department $5,320 for not producing the documents.
Coleman and Reeves also found out that a DOI investigator had shredded notes from the investigation that they had subpoenaed. The shredding had been discovered by another DOI investigator, Chris Wilkenson.
As Wilkenson recalls it, he walked in on investigator Ken Eldridge—the same man who had interviewed Labib Doumit— standing by the office shredder, holding a 2-inch-high stack of documents that Wilkenson recognized as notes from the Pharmacy Board case.
Wilkenson was also aware that these documents had been subpoenaed.
“I said you’ve got to stop this. This is illegal,” Wilkenson recalled. But Eldridge didn’t stop and instead turned, according to Wilkenson and said, “She’s a bitch anyway.”
Wilkenson reported the shredding to the Auditor General, which runs a whistle-blower hotline.
Eldridge admits to shredding the documents in his sworn deposition. He said he had been ordered to shred the documents by his immediate supervisor, investigator Jerry Smith. Smith in his deposition maintained that the documents were merely duplicates of investigation notes that he wanted to remove for more file space.
Again, the court sanctioned the DCA for shredding documents that had been subpoenaed. This time the judge issued a number of what are called evidentiary sanctions. This is basically a list of facts that the judge has established that are no longer up for argument.
And they were important facts to both Coleman and Gonzalez’s lawsuits. Nobody outside of the DOI knows for certain what was in the documents that Eldridge shredded. But in issuing the evidentiary sanctions the judge made a few assumptions about the destroyed evidence: first, that it proved the Board of Pharmacy investigation was based on unfounded allegations, as Coleman had said in her initial review three years ago. More important, the judge found that the investigator, Ken Eldridge, was biased in his investigation, and that his conclusions were a product of that bias.
For reporting Eldridge’s shredding session, Wilkenson says he’s now being retaliated against as well. He said he’s been moved out of his office and made to work at home. He further claims most of his cases have been taken away from him, and he is treated as persona non grata among his co-workers and his boss Mike Gomez. Worse, despite what he considers is a sterling record in law enforcement, Wilkenson can’t seem to find a job anywhere else in the state government. He believes he’s been blackballed.
“I can’t get a job. We were supposed to be the ethics and morals of the DCA. But when I turn someone in for breaking the law, they do this to me.”
Wilkenson has filed his own lawsuit, claiming that he was retaliated against for blowing the whistle on Eldridge. Patty Reeves is representing Wilkenson as well. Wilkenson maintains that the shredding was a felony, punishable by at least two years in prison. But yet Eldridge hasn’t been charged with any crime, and continues to work for the DOI. (SN&R was unable to reach Eldridge for comment.)
The question remained, what sort of bias was it? Coleman already had the idea that the investigation was intended to get rid of BOP management to open spots for outgoing Wilson appointees. But Gonzalez in her lawsuit tried a different tack. She claimed that the documents included evidence of racial and gender bias. And the judge in her case agreed that the jury might consider that possibility. That was enough for BOP lawyers. Last month, Gonzalez settled her case for $1 million.
Reeves says that the investigators knowingly carried out their investigation with a political purpose in mind. One possible purpose was to give jobs to Wilson appointees. Another, said Reeves, was a type of empire-building by Chief Mike Gomez.
Some boards, like the BOP, have their own inspectors and enforcement staffs. Others more or less contract out to Gomez’s Division of Investigation.
By replacing the management of the BOP, Gomez could bring much of its operations under his own wing.
According to documents Coleman and Reeves filed with the court, Gomez “was a political opportunist seeking to enlarge his domain.”
Repeated calls to Mike Gomez’s office went unanswered. A call was placed to SN&R by one of his assistants, indicating that he would not speak to a reporter pending the trial.
Chris Wilkenson said that his boss, Mike Gomez, had a history of going after other boards, for example, trying to bring their investigation duties, and more budget money, into his own division.
In one of her angry letters decrying the failure of the BOP investigation, Assemblywoman Alby suggests that, “Perhaps this Board should be allowed to ‘sunset’ and have its tasks placed under the purview of a more qualified agency.” What better agency than the DOI?
“It was pretty well known that he was using his authority to enlarge his kingdom,” said Wilkenson.
Reeves notes that it was Gomez who insisted that Mary-Alice Coleman review the investigation, although she believed it should have been sent to an outside agency because of what she perceived to be a conflict of interest. Indeed, she had made arrangements to send it to the Department of Personnel Administration but Gomez interceded, handing it to Coleman and giving her a short deadline.
“They expected me to rubber-stamp it,” said Coleman. “I guess they never thought I’d actually read all of it.”
And it was Gomez who was ultimately responsible for how the investigation was conducted and responsible for the actions of Eldridge and the other investigators. The entire investigation, according to pre-trial documents filed by Reeves and Coleman, constituted, “an abuse of governmental power in the hands of defendant trying to add to its power, budget and jurisdiction in the political arena to insure their places in the new administration.”
In trying to expose that abuse, Mary-Alice Coleman had the whole weight of the state thrown at her. She has amassed over $150,000 in legal bills and is facing a court case that could drag on for weeks, all the while not knowing the outcome or whether she’ll get her job back.
So why has she kept fighting it? Coleman could walk away, go into the private sector and probably do pretty well.
There’s her reputation. It’s hard to put a dollar amount on that, but Reeves said her defamation suit could fetch millions, and could turn out to be bigger than what Doumit was awarded.
But it’s more than money. If Mary-Alice Coleman, a seasoned legal professional who knew her way around the system, would face such an ordeal, what chance do other state workers, with lesser education and fewer political skills, have?
“I’m a pretty creative and determined person,” Coleman says of herself. “But I’ve never run into a brick wall like this before. If there is no ability for people to bring this kind of information to light, then the system has gone very, very wrong. It is the system that is out of whack, not Mary-Alice Coleman.”