Watching the Watchdog 

Since Brenda Roberts became Oakland city auditor in 2015, productivity has plummeted, and ex-employees say the office has been wracked by a culture of abuse.

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But Ball said that each time they met to discuss the survey, Roberts replied that she would think about it. Slowly, Ball started to see a very different approach to the work.

The auditor's office still has not conducted the ethical climate survey. Roberts cited citywide survey fatigue for not doing one and told the Express she initially wanted to "give it some time," adding that she is still waiting for the right time.

"I need to select the right time frame when there is not much else going on that makes it really impactful," she said. "I haven't selected that time period yet, and I need to make sure that my resources are directed to the right place."

But Ball and others who worked in the office at the time say that not long after Roberts arrived at City Hall, the office's work slowed to a crawl. Then Roberts' management style shifted from pleasantries to put-downs.

Even though she inherited the team of auditors and staff assembled by Ruby, Roberts criticized employees when the office did not measure up to her standards, according to Ball and three others who worked there during the transition. Roberts also nitpicked her employees' work, railed about workplace cleanliness, and, before long, began outwardly singling out and demeaning members of her staff.

"In the beginning, she would talk to me about how people weren't very good, and I let her know that I didn't agree with her, so she stopped talking to me about it," Ball said. "Then we stopped talking to each other all together."

Only a few months into Roberts' term, Ball was convinced her efforts to get the Fraud, Waste, and Abuse Prevention Program reports published would be futile and that the office would be quickly dismantled. In March 2015, Ball told another employee of her fears. "We both agreed," she recalled, "that everybody would probably be gone by the end of the year."

Her suspicion proved true. By the end of 2015, only one person from Ruby's team remained, and that auditor would only last two months into 2016, records show. Ball said she decided to retire rather than continue fighting for the work to be published. "I realized that this woman has no interest" in publishing the work, she said. "It was clear that it was going nowhere."

Roberts responded that the reports her office produced are better than those done under previous auditors and thus require more time to complete. "Some people are frustrated because it seems to take so long to get those reports finished, but it is important that we do it right and that we have good quality, rather than just pushing paper out," she said.

She also asserted that even when the public doesn't see the work, it's still getting done. "A lot of the work of the city auditor is not something that you necessarily see, but it is work behind the scenes," she said. "A lot of time, investigations hold people accountable — that is my job — but it also helps to bring about better practices and changes. Some of that is small and seemly invisible, but those workings go forward to strengthen the controls around the city and make things better — less prone toward errors, mistakes, or misuse."

However, nine current and former employees who worked in the auditor's office under Roberts at different times say the office's slow workflow is not due to a dedication to quality, but rather to Roberts' obsession with small details, format, and overly heightened concerns with her own reputation.

Ball said Roberts demanded reports to be hard-hitting — unless they had the potential to provoke criticism of the city government. "What she wanted were big juicy findings, but when she has big juicy findings, if it is going to embarrass a member of the administration or the city council members, they get dropped from the report." Ball added, "That is a violation of the standards."

Government Auditing Standards, detailed in the Yellow Book provided by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, are guidelines that auditors for governmental and nonprofit agencies rely on to ensure best practices in efficiency and ethics in conducting audits.

Roberts dismissed the accusation and said all the work she does is structured around GAO standards. "I am independent and objective all the way," she said. "The voters didn't send me in here to be Miss Congeniality. I didn't come in here to make friends. I came in here to build relationships, to make changes, and that I have done. But the role of the auditor is to be objective and independent."

She also said that she runs her office with high expectations, and that's why she pushes her staff so hard. "Let's be clear: This is a tough job, and the voters, you know, didn't bring me in here to be everybody's friend," she said. "I hold people accountable. I have to hold my employees accountable."

But according to several employees, the way Roberts treated some staff members went far beyond holding people accountable.

Brenda Roberts had been Oakland's auditor for 10 months when she hired Timothy Knight to be her new executive administrative assistant. Coming from a temporary position at the Oakland Citizens Police Review Board, Knight took a $27,000 a year pay cut for the job, on the promise, he said, that he would receive invaluable mentorship and serve in a role more closely resembling chief of staff.


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