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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click to enlarge Timothy Knight, a former Indiana cop, said Roberts forced him to scrub the office floorboards on his hands and knees. - PHOTO BY STACI KAGIWADA
  • Photo by Staci Kagiwada
  • Timothy Knight, a former Indiana cop, said Roberts forced him to scrub the office floorboards on his hands and knees.

Always dressed in pristine professional attire — a suit worn over a crisp white shirt, accented with a bow tie, and shined shoes — Knight arrived at 7:30 a.m. on his first day eager to take on new challenges. Even though he came armed with a Ph.D. in Human Services, had previously run a nonprofit, and had spent 20 years working for the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department in a variety of roles, from homicide investigator to director of community affairs, it had been a few years since he had an administrative position.

"On my very first day, I recall a bit of excitement," he said. "It was a new opportunity."

He said Roberts repeatedly told him she "was going to make it worthwhile."

"She talked about the kinds of things I would be doing and stressed that I wasn't just an administrative assistant but that I was the chief of staff — that I would be responsible for the day-to-day activities of the office. But then she began to run down the challenges that she had."

He said her shift in tone gave him pause.

"She started to berate other members of her staff, and I found that to be both unusual, slightly unethical, and inappropriate," he said. "It didn't exemplify the experience I thought I was walking into. And it wasn't just lower-level staff that she was degrading. She was degrading her executive staff."

Knight said he didn't know at that point that the office was in turmoil. All he knew was that it was strange how much Roberts emphasized that she hoped he would be someone she could trust, he said. "She said over and over again, 'There's no one here that I can trust — I need you to have my back.' That really struck a chord with me."

Knight said it didn't take a week to feel her wrath. He said that although he had been given no training, she castigated him for misunderstanding a command and making the wrong kind of copies. He said that at first, she yelled at him and then turned to another employee and demanded they explain the confusing instructions. "She said, 'Tell him what I want! I don't have time for this!'" he recalled. "And that characterized our relationship from that point on."

He said that soon after, following an episode where he tried to resolve an issue Roberts had with another employee, she barred him from talking to members of the staff without prior permission from Stephen Lawrence, the assistant city auditor. "That's when I knew something was wrong," Knight said. "She originally told me I was the chief of staff."

Lawrence, who resigned from his position in the auditor's office earlier this year, declined to be interviewed for this report.

Knight said that over the course of the next nine months, he endured treatment that derailed his confidence, caused emotional trauma, and, ultimately, drove him from Oakland. According to his account — confirmed through interviews with five other employees who said they witnessed how he was treated in the office — he endured 13-hour days filled with demeaning and menial tasks and constant humiliation.

Though Roberts said she asks her team to clean the office together and said she only expects employees to keep their workstations clean, Knight said that throughout his employment, Roberts demanded that he do her dishes, water plants, and even scrub the floorboards on his hands and knees — which he did while clad in his business suit.

He also said that when he was in his own office with the door shut, Roberts would storm in without knocking and yell at him, even if he was in the middle of meeting with someone. Roberts would also berate him and others in front of the rest of their team, whenever she felt something was not to her liking, according to Knight and five former employees.

"If she gave you an assignment, whether you did what you were told and what was expected of you or not, if the outcome wasn't favorable for her, she would talk about that and then say that the work was done poorly," he said. "Her main objective was to point the finger. ... It was important to her to punish people when they made mistakes."

Often the errors were minimal but still provoked Roberts' rage, Knight and seven former employees said. Knight described a morning when Roberts burst into his office over a typo in an email. "She pushed my stress to levels unfamiliar to me," he said, describing how she slammed a printed copy of an email on his desk, striking the table with each syllable, as she demanded he identify what was wrong with it. When he couldn't find the mistake, she grew angrier, he said.

'"You don't see that?'" he recalled her yelling. '"Do I need to proofread all of your messages before they leave my office? Do I? By now I am the laughing stock of everyone.'"

Roberts was livid over one word — "waste." Knight had spelled it correctly in the subject line, but it was "waist" in one place in the body of the email, he said.

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