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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"She was one of those people who could kill you with a noun and never use a word of profanity," Knight said. "Her words and the way she used them — her emotion was just toxic. Her words cut to the bone. You walked away feeling like, if she could, she would make you disappear."

While the behavior was directed at many people around the office, Knight believes the derogatory treatment was also racially motivated. He is a tall Black man, and he recounted several occasions in which he felt he was treated differently as a result. "Whenever African-American people came to the office, she made it a point to showcase me," he said. "When there were community events with Latin Americans or African Americans, she would make sure I attended those events, but anytime there was a meeting with white folks, I was not invited to those functions."

Knight said that when he finally confronted Roberts about both the abuse and belief that she was racist, the situation worsened. "She told me not to ever call her racist or accuse her of racism," he recalled. "She was screaming and she slapped the table. I told her she doesn't get to frame my experience and she doesn't get to interpret my experience."

After that, whenever he pushed back about anything in the office, Roberts would cry out that he was intimidating her — even when, out of desperation to not appear threatening, he knelt on a knee, so he could continue speaking to her, he said.

Knight was one of the four people who filed a complaint with the city's Equal Opportunity Programs Division (EOPD) about Roberts' behavior. According to confidential documents reviewed by the Express and confirmed by city representatives, the EOPD conducted an independent investigation, which concluded in July of this year. The probe found that Roberts did not violate the city's Equal Employment Opportunity/Anti-Discrimination/Non-Harassment Policy. However, investigators concluded that her behavior toward her staff conflicted with the city's Code of Conduct, which instructs city employees to "refrain from rude, disrespectful, abusive and/or professionally inappropriate treatment of other employees of the public."

Citing employee confidentiality rules, City Administrator Landreth stated in an email to the Express that she could not discuss the specifics of the investigation but that they "took complaints seriously, conducted a thorough investigation, and followed city protocol to address the complaints." She also said she was "committed to ensuring that all [city] employees are treated with fairness, dignity, and respect."

Nevertheless, the investigation was conducted too late to help Knight address his issues with Roberts, and by June of 2016, he said, he began to break down. After enduring months of mistreatment, he got into his car and began to sob uncontrollably. He described crying the entire drive home and at intervals during the weekend. The stress was beginning to impact the rest of his life.

He sought professional help and, he said, his doctor advised him to leave the office. He said that when he received his first performance evaluation on June 8 of that year, he wasn't surprised but was dismayed. "It was the worst evaluation I have received in my entire professional career."

Roberts declined to comment about Knight or his accusations, saying she is ethically not allowed to discuss personnel issues.

Knight said he also had reached out at the time to Landreth, providing details about his experience in the auditor's office and asking to be transferred elsewhere.

When he learned from an EOPD representative that an investigation wouldn't offer immediate relief, he resigned. Two days later, however, Landreth invited him for a meeting to discuss his complaints.

"Sabrina asked me what I wanted," he recalled. "I told her what I wanted done about Brenda's behavior. I told her I wanted to stay in Oakland. I told her I wanted employment — but she made no concrete offer to help."

Landreth emphasized in an email to the Express that she is committed to respecting employee confidentiality and could therefore not comment on the matter, but wrote:

"My door is open, and I invite employees to share their aspirations, ideas, concerns, and complaints so we can create a healthy, productive workplace to deliver the highest quality services to our community."

Knight was dismayed. He believes that because he had already submitted his resignation, city officials were no longer motivated to do anything for him. "Once they saw me as going out the door, they didn't think I would be a problem to them and that I was no longer their responsibility."

He left a month later, on July 19, 2016, and moved back to Indianapolis.

Even though he was new, Robert McMenomy began working immediately in April 2016 on investigating the anonymous tip about Roberts that came through EthicsPoint. Through the program, he replied to the person who submitted it but never received a response.

He said the complaint sat idle for months until he finally convinced Assistant City Auditor Lawrence that the issue had to be addressed in some way. So, he said, they took it to the city's employee relations department.

In August 2016, according to emails and documents reviewed by the Express and confirmed by city representatives, the claim, coupled with three other complaints, prompted the EOPD to hire an independent investigator to begin digging into what was happening to employees working in the auditor's office.


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