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 Robert McMenomy, an ex-FBI agent, said the first whistleblower complaint he received in Roberts’ office was about her. - PHOTO BY TALIESIN GILKES-BOWER
  • Photo by Taliesin Gilkes-Bower
  • Robert McMenomy, an ex-FBI agent, said the first whistleblower complaint he received in Roberts’ office was about her.

McMenomy said he was tasked with aiding the investigator to set up those interviews with current and former employees. Meanwhile, he began to witness the abuse firsthand, he said. First, he saw how Knight was treated. Then, Roberts asked him to begin personally overseeing Knight's work. When he failed to find issues with it, she turned on him, he said.

"Sometimes the errors were just comical like, 'You forgot the page number on [a report]," he said. "Little crap like that." He said she once came into his office shaking a stack of paper at him in fury. '"This paperwork has mistakes! I wish I had people that knew what they were doing!'" McMenomy remembered her shouting.

"The rage was unbelievable," he added.

McMenomy was also trying to navigate the same obstacles that his predecessor Sharon Ball had struggled to overcome — only he was learning the systems from scratch.

Roberts "wanted to know everything that you did," McMenomy said. "The job that I had previously as a special agent [for the FBI] is you go out and you find sources and you find cases. You find contacts in different departments. But I couldn't do that there." He said Roberts expected everything to go through her. "And then, of course, that meant nothing would happen. I am not sure if she was overwhelmed, didn't care, or incompetent — maybe a combination of all three."

From summer through autumn of 2016, McMenomy initiated and oversaw dozens of investigations, including the one about Roberts herself, but records show no reports were published about the work being conducted through the Fraud, Waste, and Abuse Prevention Program.

According to Ball, who helped build the program under Courtney Ruby, the reports are essential to ensuring that whistleblowers are aware of the program and to deterring corruption and inefficiency. "The mission is to detect, disclose, deter," she said. "The most important thing is to have a very visible hotline — which ours no longer is."

McMenomy said he was determined to publish a report by the end of 2016. In November, he submitted a memo to Roberts listing dozens of open cases and potential investigations. Included were 12 completed investigations that only required Roberts' review and decision on next steps. He said that as far as he knows, Roberts never addressed any of them.

The most troubling finding revealed that there were significant issues with the fire department's inspection database One Step. A letter had been sent in late 2016 by a whistleblower to Roberts' office and to the city administrator.

At that point, Roberts was already aware that the database wasn't being used correctly, said former Oakland vegetation inspector Mark Grissom. He said that at the end of 2015, he warned Roberts that inspections in the hills were not being recorded in the database.

The auditor did release a report in December 2015 providing a list of recommendations to improve vegetation inspections in the Oakland hills that included calls for "stronger controls over the accuracy and monitoring of information in the inspection database," and gave the fire department until February 2016 to implement them. But, sources say, a follow-up was never done.

"To my knowledge, nothing came of it," Grissom said. "From what I understood, by late last year, there were still inspections that passed that shouldn't have." He said that in late 2015, he met with Roberts personally to show her the properties that had "passed inspection" but were not compliant. He said he highlighted the fact that the database was not being utilized, adding that it was simple to use but city employees were just not doing it. "What I brought up wasn't a mistake," he said. "It was just laziness. And my surprise is that nothing happened to these people that were not doing all these inspections."

McMenomy said that rather than investigating the complaint filed in 2016, Roberts asked Oakland Fire Marshal Miguel Trujillo to handle the problem. Roberts "freely acknowledged that she knew about the database," McMenomy said. "It was supposed to show the address, when the inspection was, who the inspector was, and when the next one needed to be done. But the database was blank."

Soon after McMenomy delivered his memo on the issue to Roberts, 36 people lost their lives when a fire tore through the Ghost Ship warehouse — a building that should have been highlighted as overdue for inspections.

When asked about whether any actions were taken on the database, Roberts said investigations are confidential. "Of course, if I have done an investigation, I can't talk about that," she said.

McMenomy doesn't believe an investigation was ever conducted, and there has been no report on a follow-up or another audit of the issue made public since. But he wouldn't be in the office long enough to continue working on it.

On Dec. 12, 2016, less than 10 months after being hired, McMenomy unexpectedly received a letter from Roberts officially putting him on administrative leave.

The letter McMenomy received instructed him to vacate his position and return any city of Oakland property, effective immediately, stating that "City Auditor's Office is in the process of evaluating its current operational and staffing needs."

The letter ended with: "While on leave you may not enter any area of any city facility that is reserved for city employees only unless you have prior approval from Stephen Lawrence, Assistant City Auditor."

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