A former lawyer in City Attorney Dennis Herrera's office claims she was fired after uncovering widespread corruption in San Francisco's dealings with plumbing companies, according to a wrongful termination claim filed Tuesday.
Joanne Hoeper, a former chief trial deputy for San Francisco, alleges that two other staffers in the office approved thousands of meritless claims against The City for unnecessary repairs of private sewer lines. She estimates that the scheme cost San Francisco taxpayers over $10 million.
“I had hoped the City Attorney would do the right thing. I can’t remain silent any longer,” Hoeper said in a statement. “This investigation has been deliberately swept under the rug. I have worked for two decades protecting the taxpayers of San Francisco, and I simply couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t speak up.”
Matt Dorsey, a spokesman for the City Attorney's Office, said Hoeper's claim represented "baseless allegations of wrongdoing from a disgruntled former employee."
Among Hoeper's discoveries were "false statements, inflated bills, suspiciously similar signatures and other red flags in the sewer claims," according to her wrongful termination filing.
Hoeper contends that plumbing companies were convincing property owners to replace sewer lines that were undamaged, then billing The City for the private repair. She says she was initially tipped off to the potential scam by an FBI agent. Hoeper's claim notes that no other city replaces private sewers, because property owners are legally responsible for them.
Hoeper's filing names two employees from the City Attorney's Office Claims Bureau, Michael Haase and Matthew Rothschild, as the individuals responsible for the erroneous bills. Haase is the assistant chief of the Claims Bureau; Rothschild is the chief of the Claims Bureau. Hoeper said the pair approved claims and authorized payment to the plumbing companies.
Haase and Rothschild remain employed by the City Attorney's Office Claims Bureau.
The scheme was one local plumbing company's "sole source of income" and other companies appeared to earn "the majority of their income" from claims against The City, according to Hoeper.
However, when Hoeper raised concerns with Herrera, she said he worked to shut down her investigation then fired her. Hoeper asserted that, upon returning from a vacation July 2, 2012, she learned that Herrera had directed another attorney to take over the investigation and end it.
Hoeper reportedly raised her objections in a written report to Herrera. She claimed she was then transferred to the San Francisco District Attorney's Office. When Herrera was re-elected in November 2013, he informed Hoeper that her employment would end in January 2014.
“Whistleblowers do not fare well in this world –- they all pay a personal and professional price,” said Hoeper. “But I could not stop thinking about what could have been done with this wasted money, how many police officers or teachers could have been hired, how much low-income housing could have been built."
Hoeper's filing seeks her reinstatement and an independent investigation into the sewer bills. Her lawyer, Stephen Murphy, said Herrera should step aside and allow an investigation to proceed.
"City officials should demand the appointment of an outside lawyer who can conduct an independent and unbiased investigation into these allegations of misconduct within [Herrera's] office," Murphy said.
"We are confident that the San Francisco City Attorney's Office will be fully vindicated when the case is heard," Dorsey said. "The city attorney takes his duty to protect taxpayers and their funds very seriously."