"Trial Under Way for Whistle-Blower Employee Suing County" (link)

Daily Republic, November 13, 2011

Fairfield, California — A jury trial got under way this week for a Solano County employee who sued the county claiming she is the victim of retaliation and harassment for blowing the whistle on her boss’ massive amount of questionable paid overtime.

Denise Winters was an office assistant who was responsible for time sheets for her small group of coworkers including her supervisor within the county’s Department of Information Technology.

Winters was troubled that her supervisor, Sherrie Filbert, was racking up lots and lots of overtime during the 2007 and 2008 fiscal year.

Filbert had more than 1,100 hours of overtime and worked almost exclusively at her home on evenings and weekends. Filbert, a county employee of nearly 30 years, was racking up 20, 30 and sometimes 40 hours of overtime weekly, according to court records.

The overtime cost taxpayers more than $41,000.

Winters reported the overtime to the County Auditor Controller’s Office in 2008. Simona Padilla-Scholtens, the auditor-controller, looked at overtime and quickly turned the matter over to the District Attorney’s Office because of the possibility that criminal fraud had been committed. No charges were ever filed after the investigation.

Filbert was put on paid administrative leave for six months while county staff tried to figure out what she had done. Ultimately, Filbert was given a two-week suspension for dishonesty. Then she went back to her old job, which included supervising Winters.

Winters claims she then began to suffer harassment and retaliation in the workplace. Within a few months, Winters’ name was put on a layoff list and in spite of her seniority, she was laid off. She was the only person in her office who was laid off. But she landed another job with the county, with less pay, working in the First 5 program.

Winters sued the county in 2010.

During the first week of testimony, jurors learned that Filbert’s boss, Russ Hansen, and his boss, Ira Rosenthal, had signed off on the overtime week after week until Winters reported the dubious overtime to the Auditor Controller’s Office.

Rosenthal said in an email that the overtime had been appropriate to which another county department head responded saying “The Easter Bunny is real, too.”

Padilla-Scholtens testified that Hansen and Rosenthal had not been paying attention to the overtime Filbert had been running up. Hansen and Rosenthal also said the overtime was not approved in advance and that the overtime was mostly for a project that had no defined scope and with no defined time frame.

That same year the Auditor Controller’s Office checked on all the overtime being paid to more than 1,400 county employees. The bulk of that overtime went to law enforcement and jail guards, making Filbert stand out. Filbert had the second-highest amount of overtime among all county employees. Documents showing which county employee racked up even more overtime have been redacted.

Filbert’s overtime was for a project she took on at her own initiative. Filbert decided to try to reconcile and untangle very old accounts of receivable invoices for equipment managed by the technology department, much of it used by other county departments.

Filbert’s time sheets reflect that she worked every single day for three months, frequently from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Most weekends she worked 12 hours on both Saturday and Sunday. She did the work at home without a county computer and without a link to the county’s computer network, according to Winters’ attorney.

Eventually the Auditor Controller’s Office determined that the project Filbert undertook could have been done in 40 to 100 hours, not in the more than 1,100 hours. They took over the project and concluded it shortly after Filbert was put on administrative leave.

The attorney representing the county, Carolee Kilduff, said Filbert had taken on the enriching project for partly personal reasons. Kilduff said the that Filbert found the project was “fun.”

“It was her recreation,” Kilduff told jurors, likening the project to doing a jigsaw puzzle.

Kilduff concedes the oversight of Filbert by Hansen and Rosenthal was “lax” and that there “should have been better communication” about Filbert’s project with her bosses.

Kilduff told jurors that Rosenthal’s decision to lay off Winters had nothing to do her reporting Filbert’s overtime.

The trial is scheduled to resume Monday.

Reach Jess Sullivan at 427-6919 or at jsullivan@dailyrepublic.net.