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Davis, California

Monday, June 10, 2024

UC Davis pays settlement to whistleblower faculty member

On June 16, Dr. Amy Block Joy settled a claim that she was subjected to retaliation following her whistleblower complaint against a fellow employee in August 2006 with a payment of approximately $785,000, including paid administrative leave and placement in a new position.

Joy, a nutrition specialist, made allegations of fraudulent activities against Beverly Benford, a former employee of Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program for which Joy was formerly director.

After a three-year process involving an investigation and negotiation for the monetary settlement, Joy’s attorney, Michael Hirst, expressed satisfaction with the case’s conclusion.

“Dr. Block Joy did what she knew was right and stood up to those who wanted her to fail,” Hirst said. “She showed strength and determination throughout this case.”

According to Joy, she discovered what appeared to be embezzlement in March 2006. After a failed attempt to resolve the issue through university channels, Joy filed an official whistleblower complaint. Immediately afterward, she experienced her first case of retaliation, she said.

The vengeance intensified following each stage of the process, including times when a warrant was served to Benford in October 2006, a Sacramento Bee article was published in early 2007, and again after Joy’s complaint alleging retaliation in September 2007.

According to her complaint, Joy was subject to lies, mail theft, vandalism and a lack of cooperation from subordinates.

“I discovered rather quickly that the best way to handle the retaliation was to hold my head up high, answer all the investigative questions truthfully and focus on doing the best job I could do,” Joy said.

Benford was eventually indicted on charges of theft of government property and, in 2008, plead guilty resulting in a sentence of one year and one day in prison in addition to being ordered to pay $128,681 in government restitution.

Joy theorized that Benford had been shielded by “higher-ups” because she had helped others acquire equipment for campus operations while circumventing restrictions for such actions. Joy also felt that she was made into a scapegoat following her complaint for those that retaliated against her.

In a press release following the settlement, Hirst shared his view on dealing with retaliation.

“Any effective policy encouraging employees to come forward must ensure their protection,” Hirst said. “Too often, those who blow the whistle regret doing so because of on-going retaliation they experience.”

Last month, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law SB 650, authored by State Senator Leland Yee, which offers protections for UC employees that report illegal or improper actions from retaliation in the workplace.

Although Joy believes that her case was handled professionally and fairly by the university, she also sees SB 650 as a positive step in encouraging employees to report illegal activity and to protect them once they do.

However, Robert Loessberg-Zahl, assistant executive vice chancellor and locally designated official to receive whistleblower complaints, believes that the guidelines the university already has in place are sufficiently effective.

“The university has long been committed by its policies and procedures to ensure that allegations of whistleblower retaliation are thoroughly investigated,” Loessberg-Zahl said. “[Senate Bill 650] does not change the policy or procedures that the University has in place for internally handling whistleblower allegations.”

Regardless of the debate over the usefulness of the changes SB 650 will implement, both parties agree that reporting of illicit or illegal actions of employees by employees is often the only way such occurrences are brought to light.

Joe Kiskis, professor of physics and vice president of external relations for the council of UC faculty associations, which supports SB 650, argues that UC employees are the most likely to possess pertinent information for such investigations but are least likely to share it due to the fear of retaliation.

“To protect the mission of the University and the interests of California citizens, it is important to bring problematic behavior to light and correct it,” Kiskis said. “Employees who provide that beneficial service to the public need to be protected from retaliation.”

KYLE SPORLEDER can be reached at campus@theaggie.org.


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