Almanac

News - April 23, 2014

SamTrans sued by former accountant

by Barbara Wood

Ling La, a former accountant for the San Mateo County Transit District, has sued the district and her former bosses, district CEO Michael Scanlon and manager Sheila Tioyao, whom Ms. La alleges fired her in retaliation for whistleblowing complaints about improper accounting practices.

Last year another former SamTrans accountant accused the transit district of manipulating public funds by logging false or exaggerated expenses, thereby creating a slush fund to spend on unbudgeted items.

San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said his office is investigating the allegations. "A forensic audit is required and such audits take months," he said. "So there will not be any conclusion quickly. I cannot estimate a time for conclusion at this point."

Ms. La's lawsuit, filed in federal court on April 16, alleges she was fired after repeatedly trying to get district and county officials to investigate her complaints.

SamTrans Communications Manager Jayme Ackemann said the district doesn't comment on pending litigation. After Ms. La's earlier complaints, Ms. Ackemann said, the district hired an independent employment investigator to look into her allegations.

Two reports from that investigator, Pacifica-based Employment Practices, issued in May 2013, found the district not at fault and don't uphold the allegations of workplace harassment, defamation, retaliation or racial discrimination.

Ms. La's lawsuit does not ask for a specific amount of money, but it does ask for payment of lost wages and "punitive damages in an amount sufficient to punish Scanlon and Tioyao, and deter future unlawful conduct."

According to the lawsuit, she started working for SamTrans in 2011 as a senior accountant. Trouble began after Ms. La transferred in 2012 to the general ledger and accounts payable division, according to her lawsuit, when she "began to suspect collusion between the (SamTrans) buyer and the parts vendors" over high freight charges.

Later, the lawsuit claims, Ms. Tioyao asked her to improperly book an expense as occurring two years earlier than it actually did.

The lawsuit lists a long series of attempts by Ms. La to get anyone to listen to her allegations, including a call to the county's "Whistleblower Hotline." She "was consistently dismissed or told no investigative action would be pursued," the suit says. The complaints led "to a pattern of adverse employment actions, including negative performance reviews, probation, personal surveillance, and termination."

In July 2013 Ms. La contacted a television news reporter, the San Mateo County Controller's Office, the grand jury and several county supervisors. Less than a month later, after the reporter began investigating the allegations, Ms. La was fired, according to the lawsuit.

The case has been assigned to Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley, and a case management conference is scheduled for Aug. 21.

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