Every morning at seven o’clock, Rodger Hartnett starts his day. The 62-year-old law school graduate and county employee breakfasts inside his Tierrasanta home as he watches the news. Afterwards, he opens up his book of word puzzles, and for two or three hours he works on them. The puzzles are a strategy to correct his visual processing impairment, an adult learning disability that he was diagnosed with back in January 2006. In the afternoon, following lunch, it’s time for exercise, a five-mile stroll around the neighborhood. This is a typical day for Hartnett, that is, ever since October 2007, when the San Diego County Office of Education–Joint Powers Authority, the agency that handles legal claims for 69 school districts and charter schools in the county, terminated Hartnett from his position as a claims coordinator for incompetence, dishonesty, and insubordination.
One day a month, Hartnett’s list of daily activities increases. On that day, Hartnett opens an envelope from his employer, pulls out a payroll check for $5237.28 and slides the check into a new envelope addressed to his lawyer, who mails the check back to the San Diego County Office of Education. The checks started rolling in to Hartnett’s mailbox in early December, eight months after Judge Steven Denton granted a writ in Hartnett’s wrongful termination suit and two months after the Office of Education’s appeal was denied.
It’s not that Hartnett doesn’t need the money. He cashed in his 401(k) in 2007. He draws partial Social Security benefits, and he adheres to a tight budget, leaving him just enough money in the bank to last him another year. No, Hartnett needs the money, and he wants to return to work. He sends back the check because he says it condones his employer’s decision to put him on paid administrative leave. He says he hates to think that taxpayers are paying him $43 per hour to watch the news, exercise, and work puzzles.
And there’s another reason he doesn’t cash the check. To cash the check, says Hartnett, would mean he’s agreed to a $21,000 pay cut. Before he was terminated, Hartnett’s salary was $112,000 a year; now it’s $91,000.
Sitting outside a Hillcrest coffee shop, Hartnett, a tall, lanky, gray-haired man wearing corduroy pants and a blue-and-white-pinstriped button down, recalls the sequence of events that brought him to this impasse.
It started in August 2003, when the Office of Education hired Hartnett as a claims coordinator, a job he had performed for corporations for 30 years. Working in public service was something he had wanted to do since the 1980s, when he worked for the County Counsel, a county department that handles the county’s civil lawsuits. He also wanted to vest in the California Public Employees’ Retirement System. Hartnett was in charge of three people. He and his team handled third-party lawsuits, such as employment claims and sexual-molestation cases, that were lodged against the county’s school districts. During his first two years on the job, he received positive annual performance reviews from his superiors.
“I walked on water,” quips Hartnett. “Not to pat myself on the back — never mind, no one else is going to — in one of my performance reviews I was described as being a real asset to the operation.”
The positive reviews ended and the problems began in 2006, a year after his boss, executive director of the San Diego County Office of Education–Joint Powers Authority, Diane Crosier, asked him to reduce legal expenditures to outside law firms by 10 percent. Hartnett looked at the law firms the office used. He discovered that in one recent year, the Office of Education had paid nearly $2.9 million to outside legal firms. One firm — Stutz, Artiano, Shinoff, and Holtz — received more than $1.49 million, ten times more than the next-highest-paid firm. Only three firms — Daniel Shinoff’s firm; plus Winet, Patrick, and Weaver, a law firm located in Vista; and Best, Best, and Krieger — received all of the school districts’ lawsuits.
Much of that money, says Hartnett, was for work that could have been done internally: “Shinoff’s law firm was assigned all the labor-intensive work, which was my work.”
Hartnett had an idea. The idea was to use a rotation method to choose which law firm would receive each case. “My thinking was, with competition comes better pricing,” said Hartnett.
Hartnett suggested his idea to Crosier, but she rejected it, saying that the district preferred Daniel Shinoff’s firm. “She said that’s the way it is, that I should leave it alone.
“That’s when I started asking myself if there was a reason this law firm was getting so much of the work,” says Hartnett. “If a lawsuit was getting sent to a particular law firm because it’s quid pro quo, that’s a criminal offense.”
Hartnett recalled a lunch he and colleagues had had with Daniel Shinoff, a lunch that Shinoff had paid for. During lunch, Shinoff and Crosier had talked about a legal case involving Crosier’s son in San Francisco. Shinoff was representing him. Later, Hartnett discovered that Crosier had worked for Shinoff’s firm in the ’80s, after she passed the bar exam.
A few weeks later, Hartnett again pitched his idea to Crosier and again she rejected it. Frustrated and worried that he would be held accountable for overlooking the conflict-of-interest issues, Hartnett included the recommendation in his report for his annual performance review. In her portion of the review, Crosier wrote that he should forget his idea.
“At the time, I thought if I ignored it and it blows up, I would be the guy that gets thrown under the bus,” said Hartnett, reflecting on his decision to press the issue further instead of dropping it as Crosier wanted. “If I knew the ass kicking I would take from doing this, I would have said fuck it, you can have the money. I’m not putting up with this shit. But at the time I didn’t think any of this would happen.”
He went to William “Woody” Merrill, general counsel for the Office of Education and a partner of the law firm Best, Best, and Krieger, to discuss his findings. Merrill advised Hartnett to discuss his concerns with Crosier’s superior, Lora Duzyk, assistant superintendent of business services.