In 2005, Barry John Johnson left his job as city manager of Solana Beach, where he drew an annual salary of $149,344, to volunteer as a counselor at South Bay Community Services. At the agency’s Teen Recovery Center, whose clients were often referred by the court, he counseled teenagers with substance-abuse problems. Six months later, he was offered compensated employment. Johnson resigned from his job in 2008 and shortly afterward filed suit against South Bay Community Services in the San Diego Superior Court. Among the suit’s 11 causes of action were “Hostile Work Environment” and “Retaliation for Whistle-Blowing.”
South Bay Community Services is a nonprofit organization that provides an array of social services in Chula Vista, National City, and Imperial Beach, including shelter at Casas Seguras for victims of domestic violence, housing at Casa Nuestra for runaway and homeless youth, and transitional housing at Trolley Trestle for homeless and former foster youth. According to the agency’s latest available tax filing (2008), 95 percent of its $14 million budget came from taxpayer money. In the past five years, the agency has received from Chula Vista alone $2,486,425 in federal grant funds, a recent public records request shows.
Since 2006, three former employees who have filed suit against South Bay Community Services have asserted document falsification at the agency. Their lawsuits also contain allegations of retaliatory behavior. Six people, four in legal documents and two interviewed during an internal investigation by the agency, have attested to document falsification or sloppy recordkeeping. Typically, the alleged falsification happened just prior to county audits.
At the Teen Recovery Center, which has since ceased operation, counselors were required to work out service plans with clients and to get their signatures on the plans several times during the program. Counselors were also required to record progress notes. The purpose of these records was to document that clients were meeting their goals and that the public money funding the program was being used for its intended purpose.
However, according to Johnson’s suit, he “witnessed numerous occasions where documents were falsified to show that [South Bay Community Services] clients received services, when they did not. Client signatures have been forged and the services to client[s] have been exaggerated by adding to the number of counseling sessions an [agency] client received,” the suit says.
An example of how this alleged activity might have happened is provided by Modesto Lizarraga, who worked as a counselor at the Teen Recovery Center for about a year, beginning in 2006. In an “Uncertified Real-time/Rough Draft” transcript of a deposition, which occurred on May 13, 2010, Lizarraga said, “When we would fall behind on our duties, as far as keeping up the…service plan, we would sometimes meet with a youth and just fill out the files in order to keep them up to par.” When the attorney asked Lizarraga whom he meant by “we,” Lizarraga answered, “Everyone,” and then added, “Except Carole.”
Lizarraga was asked about a specific instance when this occurred.
“Can you give me an estimate of how many kids were brought in…?” the attorney asked.
“Basically all of them.”
“How many is that?”
“I would say approximately 25 to 30.”
“How long did it take to get everybody’s signature?”
“I would say about two hours, two to three hours,” Lizarraga said, according to the transcript.
In August 2008, about the time of Johnson’s whistle-blowing, an internal investigation was launched by Kathryn Lembo, the executive director; Ismena Valdez, director of human services; and Captain Don Hunter, a member of the board of directors who at the time worked for the Chula Vista Police Department. The team interviewed a number of employees. Transcripts and other records from the investigation were acquired through the discovery process of a lawsuit filed by Alicia Guido in May 2009.
Johnson’s lawsuit describes his interview with the team. “On or about August 12, 2008, the Plaintiff was summoned into a conference room in an unscheduled meeting and interrogated about his grievances for nearly two hours by Defendant Valdez and Captain Don Hunter of the Chula Vista Police Department (who also serves as …Board member). During this interrogation, the Plaintiff was repeatedly threatened with insubordination and discipline if he did not disclose all communications, including private communications with non-[agency] employees about the issues surrounding his grievances.”
While interviewing employees, Hunter, Lembo, and Valdez focused on two points. They wanted to know if the notes describing meetings between counselors and clients were “cookie cutter notes” filled out in a hurry before an audit, and they wanted to know if services were actually rendered to clients.
During their interview with Johnson, Hunter asked if he had “personally witnessed falsifying of documents.” After saying yes, Johnson continued, “Sheila [a supervisor] told staff that there was an audit coming up and the [Teen Recovery Center] needed to show proof of counseling that had never taken place. Staff were asked to meet with kids (clients) and have them give three signatures on the service plan without dating them. Dates would be added to the notes later.”
When asked if that was a direct quote from the supervisor, Johnson said, “[M]ore along the lines of, ‘We need to get the kids to sign off on three counseling sessions, don’t worry about the date.’”
Transcripts of the internal investigation show that, prior to audits, pressure to have paperwork in order would become intense. When the investigative team interviewed a counselor named Carole Dougherty, Hunter asked her, “Did anyone ever direct you to get things signed or to do something inappropriate or in a group setting and the group is being asked to just get them signed and don’t worry about dating them?”
Dougherty answered, “I can’t remember to be told directly, but we had to get the files done no matter what it takes.”
“Did she [the supervisor] actually say I don’t care what it takes?” Hunter asked.
“She never told me in those exact words but she did imply it,” Dougherty replied.
“Did she imply it to anyone else?”