This drawing, made by a coworker, was offered as evidence of workplace humiliation.
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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?”

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Comments

Pancho Feb. 16, 2011 @ 7:53 p.m.

Very informative article. You really did your homework on this one. I think there must be some level of conflict of interest in regards to SBCS folk sitting on the housing commission. Maybe their argument is that they are a non-profit and that makes it okay, but other commissions have outside agency liaisons advising them. I think that would be more ethical.

I do see the good that SBCS services does in the community, but at times I think they also stretch themselves too thin and not sticking to their core mission. I have never understood why so many influential Chula Vistans have been involved with this group as in on their Board of Directors. I may have missed it, but did you know that former Councilmember Patty Chavez also works for SBCS? Very interesting. Great job!

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VigilantinCV Feb. 16, 2011 @ 8:43 p.m.

The first time I ever saw Kathy Lembo was in Spring 2008. There she was trying to get EastLake Developer Bill Ostrem's "Riverwalk" project for 500 condos approved near KOA. Fortunately 80 people who actually lived in the area showed up bent on preventing that! Next I encountered her and Lisa Johnson (YMCA) trying to sell the city council on letting them build units in Eucalyptus Park, ostensibly to better serve all those needy clients that Chula Vista, etc., pour imoney nto their coffers. That didn't work but they recently bought the Trolley Trestle property. I have seen a list of properties they own and I was amazed. It seems Kathy Lembo is like Lucy in Charlie Brown......she wants real estate! And she has friends in high places that are willing to help her.

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chulavistaguy5 Feb. 17, 2011 @ 8:09 a.m.

Very interesting and well researched article. While I believe this agency has done good work in the community, the allegations which have been made by Mr. Johnson and the other past employees listed in the article speak to a culture of fraud and very poor management practices at SBCS. The story leaves the question hanging: are all of these employees lying about falsification which they say they witnessed at various different times and places or is Ms. Lembo's categorical denial of falsification less than truthful. I guess each reader will have to make that determination but it has been my experience that where there is smoke there is almost always fire.

Given the great deal of public money that has been granted to SBCS, at a minimum, there should be a compete external and independent top to bottom audit of the organization. Also, because of the seriousness and consistency of claims of past falsification at SBCS, a grand jury investigation should also be strongly considered. If the allegations made by these past employees are proved correct, senior management should be shown the door and perhaps face legal consequences for their actions.

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Evelyn Feb. 17, 2011 @ 9:01 a.m.

Issues like the ones presented in the article arise when there's bad management, and when the non profit only cares about money.

Additionally, there's no mention of this, but I wonder as to the educational level reached by the employees, and, specifically, by the directors of the programs and of the organization. Much harm can come to others when the person trying to 'help' doesn't know what is and isn't okay.

The only way the teens and families receiving services could have been counted for multiple grants would be if the individuals were receiving services from multiple grants. To increase the numbers that don't exist, berate employees for standing up for the right thing and lying for the sake of money is just despicable. It's organizations like these, with unskilled workers that give all other social workers and all other non profits a bad reputation.

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daringdarin Feb. 17, 2011 @ 9:21 a.m.

Let's not forgot the recent scandal when this agency gave its Board Member Bejarano a $97000 contract with his private security firm. That article implied that this may have broken State law and the matter was falsely or incorrectly reported to the IRS. The article said that the IRS directly asked - Does any board member have a financial relationship with the agency? The agency answered NO- which was false. They claimed it was a mistake after getting caught. The contract was then cancelled and now it appears Bejarano is off the board.I don't know if anyone was ever held accountable for issuing that $97000 contract. this info was in the June 30 2010 Reader issue.

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cvres Feb. 17, 2011 @ 12:08 p.m.

No doubt they do good work as an earlier commenter mentions, but as that commenter also says they have been the pet project of many influential Chula Vistans -- with connections you get grant money??? It's also ironic that there is a big homeless camp located near their facility--ironic because this article says they have homes for the homeless.

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Susan Luzzaro Feb. 17, 2011 @ 9:41 p.m.

chulavistaguy, I think any organization that subsists on public subsidies should have to open the books and should be subject to public record requests.
There are SBCS audits by county agencies but the depth is unclear.

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joepublic Feb. 18, 2011 @ 8:42 a.m.

Since this organization is funded primarily by taxpayers’ dollars, aren’t they essentially public employees. Shouldn’t the public have input about the amount of money WE give to SBCS and how it is spent. Apparently the workers who actually provide services at SBCS make far less than their managers. Do we know what the other administrators are paid? With all the recent scrutiny of public expenditures why has this privatized “public” agency been allowed to operate under the radar? Pancho may have hit the nail on the head when he commented that he never understood why so many influential Chula Vistans have sat on their Board of Directors.

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elgy Feb. 24, 2011 @ 7:49 a.m.

i've known the women involved with SBCS for many years. they are dedicated, hard-working, compassionate people. i believe the writer should have tried harder to present both sides of this story. i don't care much for reading articles that try to sway public opinion by putting a spin ONLY on certain parts of the story. i noticed a small group of disgruntled employees and a lot of whining and loose flying accusations, taken as "truths" long before the truth is actually known. obviously this is real life, and everyone and everything doesn't work out. everyone everywhere is trying to cut back to stay within their means. SBCS is taking this responsibility very seriously by the looks of it. and one this is certain. SBCS would be nothing without kathy lembo. we in the south bay must count ourselves lucky that someone with such dedication, and who is so good at what they do, is willing to spend her life's work in our community, making it a better place to live. this article is one that tries to chip away at the very foundation of what makes our little portion of the map good...what makes it strong...what makes it WORK. hearsay, spinning, gossip... please, next time, do a better job of at least TRYING to show both sides. not everyone in this world believes everything they read. the writer needs to give us readers credit for the ability to MAKE OUR OWN CONCLUSIONS.

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Susan Luzzaro Feb. 24, 2011 @ 5:09 p.m.

Thank you for your comments elgy. I believe no one has suggested that SBCS does not do good work. As for loose flying accusations, hearsay, spinning, gossip, I refer you back to the article. The article is solidly based on sworn statements and court documents.

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VigilantinCV Feb. 24, 2011 @ 11:03 p.m.

elgy,you are so eager to say good things about your friends you miss the point. A great deal of taxpayer money is being spent by SBCS and they need to be held accountable! And since when is it okay to falsify records, to abuse employees and then exact retribution when they seek fairness. This article spread a healthy amount of light on a subject that needed it! I hope there will be a sequel.

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elgy Feb. 24, 2011 @ 11:26 p.m.

yes, susan, i guess you are the author? well, since you find it ethical to comment on YOUR OWN article, i guess i'll deal with you. "solidly based on sworn statements and court documents" still does NOT present both sides, now does it? i'd like to see sworn statements by people who AREN'T disgruntled, people who don't have anything to gain by the spin, innuendo, gossip, people who aren't in intimate "relationships" with these sworn statements, people who are credible and on the opposite side. only THEN can i come to an EDUCATED conclusion. at least do me the favor of coming to my own conclusion, and not YOUR "sworn" conclusions. i suppose you also believe no one ever lies when sworn in? and no, i'm not friends with the women at SBCS. but if they ever left, we, as residents of CV, would be the poorer for it, and i'm not speaking financially.

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David Dodd Feb. 25, 2011 @ 1:28 a.m.

elgy, where did you learn that it somehow isn't ETHICAL for an author to comment on their own story? It's 2011. Writers are encouraged by their publications to do this, to be interactive. It's perfectly ethical.

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elgy Feb. 25, 2011 @ 6:35 a.m.

possibly because i'm a reader, and as such, i'm interested in what OTHER readers have to say as opposed to the author, whose opinion i've already read. and in this case, once was enough. and why, refried, of all the things i've opined thus far, is that the only thing you take issue with?

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VigilantinCV Feb. 25, 2011 @ 10:39 a.m.

elgy, you say you are a reader but you are surely missing the point. I will be waiting for your comparable article on the virtues of "the women at SBCS."

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annon Feb. 25, 2011 @ 11:54 a.m.

I dont know about the people involved in the article, but when dealing with the South Bay Community Services IT people, I found them to be of the top echelon in their field.

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joepublic Feb. 25, 2011 @ 7:29 p.m.

This article seems to have struck a sensitive nerve with “elgy”. For me, hearing another side of SBCS’s story is necessary and appreciated. All we've ever heard about this privatized PUBLICLY FUNDED agency are glorified reports. I guess with their well placed, well connected administrators and political hacks on their governing board, we shouldn’t expect to be seeing their dirty laundry hung out in public. Elgy, most public agencies do good work, but that doesn’t mean the public shouldn’t know ALL that is going on. You have insulted readers by insinuating that we are easily swayed by the stroke of a pen. When I read an article I look at the facts, and this article was very well documented and informative. I would like the READER to go one step further and publish the salaries of SBCS's management/administration like the press has done with other publicly funded agencies. What are we spending on these people? I've heard of other stories about SBCS similar to this, and hopefully all will be told eventually. Finally, those mentioned in this aricle must be very upset with "elgy" accusing them of perjury, (of course that's just elgy's opinion!!)

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David Dodd Feb. 25, 2011 @ 11:27 p.m.

elgy, politics in the U.S. isn't my thing; I don't live there and although I might comment on U.S. politics here on the rare occasion, I tend to read and take mental notes. Everyone has the right and the privilege to an opinion on such topics. I simply felt the need to correct your statement about an author commenting on their own story as being unethical. Perhaps twenty years ago that could be the case, but currently, newspapers and magazines that are online encourage (and in some cases require) that the author is interactive in the website and that they also maintain a separate and accessible Facebook or Twitter account. Times have changed, my friend.

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VigilantinCV Feb. 25, 2011 @ 11:37 p.m.

ME TOO!! I want to know how much money of the public money is being paid for salaries. I also want to know how much real estate they have title to. But most of all I want to know about their fancy fun bashes they call fundraisers. How much is spent on all that FUN and how much goes to the victims they "serve"?

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learnb4ugive Feb. 27, 2011 @ 8:39 a.m.

You can research any nonprofit by going to guidestar.org and reading their info and tax filings which list salaries and assets owned by them. It will also list revenue and what it is spent on. Obviously these allegations are serious and if true there is no excuse. But in general most orgs are trying to maintain their programs with less money because of a decrease in funding due to the economic downturn. This may lead to this kind of behavior not because of personal gain but because of a desire to serve the community. Once again no excuse but look at their track record to see what good things they may have accomplished also before possibly getting off track. I have no personal knowledge of them but do of many others and wanted to offer this personal observation.

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barryjohnjohnson Feb. 27, 2011 @ 12:04 p.m.

I am the Barry John Johnson mentioned in the story. If anyone needs to confirm this or discuss any of my statements or any of the issues mentioned, they can call me at 858 353 1332. Because of this agency, there are definitely people doing good work in the South Bay, and the area would be worse off with out it. However, an agency can do good work and also engage in inappropriate activities. These are not mutually exclusive items.

In terms of what to believe or not, please keep in mind the following: I was not awarded $80K for nothing. I feel there is substantial proof and corroboration to support my claims. The corroboration includes people who still work there. I believe that SBCS's own internal documents support my claims as well. If my allegations were false they certainly should not have settled the matter with me within a very short time frame without even a single deposition being taken. It is also certainly not a light matter to take up an employment lawsuit in the first place, and I think the theory is very unlikely that so many people would perjure themselves under threat of the law.

Please note, as the article refers to, that with the Guido case, the publicly available court records show that during the litigation, the agency attempted to throw out her case via a motion for summary judgment. The judge considered all the evidence and arguments, and concluded that her case had sufficient factual and legal merit to continue, including on grounds of discrimination, certainly a disturbing cause of action against the agency.

That was an objective evaluation for that case. With the other lawsuit, involving refusal to falsify and retaliation, I never met the woman involved. I do tend to believe her story, based upon what I experienced and I find it interesting that her case brought up similar issues. Finally, I do wish the agency well and hope that it continues to serve, with appropriate reforms. I am very interested in seeing reforms occur at this agency.

(ditto on Guidestar.org, a great resource, look at the IRS 990 forms for lots of financial info i.e. salaries, contracts, even the cost of their big special event)

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learnb4ugive Feb. 27, 2011 @ 1:11 p.m.

Just curious what kind of work are you doing now?

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barryjohnjohnson Feb. 27, 2011 @ 1:46 p.m.

I am a counselor working with foster teens. I love it. Soon to get my MFT license I hope. I also have friends edging to some management consulting. take care.

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