First of three parts
After more than three decades as an employee inside Orange County government, Kathleen Tahilramani is preparing to go to trial against the county next month, alleging that top officials retaliated against her in her capacity as a Human Resources official because she refused to skirt state selection rules for jobs at the county trash department and insisted that harassment complaints be investigated.
Tahilramani is also speaking out against an age-old perk for county supervisors: the ability to move their top political aides into county civilian jobs.
While county officials have declined to speak directly to the issues raised by Tahilramani, they argue that an outside law firm examined all of her allegations and found them to be unfounded. County supervisors, however, have refused to make that report - along with others examining the conduct of executives and elected officials - public, citing attorney-client privilege.
Tahilramani’s allegations are similar to those leveled by former Deputy CEO Alisa Drakodaidis and Paula Kitchen, the county’s former equal employment opportunity compliance officer. The allegations from these female executives mirror a Orange County grand jury report that criticized a "culture of harassment" in county government.
Tahilramani began her career at the county after her graduation from Cal State Long Beach in 1979. After a few years in the Social Services Agency, she rose through the managerial ranks, administering public assistance programs. From there, she moved into Social Services' human resources department and in 1996 transferred to central Human Resources.
Later, she was the HR representative for the county planning department and then for the library system before being promoted in 2007 to Waste and Recycling. In early 2008, after a short stint as assistant director of HR, she moved back to OC Waste and Recycling and was there until her departure in 2010.
At Waste & Recycling, she managed about a half-dozen staffers and administered the department’s hiring and promotions. It was during that period that she ran into trouble with then-director, now CEO, Mike Giancola. Tahilramani eventually went out on a stress leave and filed suit soon afterward.
Tahilramani sat down recently to talk with Voice of OC about her experiences.
Over the next three days, we’ll bring you excerpts from our discussion with Tahilramani regarding her allegations of abuses in county job hiring practices, workplace harassment issues and hiring practices for political aides.
Q: You allege that county CEO Mike Giancola’s hiring practices in his previous position as the director of OC Waste and Recycling often skirted state merit selection rules.
A: I began to be asked to do things by the director [Giancola] that were highly inappropriate and violated state law, specifically the state merit and selection rules.
Q: What types of things were you asked to do?
A: I was asked at both low- and high-levels recruitments to place predetermined people in positions. Specifically, on one labor recruitment I was told to place three people.
Q: What was the job that you were asked to give to a predetermined candidate?
A: It was for a laborer recruitment — the men and women who work out at the landfills picking up trash and doing some skilled work on the roads and concrete and things like that.
He said, "I want this person, this person and this person. Basically, a hauler’s son. He then said [former Deputy CEO] Alisa Drakodaidis [who has leveled her own discrimination claims against the county] had a relative. He did not give the name of the relative, but he said, "I want to make sure that person is placed." The third person was [former county Public Works executive] Bob Wilson’s stepson, Dylan.
And he said, "I want those three people to be successful in this recruitment.”
(Editor's Note: Alisa Drakodaidis reached out on Tahilramani's comments involving her to say: "I did not refer a relative for employment to anyone nor have I ever had a relative employed with the County of Orange.)
I remember making a comment that I didn’t even think that Bob Wilson’s stepson would meet the MQs [minimum qualifications] for the job, so it’s impossible. And he said, "Are you saying you are not going to do it." And I’m saying, "I can’t do it." And at that point he said, "Fine, I’ll just have [Deputy Director] Dick Harabedian do it."
Giancola was visibly upset with me, and I knew it.
Q: Is this when the retaliatory activities begin?
I think it actually goes back further than that, but not much. I think it goes back to a 2008 recruitment that we did for deputy director. That’s at the administrative-three level. There was an individual that both Jan Goss, who was the former director, and Mike wanted to be placed into the recruitment.
His name is Jeff Southern.
When my recruitment manger, Yvonne Healy, did the review for minimum qualifications, she found that he did not meet the minimum qualifications [lacking a college degree]. And just simply there was no way to, to make that happen. And so we sent him a sorry letter thanking him for applying but informing him that at this point he wasn’t qualified.
(Then Director) Jan Goss came into my office, and she was just upset and she said, "How did you do this? Why is Jeff not being considered for the recruitment?" I explained it to her, and she said, "Well, I have a problem with that." And so I asked her — I asked her, "What’s your concern, Jan?" And she said, "I’ve already promised him the job." And I said, "Jan, I’m sorry about that." And she goes, "Well, I want you to put him in."
I said: "I simply can’t. If this is challenged, we have absolutely no way to explain away how we did this. I just can’t. It’s just – it’s not right." The next thing I know, Mike is in my office the next day, again demanding an explanation as to why Jeff is not being included or why he was given a sorry letter.
So I re-explained it, and he just, he was, he just grilled me. And he said, you know, "Can’t you do this?" and "Can’t you do that?" and "Re-look at it." And I felt a lot of pressure.
I met again with Yvonne, and we put our heads together, and the answer was still no. We cannot do it.
Jeff was visibly angry.
He accused me of being rude to him when he came into my office to question why he wasn’t in there [the recruitment]. And I had pulled out the job spec, and I said that with a college education, "you could substantially reduce the time frame that’s necessary." And he was very offended by that and thought I was insulting him.
Q: What happened next?
A: We ran the recruitment, and two people were promoted: John Tzeng and Kevin Kondru.
Two months before John Tzeng was going to pass probation, Mike asked me to mentor him because John is an extremely capable and bright person, but he’s a civil engineer, and he needed a little bit of support on the administrative processes that are involved in that type of management work.
So John and I were meeting regularly, and in my view, John was doing well at grasping and was really motivated.
And then, without being notified, I found out that Mike had failed him on promotional probation, thus creating a vacancy. Mike then came to me and said, "Jeff Southern meets MQs now, doesn’t he?"
We had a vacancy and were going to run a new recruitment. And he said, "I’ve made sure that he’s been put into a management position to give him more experience."
And that was correct. Jeff had been moved from superintendent position into a management position at headquarters.
So Yvonne checked again, and sure enough, he still didn’t meet the MQs.
And when I explained that to Mike, he was very frustrated with me. And he said, "I want you to calculate," and I’ve never been asked to do something like that before. But we did at his request. And it was determined that end of June–July would be about the time when he would very minimally meet MQs.
When I told Mike this he had called me into his office to get the info. He said, "OK, Alisa and I have been talking, and here’s the story that we’re going to use. The story we’re going to use is we’re going to hold the position open for salary savings, and that’s why we’re not filling it."
He said that’s the story we’re going to stick to and that’s the story that’s going to be told. We’re holding it for salary savings until Jeff Southern meets the minimum qualifications.
And then we’ll run a recruitment and he’ll be successful. And I said, "Wait a second. I’m really uncomfortable sitting here listening to a recruitment that’s been predetermined."
Q: What was the reaction to that?
A: He wasn’t at all happy with that.
Q: Giancola later decided to appoint Jeff Southern to the administrative-three position, deputy director, which prompted questions from you.
A: I said we need to be prepared for a possible selection complaint, and he [Giancola] asked if I was talking about Ray Hull. I said: "It’s possible that that could happen. He’s been very frustrated that he hasn’t been promoted, and I’ve been working with him for the last year trying to encourage him and trying to keep him from getting discouraged and trying to give him advice on what he could do to become more visible and competitive, like getting on committees."
At that point Mike lost his temper and asked me what I want him to do.
Giancola went on to say that Ray had filed a fraud hotline complaint on me and that he [Giancola] will “kill the recruitment before I hire him” — his exact words.
Around this time I had gone to CEO/HR and complained about the recruitment, because I felt like it was out of control. I thought: "I’m in the middle of something that I can’t defend, and it’s getting too big for me. I need help.”
It went up the chain of command all the way up to [former Human Resources Director] Carl Crown and [former CEO Tom] Mauk.
Q: When you complained, you believe the process was handled badly?
A: HR apparently informed Mike about everything I had alleged. And what I told them was pretty serious. I said it’s a sham recruitment.
Later, Mike called me into his office and said he understood that someone was complaining about the administrator-three recruitment, saying that it’s rigged.
That was his way of putting me on notice that he knew what I had done.
Tomorrow: Tahilramani opens up about her experiences with workplace harassment issues.