Whistleblower Hearing Set for Friday Over Fired OC Fairgrounds Executive

SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

Suspended OC Fair and Event Center CFO Adam Carleton (left) speaks about the 2016 audit and the treatment he received from CEO Kathy Kramer (right) after he raised concerns about the 2016 audit. Feb. 28, 2019.

State officials plan to hold a hearing Friday on a whistleblower complaint by the former chief financial officer of the Orange County Fairgrounds, who was fired after more than a year of job uncertainty after questioning higher-ups about the agency’s finances.

The informal State Personnel Board hearing is scheduled to be held in Rancho Cucamonga, more than a year after Carleton was put on paid administrative leave by then-fairgrounds CEO Kathy Kramer. 

In previous interviews with Voice of OC, Carleton said he was suspended in December 2018 after resisting orders by Kramer to try to recoup possibly illegal severance payments from a fired employee. Carleton said he resisted because he wanted to first consult the legal opinion of state human resources attorneys. 

The fair’s communications director declined to comment on the upcoming hearing when asked last month about it. “We cannot comment on personnel matters,” Terry Moore said.

The personnel board accepts relatively few whistleblower retaliation complaints, compared to how many they receive, according to data from the board’s most recent report published online. 

In 2018, the most recent year with available data, only 10 whistleblower retaliation complaints were accepted out of 39 received.

And in 2017, 49 complaints were received and seven were accepted.

Leading up to Carleton’s ouster, Kramer was under scrutiny for a 2016 state audit that was critical of the severance payment, which totalled about $75,000 in compensation over an eight month period in which the payee didn’t work at the fairgrounds.

Fair officials also hired a private investigator to look into Carleton at the time. Those findings, if any, have not been publicly disclosed and fair officials have declined to discuss it, citing personnel matters.

Since then, Carleton and his attorney have frequently appeared at public Fair Board meetings advocating for a resolution to his situation. 

At the Fair Board’s Feb. 27 meeting, Carleton announced during public comments that he received a termination letter on Feb. 19 from the agency. That letter, he said, was signed by Kramer’s replacement as CEO, Michele Richards.

“The fair has spent over $200,000 and over one year investigating me, and has never told me specifically why they put me on administrative time off,” Carleton told Voice of OC in a phone interview last month. “That former CEO Kramer has been dismissed speaks volumes about the case.”

In October of last year, the Fair Board voted to fire Kramer in closed session, following years of questions over Kramer’s leadership and a Voice of OC report that she sat on the fundraising board of a private religious university the fair was giving money to. She had also accepted a new CEO position for a fair in Yakima, Washington.

Kramer did not respond to Voice of OC’s requests for comment at the time, but recently told the Yakima Herald that she’s going to sue the OC Fair over her firing and said her ouster was in retaliation for cooperating with an investigation that she said led two board members to resign in 2018.

As the top financial officer, Carleton said he worked to “protect the state’s assets.” 

“I have done nothing wrong,” he added.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporting fellow. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.