From: East Bay Times
By: Annie Sciacca, 12/17/2019
Two years after a couple of former employees of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District filed a lawsuit alleging they were fired for speaking up about the district’s destruction of documents crucial in monitoring and regulating air quality, a $4 million settlement has been reached.
“As a whistleblower case, this settlement is significant because of the amount of the settlement as well as the conduct that was at issue including allegations that the District destroyed public pollution records,” Eustace de Saint Phalle, a co-counsel for the plaintiffs, said Tuesday in a written statement.
The two employees, Sarah Steele and Michael Bachmann, were tasked with digitizing the district’s public records in 2015 during its headquarters move to San Francisco. The records included those related to permits for emissions, legal settlements, notices of violations, flare reports and board meeting minutes, according to the lawsuit.
The suit alleged that Steele, a temporary records specialist, and Bachmann, a manager in the information systems division, saw records destroyed in violation of the district’s policy as well as state and federal law. The district, which is responsible for regulating sources of air pollution and enforcing air pollution regulations across the nine-county Bay Area, has to follow reporting requirements when settling agreements or violations with polluters, as well as rules about retaining documents.
According to the lawsuit, those rules were not followed and when Bachmann and Steele raised that with senior management, the district retaliated against them.
“I brought my concerns that records were being destroyed in violation of the law to my supervisor, Michael, who brought those concerns to upper management. After our concerns persisted, both Michael and I were fired,” Steele said in a written statement from her attorneys.
The lawsuit states that Steele was ordered to put boxes of microfilm containing notices of violations, settlement of violations, asbestos records and citizens’ complaints against various Bay Area facilities into an unsecured storage room, even though they had not yet been entered into inventory. Although she complained and tried to inventory as many records as possible, the documents were gone after several days.
Bachmann complained about staff destroying records illegally, but chief legal counsel Brian Bunger told him that action was acceptable and it “could hurt us” if the destroyed documents were recorded.
In February 2016, Bachmann was placed on administrative leave for violating the district’s vehicle use policy, which the lawsuit claims was a “bogus” charge, and Steele was fired after being told her project had been completed.
Bachmann remained on administrative leave until August 2016, when he was fired for the vehicle code violation, insubordination, assigning Steele overtime hours and dishonesty on his employment application.
In addition to paying out $4 million, the air district will change his status from “terminated” to “retired,” as part of the settlement, according to the attorneys for the plaintiffs.
“Michael Bachmann and Sarah Steele are to be appreciated and acknowledged as whistleblowers. At great personal and professional sacrifice to themselves, they came forward seeking accountability for the unlawful destruction of important regulatory documents primarily impacting gross polluters,” said J. Gary Gwilliam, co-counsel for the plaintiffs. “Their bravery speaks to the need for and role of whistleblowers regarding accountability in the private and public sectors.”
The air district has not admitted to any wrongdoing. Kristine Roselius, a spokesperson for the district, issued a written statement confirming the agency’s board of directors agreed to settle the lawsuit.
“The Board made this decision in the best interests of the communities we serve and to uphold our fiduciary responsibility,” the statement continues. “We made the decision to settle the complaint rather than consume the Air District’s resources on an issue that would have distracted us from our mission to protect the Bay Area’s residents and its climate.”