Lawsuit alleges kickbacks and personal use of funds at SLO office of education

A lawsuit filed by a former employee of the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education alleges administrators at the agency received kickbacks for favors they did for contractors and likewise made personal use of public funds. Office of Education officials retaliated against the former employee for raising the allegations, ultimately forcing her to resign, according to the suit.

Lisa Irwin’s lawsuit alleges retaliation, wrongful constructive termination, harassment, negligent infliction of emotional distress and other violations of the Fair Employment and Housing Act. The lawsuit names the County Office of Education and two of its employees, Chief Human Resources Officer Thomas Alvarez and operations director Ashley Lightfoot, who appears to have retired earlier this year.

In March 2016, Irwin was hired in a temporary role as an administrative assistant in the Office of Education. Her position became permanent in Sept. 2016.

The lawsuit states, while working for the agency, Irwin reported occurrences of fraudulent billing, as well as invoice and company credit card policies and practices that allowed Lightfoot to use public funds on personal expenses. Administrators allegedly altered invoices and other internal documents to cover up personal expenditures made with public funds.

Additionally, the suit alleges the defendants divided large construction projects into smaller-scale projects in order to circumvent regulations on the number of times a public entity may use the same contractor on a single project. In turn, the administrators received kickbacks and other perks from the benefiting contractors.

The lawsuit does not identify the contractors, but it says the kickbacks included baseball memorabilia, patio furniture sets, use of company gas cards for personal gas expenses and even groceries.

In Jan. 2017, administrators asked Irwin to process an altered invoice, the lawsuit states. Irwin said she was fearful that doing so would be illegal. Then, Lightfoot and other employees carried out the forgery, according to the suit.

Irwin later approached a human resources staffer about the issue and was told, “we all get along here” and “it’s just the way we work.”

The plaintiff cross-checked old Office of Education invoices with invoices and billing directly from third-party vendors and confirmed the fraudulent billing had been occurring for at least two years. Irwin brought the records to Lightfoot, who demanded to keep the documents.

Almost immediately following that exchange, Irwin became the target of retaliation, according to the suit. Lightfoot told Irwin she needs to be careful and that if she was ever alone in the office she should lock all the doors and call 911 if she felt unsafe.

The warnings continued almost daily and often multiple times per day until Irwin was forced to resign, according to the lawsuit.

Alvarez, the human resources officer, called Irwin into a series of closed-door meetings in which he accused the administrative assistant of committing the fraudulent billings. Alvarez also told Irwin that the employee union and office administration would go after her and her family if an investigation into Irwin’s reports of illegal billing proceeded.

Irwin submitted her letter of resignation on May 1. SLO County Superintendent of Schools James Bresica said Irwin voluntarily resigned.

Irwin is seeking an unspecified amount of damages and reimbursement for attorneys’ fees.

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