Officials silent on whistleblower’s allegations of “false statements” in union, farm dispute

The California agency in charge of defending farmworkers has declined to comment on a whistleblower’s allegation of insider wrongdoing, citing an ongoing internal investigation.

The whistleblower alleged earlier this year that the agency’s office of General Counsel made misleading and false statements to persuade agency board members to sue Gerawan Farming, a San Joaquin Valley company that employs 5,000 and is regarded as the nation’s largest peach grower. The state Agricultural Labor Relations Board has been trying for more than two years to throw out a vote by Gerawan farmworkers on whether to fire the United Farm Workers as their collective bargaining representative.

Gerawan Farming

Gerawan Farming

The whistleblower said that “false statements, inaccuracies and vague information had been written into” a board document prepared by the general counsel, according to a staff memo presented to the board in May as members were considering whether to file a temporary restraining order against Gerawan.

“The ALRB employee stated that the (general counsel’s) declaration is vague and misleading and that there were statements made in the declaration that were untrue,” the memo says. “The ALRB employee stated that the Board would be making a decision on this (temporary restraining order) packet and they needed to know false statements were being made in the declaration.”

The Board says it launched an internal investigation into the allegations in August and has declined to comment. Reached via phone, former General Counsel Sylvia Torres-Guillen did not respond to questions by the deadline for this story. The whistleblower’s name is protected under state law and has not been released.

A staff shakeup commenced in the months following the complaint.

Torres-Guillen took a new job with Gov. Jerry Brown’s office. Two of the general counsel’s staff members also left the agency.

An ALRB official declined to comment on the departures.

Petition for Investigation

To prevent agency conflicts of interest regarding whistleblower complaints, the California Whistleblower Protection Act provides for the state auditor to receive complaints and conduct independent investigations. After learning of the whistleblower memo, Gerawan Farming petitioned California State Auditor Elaine Howle to investigate.

“An employee of the General Counsel’s office displayed great courage in notifying the Board about improper taxpayer-financed conduct by the General Counsel,” Gerawan attorney David A. Schwarz wrote in a June 2 letter to Howle. “We believe an independent investigation by your office is warranted.”

The State Auditor’s office said it is barred by law from confirming whether such a probe is taking place.

The tussle over the farmworkers’ vote on union representation stretches back to 2013.

Gerawan Background

The union had been a representative on paper but had failed to actually represent the Gerawan workers for more than 17 years, an appeals court found. The union “suddenly reappeared on the scene” in 2012.

The union demanded a contract requiring the workers to pay 3 percent of their pretax wages or lose their jobs. Workers pushed for a vote on whether to sever ties with the union.

“We don’t want a union,” said Silvia Lopez, a Gerawan worker who has helped organize union opposition. “We just want the ALRB to count our votes and honor whatever the results may be.”

In 2013 Board Chairman William B. Gould IV overruled his lawyers and ordered the vote to proceed in November of that year. Lawyers to the Board administered the vote and collected the ballots but refused to allow them to be counted, alleging that Gerawan committed unfair labor practices.

As of May 2014, the ballots were being held in a safe in a regional office of the ALRB, an official told ReasonTV.

The board’s administrative law judge later recommended that the Board dismiss the workers’ decertification effort. The ALRB is due to vote on whether to follow the judge’s recommendation.

Gould remained at loggerheads with Torres-Guillen, whose office filed repeated legal actions against Gerawan, losing case after case. In March, Gould and the other board members forced the general counsel to seek board approval before taking any further legal action.

Whistleblower Allegations

The whistleblower’s allegations surfaced two months later, as Torres-Guillen sought board approval to file a temporary restraining order against Gerawan to force the farm to rehire a pro-union worker.

In court documents, Gerawan said the worker had designed a provocation that would get him fired, which the Board’s general counsel and union could use as a pretext to allege unfair labor practices.

The staff memo, dated May 12, says that the whistleblower was well-placed to have access to detailed information on the alleged wrongdoing. “This employee was part of the investigative team and was present in the interview of [Gerawan] and false statements, inaccuracies and vague information had been written in the declaration . . . being filed with the Board.”

The Board approved the request for the temporary restraining order against Gerawan later that day. A state superior court judge quashed the Board’s motion on June 16.

Superior Court Judge Donald S. Black had harsh comments about the Board in his ruling, which appeared to validate the whistleblower’s allegations. In his decision, Black stated, “given the deficiencies in the investigation conducted by the ALRB, the apparent embroilment of the ALRB’s staff in the investigation and its involvement in the termination of [the worker], and the strong evidence disputing the petitioner’s [ALRB’s] claim that [the worker] was terminated for his union activities, the court concludes that the petitioner has not shown reasonable cause to believe an unfair labor practice has been committed” on Gerawan’s part.

Departures from the Board

Meanwhile, top attorneys in the Board’s General Counsel office were exiting. Torres-Guillen, who had been appointed by Gov. Brown in 2011, took a job in his office.

“I will be leaving my position as General Counsel effective July 1, 2015,” her June 13 resignation letter states.

Soon after, Torres-Guillen’s top acolytes began to leave the agency. The first to go was Salinas regional director Alegria de la Cruz, whose long affiliation with the United Farm Workers was a source of controversy. Then Silas Shawver, the Visalia regional director who had taken possession of the uncounted Gerawan worker ballots, resigned without public explanation.

As the whistleblower controversy roiled the Board offices, the Board’s executive secretary, J. Antonio Barbosa, took a leave of absence. While Barbosa remains on staff with the same title, Special Board Counsel Paul M. Starkey was named acting executive secretary. Barbosa did not respond to requests for comment.

The Board has refused to answer questions about any relationship between the whistleblower’s allegations and the departures of the general counsel and two of her most fervently pro-union deputies.

Gould and the board “will not comment on matters that are pending before the Board or may come up before the Board,” Starkey wrote in an Oct. 30 statement to the American Media Institute.

Starkey said the Board is conducting its own internal probe about the whistleblower.

“In August of this year, the Board commenced an investigation, which is pending completion,” he said. “Accordingly, the Board will not comment.”

Asked about the apparent purge in the general counsel’s office, Starkey passed the buck to Brown and claimed legal privilege. Torres-Guillen’s abrupt departure, Starkey said, “concerns matters within the purview of the Governor’s Office.”

Brown’s office did not return a call for comment. Starkey also refused to comment on the departures of de la Cruz and Shawver, saying the question “concerns personnel matters, upon which the Board does not comment.”

By law, the Board must be impartial between employers and unions in defending the rights of farmworkers.

To the largely Mexico-born workers, the Board’s silence reminds them of the system they left behind.

“In Mexico, the labor unions are part of the ruling political party, which controls the government bureaucracy,” Lopez said. “With the ALRB, it’s no different in California, where the political elites serve as the fixers for the UFW. It’s not supposed to be that way here in America.”

United Farm Workers spokeswoman Luz Peña did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Secretive ALRB Refuses to Answer Questions

The American Media Institute emailed 11 sets of questions to Agricultural Labor Relations Board Chairman William B. Gould IV and the other board members on Oct. 29. Board Acting Executive Secretary and Special Board Counsel Paul M. Starkey replied in an email and letter on Oct. 30. What follows are the questions, and Starkey’s complete answers to each.

Question: “1. Why did the Board ignore the whistleblower and approve the general counsel’s request for a TRO [temporary restraining order against Gerawan Farming]?  2. Did the Board attempt to inform the Court that it had reason to believe that ALRB general counsel attorneys provided false information in order to secure Board approval of the TRO?”

 

Answer: “Turning to your media questions concerning ‘Whistleblower in ALRB,’ questions 1 and 2, relating to TRO litigation, are the subject of the pending case in Gerawan Farming, Inc., 2015-CE-011-VIS.”

 

Q: “3. What internal investigation did the Board conduct about the falsification of information from the General Counsel’s office to the Board?  4. What wrongdoing did the Board uncover?”

 

A: “Questions 3 and 4, relating to the Board’s investigation, also are the subject of that pending case. Further, in August of this year, the Board commenced an investigation, which is pending completion. Accordingly, the Board will not comment.”

 

Q: “5. Did Governor Brown remove Ms. Torres-Guillen as general counsel because of that wrongdoing?”

 

A: “Question 5 concerns matters within the purview of the Governor’s Office. See enclosed print out.”

 

Q: “6. Did Ms. Alegria de la Cruz and Mr. [Silas] Shawver resign because of that wrongdoing?”

 

A: “Question 6 concerns personnel matters, upon which the Board does not comment.”

 

Q: “7. Does the Board have probable cause to believe that any laws were broken? If so, which laws might have been broken? If not, why not? Has the board requested an independent outside criminal investigation to remove all doubt? If not, why not?  8. Even if no laws were broken, do you believe that Ms. Torres-Guillen, Ms. de la Cruz, and Mr. Shawver acted ethically as members of the bar?”

 

A: “Questions 7 and 8 are covered by the response to questions 3 and 4.”

 

Q: “9. Has the ALRB made any amends to Gerawan for seeking the falsely procured TRO?”

 

A: “Question 9 is covered in the response to questions 1 and 2.”

 

Q: “10. Why does the ALRB General Counsel’s office continue to employ at least one attorney with a documented record as a biased union activist, who was part of the disgraced faction that was removed over the summer?”

 

A: “Question 10 is directed to the [Board’s] General Counsel, not the Board.”

 

Q: “11. What is the Board . . . doing to investigate and punish any past or continued wrongdoing?”

 

A: “Question 11 is covered by the response to questions 3 and 4. For the reasons explained above, the Board declines comment.”

****

J Michael Waller is an investigative journalist with the American Media Institute. 

3 comments

Write a comment
  1. Spurwing Plover
    Spurwing Plover 16 November, 2015, 13:19

    Many Unions are corupt to their cores and eed to be invesigated

    Reply this comment
    • Queeg
      Queeg 16 November, 2015, 14:32

      This is boring……you buy a job is the first and last things wrong on this subject…..

      Reply this comment
  2. Dyspeptic
    Dyspeptic 17 November, 2015, 18:48

    “In Mexico, the labor unions are part of the ruling political party, which controls the government bureaucracy,” Lopez said. “With the ALRB, it’s no different in California, where the political elites serve as the fixers for the UFW. It’s not supposed to be that way here in America.”

    Welcome to the United States of Mexico. It only gets worse from here on out.

    Reply this comment

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J Michael Waller, American Media Institute

J Michael Waller, American Media Institute

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