SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – In opening statements Thursday, a lawyer for the San Francisco city attorney’s former trial chief told a jury that his client was fired for blowing the whistle on a multimillion-dollar scam.
The city says Joanne Hoeper was ousted because City Attorney Dennis Herrera thought she was doing a bad job managing the city’s litigation.
Hoeper sued Herrera and the City and County of San Francisco in July 2015, in Superior Court. She says she was demoted, transferred and terminated because an internal investigation she was leading uncovered thousands of fraudulent claims worth more than $19 million.
Hoeper said she found that the city attorney’s office had paid property owners and plumbing companies for sewer work that was neither necessary nor the city’s responsibility. The money paid for damage that city-owned trees supposedly caused to sewer lines running from private property to the city sewer system, from 2002 to 2011.
Hoeper’s attorney Mark Fickes told the jury Thursday that when her investigation got too close to key people in the city attorney’s office, she was demoted and sent from the department she had served for nearly two decades to work in the district attorney’s office. She was fired 18 months later.
“When she dared to cross those in power, those closely connected to Dennis Herrera, it all came crashing down,” Fickes said. “Once Ms. Hoeper was shipped off to the D.A.’s office, those in power shut this investigation down. The fix was in.”
San Francisco’s attorney John Keker denied it. He told jurors that Hoeper was not a whistleblower, and was not fired because of her sewer investigation. Herrera and his chief deputy “had lost confidence in Hoeper’s ability and judgment in running the trial team and decided she was not running the trial team effectively,” Keker said.
Hoeper, Keker said, was a holdover from the previous city attorney, and had never been receptive to guidance from Herrera or the deputy city attorney, who was also her boss. “Ms. Hoeper never accepted that fact,” he said.
He also cited problems with “cost-effective lawyering:” decisions she made about whether to settle cases or pursue further litigation.
Hoeper seeks double damages for lost wages and benefits, and damages for retaliation.
Fickes is with Cannata, O’Toole, Fickes & Almazan; Keker with Keker & Van Nest, both of San Francisco.
The trial in Judge Lynn O’Malley Taylor’s courtroom is expected to last three weeks. More than 30 witnesses are slated to take the stand, including Herrera, District Attorney George Gascon and Therese Stewart, a former deputy city attorney who is now an appeals court justice.