SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — In a whistleblower trial pitting a former San Francisco chief trial deputy against the city attorney’s office, a jury awarded the whistleblower $2 million Friday for emotional damages and lost earnings.
After less than a day of deliberations, the unanimous panel found that City Attorney Dennis Herrera fired Joanne Hoeper because of her efforts to uncover what she suspected was a shady payment scheme run by Herrera’s claims bureau, violating the California Whistleblower and False Claims Acts.
Herrera's spokesman John Coté said the city attorney's office was “surprised and disappointed with the jury’s verdict.” He reiterated the position made during the three-week trial that Herrera “had independent reasons for terminating Ms. Hoeper in 2014.”
Outside the courtroom, Hoeper was surrounded by supporters, as her attorneys discussed the case with jurors. She was gratified by the outcome, but said she hadn't been looking for damages.
“I brought this case because I hope that some independent body comes in and looks at what's going on in the city attorney's office,” she said.
“The people who wasted more than $10 million of the city's money are still there and still have unfettered control over millions of dollars of city money.”
Hoeper, who was hired in 1994 by Herrera's predecessor, got a tip from the FBI in late 2011 that prompted her investigation.
She looked into how and why the city had been paying plumbing companies to replace privately owned sewer pipes supposedly damaged by roots of city-owned trees. She was also concerned about whether public contracting laws were being evaded.
In closing arguments Thursday, Hoeper's attorney Therese Cannata said that when the investigation got too close to Herrera's political allies, Hoeper was put out to pasture at the district attorney's office and then fired in retaliation.
Just months into the investigation, a plumbing company that did the much of the claims work suddenly stopped making claims, for no apparent reason, Cannata said.
Herrera had supported Hoeper's work as chief trial deputy and in the investigation until May 2012, Cannata said, “when he wakes up and realized he had to fire her.”
The city’s storyline was that Herrera supported the investigation but had long been concerned about Hoeper's management style and ability to litigate on the city's behalf in a cost-effective way.
“Out of touch and a bad leader” was how attorney John Keker described Hoeper, saying Herrera had taken concrete steps to look for a replacement starting in 2010, his concerns growing over time. He called Hoeper hostile, defensive and unwilling to change after negative feedback from her superiors.
Keker said the claims investigation was not precipitously shut down, but that after two months with a free hand to investigate, it had found no evidence of corruption.
“The only person in this trial who's trying to get paid for work they didn't do is Ms. Hoeper,” he said.
An appeal may be next. After the verdict, the city attorney's office said it was exploring all its options.
Keker is with Keker & Van Nest.
Cannata is with Cannata, O'Toole, Fickes & Almazan.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.