Community Columns

$225,000 in hush money bought outgoing Modesto auditor’s silence

Emerson Drake at a Modesto City Council meeting in 2011
Emerson Drake at a Modesto City Council meeting in 2011 Modesto Bee

In one of the most cynical, disingenuous statements I have ever heard at a Modesto City Council meeting, and there have been many, Councilman Bill Zoslocki read into the record a carefully chosen snippet from former City Auditor Monica Houston’s letter of separation. After invoking a Bible verse, he used a version of the are you going to believe me or your lying eyes? defense.

How did we get to this point? It was simple. Both the council and the public were concerned with $16 million in financial irregularities and human resource missteps (a hangman’s noose, in my opinion) at City Hall, so it was decided to bring in an in-house auditor. Her requests for resources were habitually denied by the city attorney, so Houston brought to committee a suggestion for a change in her contract to allow her access to information without having to go through the city attorney.

Departments controlled by City Attorney Adam Lindgren and City Manager Joe Lopez had been in the middle of some major questions for quite some time, and neither they nor their council supporters — also known as the Gang of Four, council members Zoslocki, Doug Ridenour, Jenny Kenoyer and Mani Grewal — were happy about the potential scrutiny. They provided political cover for the city manager’s series of misadventures. The city attorney helped by channeling many discussion topics into closed session where they could not be repeated in public, along with delaying, denying and watering down results of public record requests. Remember, if information is power then controlling or restricting said information is also power.

In July, acting on information provided by a local Caltrans office (later reversed at a higher state level), Houston became concerned about the city going out out to bid on legal fees for the Highway 132 bypass project. She then recommended that the council grant her better access to information needed for a thorough investigation, and within five days, the council decided to subject her to a performance evaluation.

That began a series of six unpleasant job reviews in less than eight months for Houston. Attempts were made to bring the sides together, but some of the Gang of Four started refusing to meet with her. And that is when Houston realized the immensity of this political firestorm she was in the middle of, all because she was trying to do the job she was hired to do. Interestingly enough, the city attorney stepped out and an outside attorney entered. When Houston left the meeting she hired representation of her own. The hand writing was on the wall.

She is a professional, and she realized there was little choice but to negotiate the best severance she could. Mutual non-disparagement clauses are part of the process. They paid $225,000 of taxpayer money to buy her silence about the way she was treated. Then at Tuesday’s meeting Zoslocki comes along and uses a small section of her separation agreement which includes the non-disparagement clause as proof that nothing untoward happened.

We paid $225,000 in hush money to an employee who had been with us eight months, and Councilman Zoslocki says nothing happened. He wants to ask the public, Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?

Emerson Drake of Modesto is a blogger and a longtime government watchdog.

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