California treasurer often shared hotel rooms with staff, documents say
California Treasurer Fiona Ma has repeatedly shared hotel rooms with employees, a practice she says saved money but which business experts say goes to against an ethical line and may result in lawsuits like the one Ma is now facing, the Sacramento Bee reported on Tuesday.
Judith Blackwell, the former head of the California Tax Credit Allocation Committee, sued Ma in July, alleging sexual harassment, racial discrimination and unfair dismissal. Ma said the allegations were without merit.
Records obtained by the show Bee, Ma shared a hotel room with her chief of staff, Geneviève Jopanda, 13 times in two years. She also stayed with four other helpers at a three-bedroom property while on a trip. There is no policy in the state’s human resources manual as to whether managers and staff can share hotel rooms.
Ma said her job as state treasurer frequently required that she and her assistants travel across the state, and that hotel rooms were shared to save money.
“Travel arrangements are made to maximize efficiency and minimize costs in accordance with all ethical and legal requirements,” Ma said in the statement. Jopanda made an almost identical statement to the bee.
Several business experts have said it is a questionable practice for managers to share rooms with subordinates, who may feel pressured to say yes even if they are uncomfortable doing so.
“It crosses borders and puts subordinates in a very difficult position to say no, even in the most innocent of cases where we are just trying to save money,” Laura Kray, professor at the University of California, Berkeley , Haas School of Business told the bee. “Because of the power dynamics, I don’t think people would feel free to say no and worry about retaliation.”
Ma, a Democrat, was elected state treasurer in 2018. The treasurer manages the state’s investments, sits on the board of its pension funds, and oversees programs that provide tax credits for the state. affordable housing and funding for public works projects. Previously, she had been elected a member of the Equalization Council and the State Assembly.
Blackwell’s lawsuit alleged that Ma exposed her butt and slipped into bed with her while the two shared accommodation on a trip in May 2020, and that she gave Blackwell gifts, including jewelry and edible marijuana, the Bee reported. Blackwell no longer works for the state and his lawsuit also alleged racial discrimination and unfair dismissal.
The lawsuit said Blackwell “felt her job depended on accepted sexual advances from the accused Ma” and that she lost her job for rejecting them.
Blackwell’s attorney, Waukeen McCoy, said she was fired in January, the Bee reported. Her dismissal came after Blackwell suffered a stroke in September 2020 that put her out of work for two months. When she returned to work, she was given additional duties that often prevented her from working late, according to the Blackwell lawsuit. Blackwell, who is black, claims she was replaced by a less skilled white woman.
“I am not commenting on the pending litigation other than to say that Ms. Blackwell’s claims are unfounded and I look forward to winning them in court,” Ma said in a statement Tuesday to the Associated Press.