Whistleblowers file claim against Bay Area Air Quality Management District

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Bobby Lee/Staff

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Two former employees of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, or BAAQMD, filed a whistleblower claim Tuesday alleging that BAAQMD destroyed regulatory documents, including notices of violation, enforcement records and flare reports for refineries in the East Bay.

In a press conference, the former employees, Michael Bachmann and Sarah Steele, alleged that BAAQMD’s executive management directed the improper destruction of agency records. BAAQMD then allegedly retaliated against Bachmann and Steele by terminating their employment after they repeatedly raised concerns to their supervisors about the agency’s practices.

Steele began notifying Bachmann in September 2015 that the agency allegedly violated internal policies and California state code by instructing staff to destroy documents that the district was required to maintain. When Bachmann raised concerns directly to executive management Nov. 6, 2015, BAAQMD Chief Legal Counsel Brian Bunger allegedly told Bachmann that the destruction of the documents was necessary because those records could “hurt us.”

Records of Berkeley’s Pacific Steel Casting Company, or PSC, are cited in Bachmann and Steele’s claim as among those that were allegedly destroyed by BAAQMD. The records in question were subject to a subpoena related to litigation against PSC. Attorneys for Bachmann and Steele had no further comment on the steel company’s relation to the claim.

Some residents of West Berkeley, including members of local advocacy group West Berkeley Alliance for Clean Air and Safe Jobs, have alleged that PSC has created health hazards in the area through the emission of harmful pollutants.

“The (West Berkeley Alliance) cannot comment on the pending lawsuit brought by two former BAAQMD employees at this time,” said Janice Schroeder, core member of the West Berkeley Alliance, in an email. “The Alliance did have substantial delays obtaining public record requested permit documents from BAAQMD regarding Pacific Steel Casting Company in West Berkeley in 2016.”

After Bachmann and Steele continued to voice concerns, BAAQMD terminated their employment in 2016.

“(This is a) classic retaliation whistleblower case, of somebody that’s raising clear wrongdoing of their employer … and they turn on them and get rid of them,” alleged J. Gary Gwilliam, one of the attorneys handling the claim.

Bachmann and Steele’s formal whistleblower claim is a precursor to a pending lawsuit, according to their attorneys.

In an emailed statement, BAAQMD said the allegations, first raised more than a year ago, have already been investigated by an outside law firm and were determined to be “false and without merit.”

Legal counsel for Bachmann and Steele raised concerns about the previous investigation process and the objectivity of its investigator. Gwilliam noted that Emily Prescott, an attorney who conducted the investigation, previously authored an article for the California Labor & Employment Law Review titled “How those jerks at work create liability problems for employers.”

Gwilliam also noted that serious damage could take place because of the alleged destruction of regulatory documents.

“Those (documents) are important because they provide the foundation for enforcement actions in the future,” Gwilliam said.

Contact Bobby Lee at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @bobbylee_dc.