As the Sacramento Bee reported Tuesday, California Treasurer Fiona Ma repeatedly shared hotel rooms with employees, a practice she says saves money, but business experts tread an ethical line. and could lead to lawsuits, such as the one Ma is facing now.
Judith Blackwell, the former head of the California Tax Credit Allocation Committee, sued Ma in July, alleging sexual harassment, racial discrimination and wrongful termination. Ma said the allegations were baseless.
Records obtained by Bee Show Ma shared a hotel room with his chief of staff, Genevieve Jopanda, 13 times in two years. She had stayed with four other colleagues at the three-bedroom property on a trip. There is no policy in the state human resources manual as to whether managers and employees can share hotel rooms.
Ma said his work as state treasurer often required him and his colleagues to travel across the state and share hotel rooms to save money.
“Travel arrangements are made to maximize efficiency and minimize costs in line with all ethical and legal requirements,” Ma said in the statement. Jopanda made almost the same statement to Bee.
Many business experts 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 boundaries and puts subordinates in a very difficult position to say no, even in the most innocent of cases where we’re just trying to save money,” says Laura Cray, University of California, Professor at Haas School of Berkeley. The business told the bee. “With the power dynamic, 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 state investments, serves on the board of its pension fund and oversees programs that provide tax credits for affordable housing and financing for public works projects. She was earlier elected as a member of the Board of Equalization and the State Legislative Assembly.
Blackwell’s lawsuit alleges that Ma exposed her back during a May 2020 visit and crawled into bed with her, and that she gave Blackwell gifts including jewelry and edible marijuana, Bee reported. Blackwell no longer works for the state and his lawsuit also alleges racial discrimination and wrongful termination.
The lawsuit states that Blackwell “felt that her employment was dependent on the sexual advances of her accepted defendant Ma” and that she lost her job for denying them.
Blackwell’s attorney, Walken McCoy, said that he was fired in January, reports Bee. His termination came in September 2020 after Blackwell suffered a stroke, which left him out of work for two months. Blackwell’s lawsuit states that when she returned to work, she was given additional assignments that often hired her late. Blackwell, who is Black, alleges that he was replaced by a less qualified white woman.
“I am not commenting on the pending trial except to say that Ms. Blackwell’s claims are unfounded and I expect to prevail in court,” Ma said in a statement Tuesday to the Associated Press.