Former California union official filed $44,000 worth of fraudulent time sheets, CalPERS says

Soyeb Hussein/Soyeb Hussein

A former SEIU Local 1000 official was suspended from his CalPERS IT job without pay for six months after the pension system determined he didn’t do any work while claiming he was on a coronavirus contact tracing assignment, according to a disciplinary notice.

Tony Owens, who was elected vice president of bargaining in 2018 and campaigned unsuccessfully for the state government union presidency early this year, submitted about $44,000 worth of fraudulent time sheets in the second half of 2020, according to a notice of adverse action CalPERS issued in June.

Owens is contesting the discipline, saying he was supporting state workers during the time in question even though the Department of Public Health did not formally issue him a pandemic contact tracing assignment.

He volunteered to be a coronavirus contact tracer in June 2020, just after Gov. Gavin Newsom asked for some 10,000 state and local government employees to take on temporary assignments tracking COVID-19 cases. Owens stopped working for CalPERS on July 1, 2020, according to the notice.

A CalPERS investigation determined the Public Health Department never issued Owens a contact tracing assignment.

Owens misled his boss by alluding to a potential assignment in Los Angeles County and repeatedly did not respond when CalPERS managers asked him for details about his contact tracing work, CalPERS alleged in the notice.

Yet he kept submitting time sheets, according to the notice.

Owens has appealed the discipline to the State Personnel Board and is scheduled for a hearing Monday at 9 a.m. When state employees file appeals with the board, some of their disciplinary records become public.

Owens did not respond to a voicemail or a text. His attorney in the case, Will Yamada, didn’t respond to a voicemail.

Claimed contact tracers did not get assignments

In January 2021, after months of attempts to get more information regarding his contact tracing assignment from Owens, a CalPERS manager informed him he had four options: He could provide the requested information by Jan. 29, immediately return to work at CalPERS, resign or retire.

Owens responded with an email saying, “during this pandemic, I have been working 7 days a week, supporting state employees who have been affected by COVID. I volunteered for the contact tracing assignment and I am certified. CDPH has not responded to me,” according to a statement filed as part of his appeal.

He said in another email that “many other contact tracers” also had not received assignments.

CalPERS spokesman Wayne Davis, while declining to discuss specifics of Owens’ case, said the pension system hasn’t disciplined any of its other employees over contract tracing assignments.

Owens returned to work Jan. 29. His manager told him CalPERS wouldn’t pay him for the weeks in January he wasn’t working, and he used personal leave to cover the unpaid time.

Owens requested the Personnel Board throw out the case based on a double jeopardy claim, saying his loss of pay in January — which he said took place without due process — constituted discipline. His argument cited a State Personnel Board precedent that employees cannot be disciplined twice by their employer for the same misconduct.

CalPERS argued the January pay suspension wasn’t disciplinary, the system just declined pay for work that wasn’t performed.

Administrative Law Judge Mark Kruger denied Owens’ dismissal request.

VP at California union

Owens has also claimed CalPERS is retaliating and discriminating against him for his union activities.

Owens was one of three vice presidents elected in May 2018 after campaigning on a platform of transparency and change at the union, which represents about 100,000 state employees ranging from office workers to prison nurses and inspectors.

The trio defeated allies of longtime president Yvonne Walker. Walker won re-election that year, and then clashed with her over their roles within the organization. In December 2019, the union’s board of directors voted to reduce union leave for the three vice presidents from full-time to one week per month.

Union leave allows state employees to stay employed and accrue state benefits while working on union activities. Unions reimburse the state at 135% of employees’ compensation for the time.

Owens was eligible for one week’s worth of union leave per month during the second half of 2020, but he didn’t report union leave hours on his time sheet, according to CalPERS’ discipline notice.

That failure constituted another instance of fraud and delayed CalPERS’ efforts to seek timely repayment from Local 1000 for the time, according to the notice.