Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, inspector general Harriet Richardson resigned March 3 after the BART board of directors, BART general manager and employee union SEIU local 1021 allegedly obstructed her ability to carry out her duty of conducting independent oversight.
Richardson said she’d been thinking about resigning since Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed SB 1488 in August 2022, a bill that would’ve clarified her role in the Office of the Inspector General, or OIG, after previous failures to establish a charter defining her role.
As inspector general, she conducted investigations, reviewed the work of other employees and scheduled meetings with BART management.
SB1488 was opposed by BART because it did not represent the “rights of employees,” according to Rebecca Saltzman, a member of the BART board of directors.
“I think there are some directors that don’t understand the role of an inspector general and what it means … they really don’t get the concept of independence,” Richardson said.
Richardson claimed that she had once brought BART management a list of functional areas in which to assess risk, but they returned it highlighted in different colors indicating what she could and could not investigate, prompting Richardson to draft a charter to clarify the role of the inspector general. However, getting the charter approved would prove to be a Herculean task, according to Richardson, as several parties kept objecting to it.
A 2021-2022 Alameda County Grand Jury report found that BART’s board and general manager also allegedly hampered the approval of the charter, leading to confusion in the organization about the independent nature of the OIG’s role.
BART Director Debora Allen expressed agreement with this sentiment.
“I, along with Directors McPartland and Ames, advocated fiercely in support of the Inspector General’s attempts to bring accountability and transparency to BART, but our efforts were often opposed or ignored by other board members and within the ranks of senior management,” Allen said in an email.
The Board responded to the finding with disagreement, alleging that they had suggested improvements to the charter that had not yet been implemented to the satisfaction of labor unions.
An updated charter had not been brought before the board for approval since.
“What BART said in its response to the grand jury report about unions is just contradictory,” Richardson said. “They really do care more about what the unions think than what the inspector general’s role is supposed to be.”
One of Richardson’s concerns was that SEIU Local 1021’s president asked all meetings with employees be scheduled through him and demanded witness lists for each investigation. These concessions would have taken away the ability for the OIG to ensure confidentiality for witnesses and to satisfy whistleblower protection rights, Richardson noted.
Saltzman noted that the labor unions do not have a direct role in the inspector general’s investigations. However, she said that the union has a responsibility to represent their employees, who have the right to be represented.
“If (employees) don’t have the ability to meet with us in confidence, they often don’t want to meet with us,” Richardson said. “It makes it hard to do an investigation when unions want the amount of information they want upfront.”
Richardson also allegedly faced institutional barriers that impeded her work.
Allen alleged in the email statement that Richardson was “insulted and bullied” by a sitting board director, and that others worked behind closed doors to “discredit” and “derail” her work.
In addition to facing workplace scrutiny, Richardson claimed she worked about 60 hours a week on a staff of just three. The lack of funding and small staff meant that the OIG couldn’t successfully perform their own audits.
“There’s just not the time of the day to get through the number of abuse investigations we have,” said Claudette Biemeret, the BART assistant inspector general. “Those are time consuming. We want to get everything correct and take our time reviewing evidence. It leaves us no time to do audits — we have to outsource those, but the budget is so small, we can’t even do that.”
The OIG functions on an annual budget of one million dollars, the minimum allocation set by Measure 3, the Bay Area Traffic Relief Plan passed in 2018, which established BART’s OIG and stipulated its funding by toll revenue from the Bay Area Toll Authority, or BATA.
Richardson said it’s not enough and that the board refuses to fund it beyond what BATA provides. However, Saltzman claimed that BART doesn’t have sufficient funds to allocate more to the OIG, as a fiscal cliff looms for BART, and that the board is advocating for more funding from the state and BATA to make up the shortfall.
“This funding structure is very unusual,” Richardson said. “OIGs are funded by their own agencies. Independence comes in how you do your work, not the funding.”
The grand jury’s report also noted that the inspector general does not have access to national best practice standards such as independent counsel, administrative staff and records storage systems.
Richardson expressed hope that, going forward, the OIG would be allowed to work independently and would have enough funding to successfully fulfill its duties.
“I do have to say I have a great team, even though there’s only three of us,” Richardson said. “Even despite (everything), we’ve managed to get a lot of work done. But it’s been really frustrating for the board not to take effort to really learn what an inspector general’s function is.”