California treasurer often shared hotel rooms with employees

California state Treasurer Fiona Ma repeatedly shared hotel rooms with employees, a practice she says saved money but that business experts contend crosses an ethical line and can lead to lawsuits like one Ma now faces, the Sacramento Bee reported Tuesday.

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 are without merit.

Records obtained by the Bee show Ma shared a hotel room with her chief of staff, Genevieve Jopanda, 13 times over two years. She also stayed with four other aides at a three-bedroom property on a trip. There’s no policy in the state’s human resources manual on whether managers and staff can share hotel rooms.

Ma said her work as state treasurer frequently requires her and aides to travel across the state and that the hotel rooms were shared to save money.

"Travel arrangements are made to maximize efficiency and minimize costs consistent with all ethical and legal requirements," Ma said in the statement. Jopanda gave a nearly identical statement to the Bee.

Several business experts said it’s a questionable practice for managers to share rooms with subordinates, who may feel pressured to say yes even if they are uncomfortable about doing so.

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"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," Laura Kray, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Haas School of Business told the Bee. "Because of the power dynamic, I don’t think people would feel free to say no, and would worry about retaliation."

Ma, a Democrat, was elected state treasurer in 2018. The treasurer manages state investments, serves on the board of its pension funds and oversees programs that provide tax credits for affordable housing and financing for public works projects. She was previously elected as a member of the Board of Equalization and the state Assembly.

Blackwell’s lawsuit alleged that Ma exposed her backside and crawled into bed with her while the two shared lodging during a May 2020 trip, and that she gave Blackwell gifts including jewelry and edible marijuana, the Bee reported. Blackwell no longer works for the state and her lawsuit also alleged racial discrimination and wrongful termination.

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The lawsuit said Blackwell "felt her employment was contingent on her accepted Defendant Ma’s sexual advances" and that she lost her job for rejecting them.

Blackwell’s lawyer, Waukeen McCoy, said she was fired in January, the Bee reported. Her termination 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 extra tasks that often kept her at work late, Blackwell’s lawsuit said. Blackwell, who is Black, alleges she was replaced by a less qualified white woman.

"I am not commenting on the pending litigation other than to say that Ms. Blackwell’s claims are without merit and I look forward to prevailing in court," Ma said in a statement Tuesday to the Associated Press.