Sunday, February 5, 2012

Ex-RTD workers win $1.16M verdict for assisting grand jury probe

By Zachary K. Johnson
Record Staff Writer
February 04, 2012 12:00 AM

STOCKTON - A jury returned a $1.16 million verdict Friday in a lawsuit brought by three former transit employees who said they were fired because they helped a grand jury investigate allegations of wrongdoing.

The case centered around Bobby Kuhn, the former director of maintenance at San Joaquin Regional Transit District. Kuhn testified before a civil grand jury that released a critical report of the transit agency.

But before the report was released in June 2008, Kuhn had told others at the district he'd been called to testify. He said that, after that, he was harassed at work before ultimately losing his job.

"The law protects whistle-blowers, and that's what Bobby Kuhn was," said Jeffrey Fulton, the attorney representing Kuhn and two other former employees.

Kari Wilson, former director of business analysis, and Stacy Douglas, former maintenance analyst, didn't testify before the investigating jury four years ago, but they did provide documents about consultants used by the district and a police car bought by the district, according to the lawsuit.

The 2008 grand jury report found the district bought a police car it couldn't use and criticized the transit district's use of consultants, including contracting with one with an apparent conflict of interest during negotiations with another contractor. The grand jury also found the transit district misused credit cards and followed improper procurement procedures.

The transit district in 2008 gave a response to all the issues raised by the grand jury, and it defended how it used consultants. The district agreed there was an "appearance" of a conflict of interest with one consultant, but that did not have a negative impact. RTD partners with local police departments and its response noted it could recoup the costs by selling the police car.

On Friday, the jury in the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Barbara Kronlund was unanimous in finding that Kuhn's testimony was a "contributing factor" in his firing. The jury was less certain about Wilson and Douglas, voting 9-3 that the role they played contributed to their termination. Since this was a civil case, not a criminal one, the jury did not need to be unanimous.

The transit district had denied from the start that the grand jury investigation had anything to do with the elimination of the three jobs. In court documents and in the courtroom, officials said the struggling economy and unprecedented loss of state and local revenue required a leaner budget and the laying off of employees. The district had noted it laid off more employees than just the three who filed the lawsuit.

But Friday's verdict was not the final chapter. There are a number of post-trial motions pending before the court, said Albert Ellis, the attorney representing RTD. "This case is obviously not yet concluded," he said.

The jury awarded different amounts to each of the former employees, based on their individual loss of salary and benefits dating to the time they were terminated in 2008.

"It's been a long, hard road," said Kuhn after the verdict on Friday.

Contact reporter Zachary K. Johnson at (209) 546-8258 or Visit his blog at

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