Whistleblower paid a price for reporting theft

Jan 26

From the Davis Enterprise.

By Cory Golden | Enterprise staff writer | January 26, 2011 08:53

Beverly Benford was a dream to work with.

It turned out, though, that even as she charmed her UC Davis co-workers and anticipated her boss’ every whim, she stole money from a program teaching nutrition to thousands of the state’s poor.

‘She was a model employee,’ Amy Block Joy, under whom Benford worked in the Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program, said Monday.

‘I would have never said to myself, ‘My goodness, she’s very prompt at getting things; she’s efficient; she gives me reports; she flatters me; she’s by my side; she comes to my defense – oh, she must be embezzling.’

‘It was the biggest shock. I still have nightmares about finding that (first invoice from Fry’s Electronics).’

In 2006, Block Joy reported fraud and mismanagement that led eventually to the indictment by a federal grand jury of Benford, the food stamp program’s administrator.

Now Block Joy, the 58-year-old founding director of that program, has written a memoir, ‘Whistleblower,’ detailing her side of the story and the emotional toll it exacted.

In it, she accuses the chair of the department that housed the program of covering up Benford’s embezzlement and benefiting from money funneled from it to his own research projects.

When Block Joy went to the chair about a $150,000 change in her budget – which led to the discovery of Benford’s purchase of a DVD camcorder from Fry’s, for her personal use – Block Joy describes the chair as waving the incident away as a mistake.

‘Happens all the time,’ she quotes the chair as saying. ‘No big deal.’

Names changed

Block Joy changed the names of almost all of those involved in her book. ‘Raymond Savage’ she calls chairman. In reality, the department of nutrition chair from 1993 until 2006 was Carl Keen, who remains a professor at UCD.

Block Joy writes that his successor as chair stifled attempts to have Benford investigated, and that he and others took part in a smear campaign against her.

In June 2010, Block Joy settled a complaint of whistleblower retaliation with UCD. She now works as a Cooperative Extension specialist and teaches a freshman class called ‘Eating Green.’

UCD declined again this week to say whether Keen or others were punished in any way for their involvement with Benford or in any retaliation against Block Joy. She said she’d never been told by the university what consequences others faced.

Keen did not respond to a reporter’s request for comment.

Block Joy also notes that some characters are composites of colleagues whose identities she wished to protect. She said she changed names because she didn’t have the permission of those involved to use their identities, but that she stands by her version of events.

She describes herself as something of a document pack rat, even now keeping 60 boxes of related files in her Berkeley home. She has made a habit of taking ‘copious’ notes in meetings for years and claims to have never deleted a work-related e-mail.

‘I’m very confident about all the conversations,’ she said. ‘There’s very little in here that I can’t actually produce a document for, in writing.’

Benford wrote a letter of apology about the camcorder purchase and offered to pay back the university. Soon, though, more and more misdeeds came to light.

They included billing $22,674 for 254 apparently fictitious trips and $2,278 for five out-of-state trips that were personal, not professional, and more than $121,000 in fraudulent or ‘likely fraudulent’ equipment purchases. Another $11,497 went to refurbish a conference room unused by the food stamp program.

The audits and investigation found that a collaborative project known as the ‘Fish Project,’ which was budgeted for $250,000 in federal funds for supplies, had its funding increased to about $930,000.

Block Joy learned that another of her employees had approached the department chair about Benford’s questionable travel expenses, only to resign after being rebuffed.

Benford managed to hide some of what she was doing – and anticipate her boss’ needs – in part because she’d managed to gain access to Block Joy’s e-mail account, she writes.

She later discovered Benford apparently had gone so far as to keep for herself a $250 Target gift card that colleagues had chipped in to buy for a colleague’s baby shower.


In January 2009, Benford, by then 67 years old, pleaded guilty to one count of theft of government property. She was sentenced to pay restitution and serve a one-year prison term.

UCD auditors identified about $600,000 in fraud and unallowable costs. They also identified thousands of dollars in improperly documented payroll expenses.

The California Department of Social Services withheld $2.3 million in expenses by UCD and the participating county offices as a response to fraud, unallowable costs and deficient record-keeping, according to UCD.

Along with the rumors spread about her mental health and whether she, too, had stolen from the program, Block Joy had mail taken from her campus mail box; was not invited to meetings and her e-mails went unanswered, even though she remained director of the program; and her car was vandalized.

Some colleagues stopped speaking to her altogether. A petition circulated calling for her removal as head of the program.

After being rushed to the hospital with an irregular heartbeat, Block Joy, who had been asked to stay silent during the investigation, chose to step down.

UCD settled with her for $89,611. It reached a separate agreement with her about her new position, paying her $667,699 in salary and benefits for the years 2008 to 2011 and $25,000 in start-up costs for her new position.


Block Joy said she struggled for a long while about her own responsibility in what happened: ‘Should a principal investigator of a grant look for criminal behavior? Is that part of the job? I don’t know. I wonder if I missed it and I should have seen it.’

She clipped out news articles about embezzlement cases, trying to make sense of how she misjudged a woman whom she believed to be her friend.

‘What I started seeing was a pattern of employees given ’employee of the year’ awards and people saying, ‘Gee, I didn’t expect this to happen, she was so nice.’ Or, ‘He was such great employee.’ ‘

Block Joy was investigated twice, first after Benford filed her own whistleblower complaint, then as a result of the inquiry into Benford’s actions.

Block Joy admits only that she once signed her name to blank documents in case action needed to be taken while she was on a vacation. Though she writes that it was common practice, doing so nagged at her and she never did it again.

Earlier this month, in an unrelated case, Jennfer Beeman, the 53-year-old former director of the UCD Campus Violence Prevention Program, pleaded not guilty to embezzling thousands of dollars from several of the program’s accounts.

In contrast to what she describes the department chair ‘Raymond Savage’ as saying in her memoir, Block Joy believes such behavior is not at all commonplace, especially now.

‘People are watching dimes and nickels much more carefully,’ Block Joy said. ‘I think there’s all sorts of reasons. One, every dollar counts and they’re hard come by. Another reason is the news reporting – when these things happen, it’s embarrassing (to the university). And funders read it, and they say, ‘Are you guys watching my money?’

‘There’s pressure all over the place. So I think things are better now.’

The food stamp nutrition program has continued on, under new leadership and, according to UCD, much greater scrutiny.

Positive response

Block Joy said she told almost no one that she was writing the book, which she started during a four-month ‘no fault’ administrative leave. Since it was published in December, she said, the response on campus has been mostly positive.

People who had stopped talking to her have written to say they were sorry about how things played out or to ask her to lunch, she said.

‘I’m getting e-mails from characters from the book – people who recognize themselves and then sign the e-mail with the name of the character.’

Block Joy said she wrote the book partly as a sort of cautionary tale.

‘Because I was director of the program, because I was an academic, because I worked for the university for 28 years and I had a completely clean record, I thought I would be protected,’ she said. ‘The fact that I wasn’t – that I was a victim of retaliation – was a real surprise.

‘I think the average person ought to know that they’re going to be isolated, they’re going to be retaliated against, and so they need to prepare themselves. They need to have documentation. Otherwise they should report it anonymously or to someone they trust. But they should never turn their back on it.’

In a statement, Wendi Delmendo, the ‘locally designated official’ responsible for reviewing whistleblower and retaliation complaints, said the university ‘encourages anyone who suspects that a UC Davis employee is engaged in unethical behavior that constitutes an improper governmental activity to report their concerns.’

– Reach Cory Golden at cgolden@davisenterprise.net or (530) 747-8046. Track him at http://twitter.com/cory_golden

Meet the author
What: Author Amy Block Joy, discussing her memoir, ‘Whistleblower’
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: The Avid Reader bookstore, 617 Second St., Davis

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