California Treasurer Fiona Ma has repeatedly shared hotel rooms with employees, a practice she says saved money, but which business experts say crosses the line. ethical line and can lead to lawsuits like the ones a Ma is currently facing, 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 were baseless.
Records achieved by the show Bee Ma has shared a hotel room with her chief of staff, Geneviève Jopanda, 13 times in two years. She also stayed with four other aides in a three-bedroom property while on a trip. There is no policy in the state human resources manual indicating whether managers and staff can share hotel rooms.
Ma said his job as state treasurer frequently required him and his aides to travel across the state, and hotel rooms were shared to save money.
“Travel arrangements are made to maximize efficiency and minimize costs in accordance with all ethical and legal requirements,” Ma said in the statement. Jopanda made an almost identical statement to the Bee.
Several business experts have said it’s a questionable practice for managers to share rooms with subordinates, who may feel pressured to say yes even if they’re uncomfortable doing so.
“It crosses borders and puts subordinates in a very difficult position to say no, even in the most innocent cases where we’re just trying to save money,” University of California, Berkeley professor Laura Kray , Haas School of Business told the bee. “Because of the power dynamics, I don’t think people would feel free to say no and worry about retaliation.”
Ma, a Democrat, was elected state treasurer in 2018. The treasurer manages the state’s investments, serves on the board of its pension funds, and oversees programs that provide tax credits for the affordable housing and funding for public works projects. She was previously elected as a member of the Equalization Board and the State Assembly.
Blackwell’s lawsuit alleged that Ma exposed her back and crawled into bed with her while the two shared accommodation on a trip in May 2020, 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.
The lawsuit said that Blackwell “believed that her employment depended on accepting sexual advances from defendant Ma” and that she lost her job for rejecting them.
Blackwell’s attorney, Waukeen McCoy, said she was fired in January, the Bee reported. Her dismissal came after Blackwell suffered a stroke in September 2020 which put her out of work for two months. When she returned to work, she was given additional duties that often kept her at work late, according to Blackwell’s lawsuit. Blackwell, who is black, alleges she was replaced by a less qualified white woman.
“I do not comment on the ongoing litigation except 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.