Gail Fry | Voice
According to court documents obtained and interviews by the IE Voice / Black Voice News, a federal jury awarded a $2.5 million judgment after finding a whistleblower—former San Bernardino County employee, Eric Bahra—warned the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department as well as Children and Family Services, of a “systemic failure” resulting in a total of 59 foster children being placed in the home of a known abuser.
As a result of whistleblower Eric Bahra reporting this fact to his superiors, he was terminated.
Bahra, through his attorneys, Valerie Ross, Charles A. Bonner, and A. Cabral Bonner filed his first complaint in the United States District Court (USDC) in August of 2016. In the complaint he declared violations of his first amendment rights, retaliation, wrongful termination, violation of privacy, and defamation by Defendants, the County of San Bernardino, San Bernardino County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and its employees, Kristine Burgamy and Nickola Hackett (County, et al.).
In June 2013, Bahra, a DCFS social services practitioner, alleges he was assigned to a joint investigation by DCFS and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department (SBCSD) concerning the sexual abuse of children by foster parent, Leonardo Rodriguez.
According to Bahra, SBCSD Detective Michelle Brand requested he investigate how many foster children were involved. He discovered the welfare system’s computer database contained inaccuracies that allowed the repeated placement of children into the home of Rodriguez, a known abuser. Bahra believes this resulted in a total of 59 foster children being placed in the home of Rodriguez, despite his license to operate a foster care home being revoked.
Attorney Bonner said Bahra provided a list of the potentially abused children to SBCSD Detective Michelle Brand and as a result, was accused by DCFS of breaching confidentiality.
By law, DCFS is to report abuse to law enforcement, however, DCFS demanded SBCSD return the list because it was purportedly obtained using improper protocol.
Then Bahra advised Burgamy and Hackett, his immediate supervisors, of his discovery and advised them that SBCSD had yet to be notified.
Burgamy and Hackett purportedly expressed relief [SBCSD was not notified], ordered Bahra to stop investigating, turn over his investigative documents to them and destroy any digital documents. Bahra claims the next day, he discovered Burgamy and Hackett rifling through his desk.
On July 11, 2013, Bahra alleges he was assigned to a report of a dead, nine-month-old infant in the care of his parents and went to the home accompanied by DCFS Social Worker Melissa Pena to investigate.
Doctors confirmed the other children in the home had what appeared to be ligature marks, burn marks, bruises, and lacerations. Bahra recommended the four siblings, all toddlers, be removed from their parents, and another social worker, Mary Anne Whitehall, confirmed Bahra’s findings, thereby supporting his recommendation.
According to Bahra, DCFS used this new separate complaint of abuse he investigated and turned it against him to harm his credibility. Whitehall was removed from the case and instructed not to discuss it with anyone.
In the Dependency Court, where the fate of the abused children would be decided, Burgamy and County Counsel Beth Steigerwalt told the court that Bahra lied on his report, and recommended the case be sealed and a new trial granted. DCFS recommended the abused children be returned to their parents. Whitehall was later placed on administrative leave and resigned.
Bahra, Pena and Whitehall filed documents with the Dependency Court, all testifying that DCFS’ claims discrediting Bahra’s investigation were false and not to be believed. Bahra, Pena and Whitehall all testified the children were being abused by the parents and should be removed from their care.
Subsequently, Bahra explained, the County, et al. brought 12 charges of misconduct against him to where he was placed on paid administrative leave, setting the stage for his termination on August 18, 2015.
The County, et al. filed multiple challenges to Bahra’s complaint, including a motion to dismiss on the pleadings, challenging the sufficiency of Bahra’s pleadings as to his causes of action for violation of his first amendment rights, retaliation, wrongful termination, violation of privacy and defamation.
In a January 26, 2018 Order, USDC Judge Jesus Bernal found in favor of the majority of the Defendant’s legal challenges and gave Bahra an opportunity to amend his complaint.
On April 10, 2018, Defendants, the County of San Bernardino, San Bernardino County Department of Children and Family Services, and its employees Kristine Burgamy and Nickola Hackett filed a Motion for Summary Judgment (MSJ).
An MSJ asks the Court to dismiss the case based on facts and evidence that are iron-clad, not subject to dispute. The County, et al. based their MSJ on the grounds that Bahra’s claims regarding retaliation were eliminated when the County held its administrative hearing on his employment termination.
Bahra argued that he did not have a full and fair opportunity to fully argue his claims, including allegations that DCFS altered photographic evidence, required to have a full and fair trial. Therefore, Bahra reasoned his claims of retaliation were still viable and could be considered by the court.
On May 17, 2018, USDC Judge Bernal granted the County, et al. an MSJ finding that Bahra had an adequate opportunity to litigate his claims for whistleblower retaliation at his administrative hearing, citing 14 days of hearings, 27 witnesses, and 2,405 pages of testimony and the fact that Bahra did not seek review of the Order of Dismissal.
As to the altered photographs, Judge Bernal cited, “the hearing officer concluded the photograph did not exist based on the ‘exhaustive forensic search of the computer and cell phones.”
Seeking relief from a higher court
Bahra appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
In a December 30, 2019 opinion, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Bahra with regard to his claims of whistleblower retaliation and ruled against Bahra regarding his claims of retaliation for exercising his right to free speech under the First Amendment.
On March 6, 2020, the County, et al. filed a motion for the court to reconsider its Motion for Summary Judgement as to Bahra’s claims for whistleblower retaliation. On April 22, 2020,
Judge Bernal denied the County, et al’s motion.
The court rules
The trial, which began on July 6, 2021, examined whether Bahra reported a systemic failure that resulted in children being placed in the home of a known abuser, whether he had a reason to believe there were violations of the law, whether his disclosure was a contributing factor to his termination, whether the County, et al.’s conduct harmed Bahra and whether the County, et al. proved beyond clear and convincing evidence that Bahra’s termination was legitimate.
On July 15, a jury found in favor of Bahra awarding him $503,093 for his economic losses and $2 million for his noneconomic losses including mental and emotional pain and suffering totaling a judgment of $2,503,093. The County, et al. have 60 days to appeal the jury verdict.
Bahra’s attorney speaks
In an interview with the IE Voice /Black Voice News, one of Bahra’s attorneys, Charles Bonner (Bonner), described an interview of one of the young female victims of foster parent and alleged abuser, Rodriguez, where the little girl, through her tears, described her molestation, and the taking and collecting of photos by Rodriguez, including her own, depicting the molestation of numerous children. Bahra and SBCSD Detective Michelle Brand witnessed the interview and Brand requested a list of victims.
Bonner detailed how after Bahra identified the foster children placed in the home of Rodriguez from the DCFS files and prepared his investigation report, Bahra’s name was removed from the DCFS investigation file and report. Instead, the investigation file reflected DCFS social worker Melissa Pena as the investigator. Pena testified otherwise.
Bonner attributed the repeated placement of foster children into the home of a known child molester whose license had been revoked, as a systemic failure of the department. Bonner explained that Bahra discovered human negligence where DCFS employees failed in their duty to monitor these children or to pay attention to detail resulting in Rodriguez’s name being misspelled and other inaccuracies in the DCFS system.
When the State of California takes a child away from a family, Bonner advised, it has a higher-duty of care to that child, to keep that child safe and free from harm–a higher duty than a child’s parents.
Bonner accused San Bernardino County’s presentation of the case to the court as outright fraud, revealing that there had been 11 anonymous reports of molestation made to the department regarding this foster home, seven of them substantiated. Instead of locating and assisting the victims and prosecuting the perpetrator, Rodriguez–whom Bonner described as a serial moleste– the County went into protective mode and attacked Bahra, Bonner explained.
“They didn’t want the world to know that these managers, for 15 years, had been placing these vulnerable children in the home of a known molester and that indeed these children had been molested,” Bonner voiced.
Bonner expressed concern that Rodriguez is still out there molesting other children as he was never prosecuted and his victims are still out there living with the pain of having been molested. Victims should be encouraged to come forward to authorities and seek legal advice as to their rights and potential claims against the county.
Attorney Jack Anthony represented five of the victims, foster children placed in Rodriguez’s home, and was able to obtain a good settlement for the children from the County of San Bernardino noting that Bahra’s allegations, which Anthony described as accurate, helped establish that the county had notice that a foster parent had a history of neglecting and mistreating foster children.
Former San Bernardino County DCFS Social Worker Mary Ann Whitehall, who resigned from DCFS, retained counsel and has a pending lawsuit against the county claiming whistleblower liability and retaliation. Whitehall alleges she had disclosed to the court how DCFS, in utter disregard for the safety and well-being of the dead baby’s surviving siblings, had intentionally perpetrated a fraud upon the court in this case, an apparent effort to discredit another social worker (Bahra) and how six days later, she was placed on administrative leave.
A trial is scheduled in this case for October 25, before Judge Brian Foster at the San Bernardino Justice Center.