SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — As millions wait months for missing unemployment checks from the Employment Development Department, some Sacramento politicians are being accused of "playing politics" to keep the Independent State Auditor out of the EDD.
Republican Assemblyman Jim Patterson held a virtual press conference Wednesday where he accused Democratic Senators on the Joint Legislative Audit Committee (JLAC) of purposely forcing the cancellation of an upcoming audit hearing to avoid a public vote on an EDD audit.
Patterson, a member of the JLAC committee that votes to approve or deny independent audits of government agencies, authored an EDD audit request that was scheduled to be voted on during an August 11th hearing.
However, on Monday, the committee learned that the hearing was canceled with no plans to reschedule because Senate Democrats on the committee cited scheduling conflicts. Without them, there would not be a quorum for a vote.
"The Senate is flexing their muscles, apparently, to simply protect themselves from having to vote one way or another on an audit that affects millions of Californians," Patterson said. "And I think they're attempting to protect the administration from being embarrassed. And I think this is a pattern that we've seen over and over again," he added referring to a previous DMV audit request.
While he did accuse Senate Democrats of "playing politics" to protect the Newsom administration, he notes it is not an issue of Democrats versus Republicans. According to Patterson, its Democratic Senators versus both parties in the Assembly.
The Joint Legislative Audit Committee is made up of both Senators and Assemblymembers. Senate Republicans and Assemblymembers from both parties were supportive of holding the hearing, including the JLAC chair, Democratic Assemblymember Rudy Salas.
During the virtual press conference, CBS13 Investigative Reporter Julie Watts asked Patterson to clarify, "Why do you think (just) Senate Democratic senators are opposed to this audit?" "Why is there a difference between the Assembly and the Senate if they are both the governor's party?"
Patterson said, in his opinion, "Members of the Senate are full of themselves." Adding, "They think they're the highest branch of the elected representative and they look down on the assembly."
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However, JLAC committee co-chair, Democratic Senator Richard Roth, dismissed the accusations, stating, "It's simply a scheduling issue."
He points to the shortened legislative season and hundreds of bills the Senate must get through in the next four weeks.
When asked why Assemblymembers and the Republican Senators were able to make time, Roth said, "Well, they have a fraction of the workload in the Assembly that we have facing us in the Senate."
"What about the Republican Senators?" Watts reiterated.
"I have no idea," Roth said.
With or without a hearing, the audit may move forward.
The JLAC Committee Chair, Asm. Salas (D-Bakersfield), said Wednesday that he's hoping to move the audit forward without a vote.
"As Chair, I intend to seek emergency audit authority to have the State Auditor look into at least two pressing matters regarding unemployment insurance (EDD) and personal protective equipment (PPE)" Salas said in a statement.
However, JLAC's rules on emergency requests have a series of stipulations including the stipulation that the Vice-Chair, Roth, must approve the audit in "concurrence" with the chair.
If the EDD audit moves forward, that would total more than 10 EDD audits and investigations in as many years at an agency with a long history of problems and little change at the top.
A bill, introduced as a result of that audit, unanimously passed the Assembly early this year and is awaiting a vote in the Senate.
But now, the agency is facing a slew of new issues.
From millions forced to wait months, not weeks, for their pandemic unemployment, to catastrophic EDD call center failures, the EDD's response to pandemic unemployment has been widely criticized by everyone from the unemployed to lawmakers.
Even after the agency increased its call center staffing to try to meet demand, data obtained by Patterson indicated three-quarters of calls for help went unanswered.
Many of those who are still waiting for payments are dealing with identity verification issues or penalties for past claims.
However, there are a variety of other problems including the costly date errors that EDD representatives blamed on claimants and refused to fix until a CBS13 investigation revealed that EDD staff was likely to blame for the errors.
As a result, the EDD added a new online feature to help expedite fixing the date errors. Weeks later, many are still waiting for their claim dates to be corrected.
Patterson said he's heard from EDD whistleblowers who tell him they are undertrained and are being set up to fail.
"My supervisor told me that I wasn't being judged on whether or not I was helping people but rather my ability to clock in and out on time." one EDD Whistleblower said according to Asm. Patterson.
Every lawmaker we've interviewed on the topic says they support another EDD audit, including the Senate Democrats like JLAC Co-Chair Senator Roth who would need to approve an emergency audit in the absence of a hearing.
"What is your response to the accusation that Senate Democrats are essentially playing politics and trying to kill the audit to protect the administration?" Watts asked.
"I think it's outrageous. And the statement itself is a political statement," Roth said.
CBS13 asked the governor if he would support an EDD audit.
Representatives from the governor's office did not respond to our questions, but they did issue a press release Wednesday afternoon announcing a new EDD strike team to be headed by Government Operations Agency.
According to the press release, they will be tasked with creating a "blueprint for improvements at EDD, including a reimagining of their technology systems" and it said, "EDD will begin addressing the backlog of unpaid claims by streamlining communications with consumers."
In response, Assemblyman Patterson said in a statement Wednesday, "Governor Newsom has become notorious for his words - not his actions. It's our responsibility in the Legislature to not only hold the EDD accountable but the governor as well. I will continue to do both on behalf of the people of California."
This governor's strike team announcement comes on the eve of an EDD hearing Thursday, where lawmakers are expected to ask tough questions, similar to those typically asked during an audit hearing.
Governor Gavin Newsom and California Labor Secretary Julie Su have commended the agency for paying more than 4 million people nearly $50 billion since March.
Though, the EDD will not say how many of those people have been paid all of their eligible weeks. Many tell us they only received a few of their payments, while others have not received any payments at all.
The EDD tells CBS13 it does not track how many of the 8.7 million claims filed since March have been approved, how many have been denied and how many have actually received all of their eligible payments.
While the governor's press release referenced "almost 1 million claims that may be eligible for payment with additional information," lawmakers estimate the number of Californians waiting for unemployment payments is much higher.
That missing data is among the many topics expected to be raised at Thursday's hearing.
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