She is the second former SamTrans employee to question the agency's accounting procedures.
Ling La, who sued Wednesday in U.S. District Court, worked for SamTrans between May 2011 and July 2013 as a senior accountant. She names as defendants the San Mateo County Transit District, SamTrans CEO Michael Scanlon and her former supervisor Sheila Tioyao.
"If you stand up and do the right thing, you're supposed to be rewarded in our culture," said La's attorney, Dow Patten. "She's suffered a lot from it."
SamTrans Communications Manager Jayme Ackemann said she couldn't comment on La's allegations, citing the pending litigation. But she did provide a copy of the investigative findings into La's complaint, completed in May.
According to the suit, La was transferred in February 2012 to SamTrans' general ledger/accounts payable division. In August of that year she began to "notice a pattern of irregularly high freight charges" on invoices coming from the agency's parts and inventory department and "began to suspect collusion between the buyer and the parts vendor."
La asked questions about the accounting process and started requiring vendors to provide freight invoices to support the charges. Around Nov. 20, Tioyao sent La a memo reprimanding her for using an "inappropriate tone" toward other SamTrans employees. La was similarly admonished each time she "identified a non-compliant accounting practice," the suit states.
Around Dec. 10, La filed complaints with Human Resources Director Monica Colondres against Tioyao and one of the agency's buyers, stating that she was being retaliated against as a whistleblower, the suit states.
On Feb. 4, 2013, Tioyao asked La to submit a "fraudulent journal entry" by categorizing an expense that occurred in fiscal year 2013 as having taken place in fiscal year 2011, the suit states. La complied but told her boss that was "wrong and went against Generally Accepted Accounting Principles." About five weeks later, on March 25, Tioyao gave La a negative performance review and put her on a six-month probation.
La met with Colondres on April 9 and said that Tioyao, Director of Finance Rima Lobo and Deputy Finance and Administration CEO Gigi Harrington were involved in the invoicing and accounting irregularities, the suit states.
In May, Colondres gave La a copy of an investigation into her Dec. 10 complaint that found no wrongdoing by either the buyer or Tioyao.
In June, La reached out to Scanlon, but he sent her an email telling her to speak with Colondres about her concerns. On July 2, she contacted San Mateo County's whistle-blowing hotline and was transferred to the office of county Supervisor Carole Groom. The next day, Groom told La that she had spoken with SamTrans management and her complaint needed to go through human resources, the suit states. At the time, Groom headed SamTrans' board of directors.
"Frustrated," La approached an NBC investigative reporter. She also sent an email to the county controller's office, civil grand jury and members of the Board of Supervisors to complain about her experience as a whistleblower, the suit states.
On July 31, SamTrans sent La a notice saying she was being terminated.
While the transactions that La flagged as irregular were not large, the way her concerns were dismissed was troubling, Patten said.
"If they're treating even the small stuff in this fashion, how are they treating the bigger stuff?" he said.
According to Allison West of Employment Practices Specialists, the Pacifica firm hired to investigate the complaint, while some freight prices were high -- a $2.10 purchase of six screws came with a $65.88 truck delivery charge -- the tab was justified if it helped get a bus back into service.
West also concluded that La's interactions with vendors created "tension" and that she was disciplined for her "harsh and inappropriate" tone, not her whistle-blowing activities.
"I do not find the request" to attend training was in any way retaliatory for coming forward with her concerns about the shipping charges," West wrote.
Patten said that although La's specific accusations are different, her concerns about the agency's accounting practices were similar to those of David Ramires, a former SamTrans accountant who told NBC Bay Area last year that the agency created fake and inflated expenses so money could be secretly set aside. The agency has said its own independent auditors have found nothing illegal with the bookkeeping.
San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said his office is investigating Ramires' accusations as well as those subsequently made by the NBC affiliate. SamTrans officials told Wagstaffe they'll cooperate with the investigation, which he said will be "lengthy."
"A complete forensic audit is necessary," the district attorney wrote in an email Friday.