CHRB Whistle Blower Sues Agency

Former director of information services seeks damages for alleged retaliation.

A former director of the California Horse Racing Board's information management services has filed a lawsuit against the agency claiming emotional and physical distress as the result of retaliation for his whistle-blowing activities.

Mory Atashkar, 63, employed at the CHRB's Sacramento office from 1994 through July 23, 2007, is seeking total damages of $5 million. Besides the CHRB, listed in the complaint as individual defendants were Richard Shapiro, who was board chairman at the time, former executive director Ingrid Fermin, and former assistant executive director Richard Bon Smith.

His action, filed April 26 in Sacramento County Superior Court, alleges that his right to protection against retaliation under California's "Whistleblower Protection Act" was violated.

The CHRB declined to comment on the lawsuit.

"We have referred the matter to the office of the state attorney general for adjudication," said Robert Miller, agency counsel.

At the time of his resignation, Atashkar was paid about $70,000 annually for his services, he said in an interview May 3. In his role as the manager of information services, he said he was the CHRB's "custodian of documents" and was privy to the transfer of sensitive electronic data and computer activity within the CHRB network.

"I have done nothing wrong," said the Iranian-born Atashkar. "All I want is justice."

During his time with the agency, Atashkar was best known for developing digital photo and fingerprinting systems that greatly enhanced the efficiency and accuracy of the CHRB's licensing process. Before that, he won the CHRB's "Winner's Circle Award" in 2001 in recognition of his special contributions.

According to his lawsuit, Atashkar's problems began in 2006 when he informed Fermin of illegal computer activity by Roy Minami, who was then the agency's assistant executive director. Minami eventually resigned and was replaced by Smith, whom Atashkar also alleges used the CHRB system for “problematic email.”

He said his initial complaints to Fermin went nowhere.

"I was very naive," he said. "I didn't know who my friends were."

Beginning in July 2006, Atashkar alleged he became aware of improper activities by Fermin, Shapiro and others, including "misappropriation of taxpayer funds by CHRB executives; backdating of contracts in favor of friends of CHRB executives; the illegal collection of funds for the benefit of Shapiro and Fermin; pornography and inappropriate video stored in CHRB computer system."

He claimed, in an interview, that he has the documentation to prove that Fermin and Shapiro misused the testing system for Total Carbon Dioxide (TCO2), known as "green sheets," to target individual trainers for prosecution. They also used insider information to warn favored trainers of upcoming tests for particular medications, he charged, and circumvented state hiring practices to employ trainer Darrell Vienna as a board consultant and Dr. Rick Arthur as the CHRB's equine medical director.

Once the defendants were informed of his charges, Atashkar said hostility on the job forced him to take an illness leave in late 2006, In February 2007 he and Frank Moore, then the CHRB's head of investigation, took Atashkar's allegations to the California Highway Patrol. As a result of that, he contends in the lawsuit, Fermin, Shapiro and Smith "began a campaign of retaliation." 

The harassment forced him to seek emergency hospitalization in May 2007, according to the complaint. Under medication, he returned to working from home in nearby Folsom. He later filed a retaliation complaint with the State Personnel Board and similar job-related harassment actions with other agencies.

On July 23, 2007, the suit alleges "two armed investigators" came to his home with a letter -- but no search warrant -- demanding he allow them to seize his "computer equipment, his employment identification card, office key, telephone and pager, and revoked (his) access to the CHRB (computer) network."

He was barred from entering the CHRB main office as well. He resigned the following day.

Atashkar, whose complaints with the SPB and others were turned down, said he "cannot work due to my illness." He's broke, he said, and as a result filed his court action in pro per. He said the attorneys he spoke to were unwilling to take the case on contingency.

"It doesn't matter if I have a lawyer," he said. "I just want someone to hear me."