In August 2006, UC Davis nutritionist Amy Block Joy officially became a whistleblower, alerting campus officials to what she believed were fraudulent activities within the UC Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program, at that time administered through the UC Davis Department of Nutrition.
Her decision to report the suspected irregularities set off a string of events that eventually would reveal $2.3 million in misused state and federal funds, result in the conviction of a former nutrition department staffer for embezzlement, and prompt major procedural changes in the program’s financial oversight. And it would lead Block Joy to record her experience in a book: Whistleblower.
Written partially in the “roman a clef” novel style, in which the identities of many real people and the specifics of actual events are disguised, Block Joy's book also describes snubbing and other inappropriate reactions on the part of some of her colleagues at the time. UC Davis investigated those issues as well, determined that Block Joy did experience retaliation in response to her whistleblowing, and in 2010 reached a settlement with her of $89,611.
Block Joy is scheduled to discuss her memoir at 7:30 p.m. today (Jan. 28), at the Avid Reader Bookstore, 617 Second St., Davis.
"I felt a profound sense of gratitude that the university was doing the right thing," Block Joy writes in the book, which praises the professionalism of campus police, internal auditors and investigators. "I was proud and honored to be an employee at UC Davis."
Today, Block Joy is a UC Davis faculty member and Cooperative Extension nutritionist, currently teaching a class called “Eating Green.” She is an associate editor of California Agriculture, a peer reviewed journal published by UC, and also continues to write for other publications about the role of nutrition education in fighting poverty.
Laws regarding the privacy of personnel matters prevent UC Davis officials from commenting on much of the case. However, Wendi Delmendo, who is responsible for receiving and reviewing whistleblower and whistleblower-retaliation complaints, said she encourages people to contact her if they suspect that a UC Davis employee is engaged in unethical behavior that constitutes an improper governmental activity. She emphasized that the university is committed to protecting whistleblowers from retaliation.
"The university appreciates when employees come forward because it gives the university the opportunity to look into their concerns," Delmendo said.
At the time that Block Joy reported the suspected wrongdoings in 2006, she worked as director of the UC Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program — a program she founded to provide nutritional education to low-income families throughout California.
By 2006, the program was operating on an annual budget of nearly $13 million, with funding coming from the U.S. Department of Agriculture via California’s Department of Social Services.
Block Joy writes that she uncovered one of the first clues that something was fiscally awry in the program in February 2006, when she discovered an invoice for the purchase of a camcorder from a Sacramento retailer — a purchase made by the program’s financial manager, Beverly Benford (in this case, Block Joy used a real name). Knowing that the program did not use a camcorder, Block Joy began to investigate further, a search that would eventually lead her to report this and many other irregularities.
In 2007, UC Davis’ Internal Audit Services completed three separate audits of the UC Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program, concluding that university personnel misused federal grant funds and committed fraud. The campus auditors determined that approximately $600,000 had been spent fraudulently or inappropriately. Based on further reviews and investigations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the California Department of Social Services responded by withholding a total of $2.3 million in funding from UC Davis and the program’s participating counties.
In 2007, Benford, who by that time had left the university, was indicted on a charge of theft of government property. She would later plead guilty to one count of theft of government property and be sentenced to serve a year in prison, as well as pay restitution of $128,000.
Also in 2007, Block Joy chose to step down as director of the Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program.
“Even though I loved my work helping poor families, the investigation and all of its spin-offs proved to be a big distraction,” Block Joy writes in the book. “A new person would be able to invest all of their energy on building up the program.”
Today, the Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program is overseen by the dean’s office of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, under the directorship of David Ginsburg.
The program allocates funds to 35 counties through their respective UC Cooperative Extension offices, providing nutrition education programs to more than 200,000 people. Ginsburg said the program has instituted various management review and reporting systems to prevent misuse of funds, and provides mandatory training for all program employees to inform them of the policies and compliance requirements of both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and California Department of Social Services.
Looking back on her experience, Block Joy said she does not regret becoming a whistleblower.
“I definitely would encourage other people to come forward with concerns about misuse of funds and wrong doing,” Block Joy said. “You can’t turn your back on it and pretend it didn’t happen.”
Delmendo noted that improper governmental activities include: illegal acts such as fraud, corruption, bribery or theft; misuse of university property; any condition that may significantly threaten the health or safety of employees or the public; economic waste, gross misconduct, gross incompetence or gross inefficiency by university employees; and serious or substantial violations of university policy.