A state agency that regulates financial conflicts of interest is launching an investigation into whether San Diego County Office of Education employee is illegally enriching her husband and herself.

The investigation stems from concerns that Michele Fort-Merrill advises her boss on whether to retain attorneys for personnel cases, which routinely leads to her husband’s law firm getting business from the County Office. Here’s how we explained the issue when I first reported on it almost two years ago:

Michele Fort-Merrill, who oversees the agency’s human resources department, is married to William Merrill, a partner in Best, Best & Krieger, a San Diego law firm that frequently represents the county office. She has a financial interest in the firm of more than $100,000 annually through his income, according to state forms that disclose her economic interests.

When an employee is disciplined or other problems erupt with employees in the office, Fort-Merrill weighs whether or not an outside attorney is needed to help navigate legal issues, or whether human resources staff can handle the problem, County Superintendent Randolph Ward said in a recent interview. If she believes that lawyers are needed, she makes a recommendation to Ward, who then makes the ultimate decision on whether to hire an attorney.

Public officials are generally barred under California law from making or helping to make government decisions in which they or their spouse have a financial interest. Being involved in the decision can include advising the decision maker, as Fort-Merrill does. Though Ward said Fort-Merrill does not directly assign legal work to any firm, her advice helps him decide whether the office turns to outsiders or its own staff, which impacts the amount of work going to her husband.

We later analyzed which attorneys were granted the work on personnel cases and found that in past years, it was almost guaranteed that those kind of cases would go to her husband’s firm. It is unclear, however, whether her husband, dubbed a partner in the firm, profits from the overall success of the firm or solely from his own billings.

Rodger Hartnett, a former employee who is suing the agency for wrongful termination, complained to the state Fair Political Practices Commission that Fort-Merrill has a financial stake in sending work to his law firm. The FPPC sent Hartnett a letter last week saying it would investigate the allegations.

Not all complaints are investigated: The FPPC typically reviews complaints and decides within 14 days whether to investigate them or not, said spokeswoman Tara Stock. The agency bases its decisions whether the alleged actions could be a violation of the state Political Reform Act. Opening up an investigation does not mean that the allegations are valid or that the accused people are guilty.

Hartnett alleges he was fired for blowing the whistle on what he described as “a culture of corruption” at the agency. He is suing not only the office but two of its employees, including Fort-Merrill, as individuals because he claims they personally retaliated against him. The County Office and its employees counter that Hartnett was discharged for misconduct and poor performance that occurred months before he began raising concerns.

His “inflammatory and unsubstantiated claims against [Fort-Merrill] were an eleventh hour smokescreen to obscure the true reasons for his termination,” wrote Pamela Lawton Wilson, one of Fort-Merrill’s attorneys, in a legal brief.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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