San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera
San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera (Jason Doiy / The Recorder)

SAN FRANCISCO — A former senior trial attorney at the San Francisco city attorney’s office on Friday was awarded more than $2 million by a jury in a whistleblower retaliation case.

Joanne Hoeper, who served as a deputy city attorney for 20 years, filed a retaliation suit against City Attorney Dennis Herrera and the city in 2015. Hoeper alleged she was sidelined and then fired for looking into payments made by the city to replace private sewer systems, which she believed to be part of a kickback scheme.

A unanimous jury on Friday awarded Hoe­per the money after a trial that lasted several weeks. The result is a blow for Herrera and his lawyer, Keker Van Nest & Peters founding partner John Keker. Hoeper’s lead trial counsel were Therese Cannata and Mark Fickes of Cannata, O’Toole, Fickes & Almazan. She was also represented by Ram, Olson, Cereghino & Kopczynski.

“We are surprised and disappointed with the jury’s verdict. We take our responsibilities to our clients and to the public seriously,” John Coté, a spokesman for the city attorney’s office, said in a statement. “We are sorry the jury did not recognize that the city attorney had independent reasons for terminating Ms. Hoeper in 2014.”

“We are grateful that the jury did not award her the $6 million she was seeking,” the statement added. “Nevertheless, we are exploring all of our options.”

The jury found that Hoeper had been wrongfully terminated, but did not reach the issue of whether there was evidence of the alleged kickback scheme that Hoeper had been investigating. Hoeper had claimed city employees were paying plumbing companies a windfall to replace private sewer systems, some more than 100 years old, even though they knew there was no legitimate reason for the city to pay for the work.

The city stopped the questionable conduct in June 2012, after she brought the matter to Herrera’s attention, Hoeper said in her lawsuit, but she continued her investigation. That July, Herrera replaced Hoeper as chief trial deputy and shut down her investigation, according to the complaint. He later fired her, effective Jan. 7, 2014.

Hoeper’s preceding administrative complaint was rejected by the Santa Clara County counsel’s office after just eight days.

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