Prison psychiatrist Anthony Coppola earned a pretty good living splitting his workdays – and vacation days – between two California government agencies.
In 2016, he pulled in $309,000 from his main job at a state prison in Tracy and another $233,000 from his part-time job at an Alameda County jail. He made even more money in 2015 and 2014.
It was a conspicuous sum that caught the attention of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation leaders two years ago in the midst of a staffing shakeup at the Tracy prison. One regional prison health care executive remarked to a warden that Coppola must have been “double dipping,” a pejorative term that refers to public employees simultaneously earning income from multiple government employers.
Coppola and his attorney insist he wasn’t doing anything wrong. In fact, they say he pulled in the second income while trying to whittle down a huge bank of personal leave he accumulated over years working for the state.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Fresno Bee
“It was approved. He didn’t do it on his own. He went through his chief of mental health. The warden knew what he was doing,” Coppola’s attorney, Brian Crone said.
The dispute now is playing out in court, where Coppola in a lawsuit argues that prison executives harassed him when he refused to help them discipline a colleague. Some time after that, the state opened an investigation into his second job and wiped out almost 1,100 hours of personal leave – enough for a six-month vacation.
State lawyers do not accuse Coppola of inappropriately working a second job while using his state vacation days. Instead, they argue the corrections department canceled Coppola’s bank of personal leave because it had incorrectly awarded him too many vacation days. The department declined to comment about the lawsuit.
With few exceptions, California public employees are allowed to moonlight, and nothing bars them from working a second job on their vacation days.
Almost 900 California prison health care workers have permission to moonlight with other government or private-sector employers, according to records obtained by The Bee through the California Public Records Act. They’re required to fill out forms declaring their secondary jobs so the corrections department can determine if they have conflicts of interest with their public employment. The practice extended to Fresno County.
But the scale of Coppola’s outside earnings put him in a league of his own.
Publicly available salary records from The Bee and Transparent California show that his combined wages in 2016 were $80,000 more than what the next highest-paid prison doctor earned by working at two California government agencies.
His leave bank plays an important part in explaining why Coppola’s income soared so high in recent years.
He racked up the vacation hours during a period when he worked overtime consistently and often returned to work on his off days because the prison’s mental health staff was shorthanded, his attorney said.
State workers can accumulate thousands of hours of vacation over their careers. Some of them cash out their vacation as they near retirement, compelling the state to cut six-figure checks to departing workers.
Coppola wanted to work down his accumulated leave rather than amass it for retirement, Crone said. He did it by scheduling a couple days off each week and increasing his hours at a part-time job he’d held since 2003 at Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail in Dublin.
Crone said that the compensation Coppola received from his two high-stress jobs reflected his willingness to work as a doctor in places where few people want to spend time.
“There are just not that many people who want to work at a prison or want to work at a jail. It’s not the ivory towers. So if you’re one who can do it or wants to do it, you might as well as take advantage of what you can do,” Crone said.
New scrutiny on his second job
The lawsuit turns on why state corrections department opened an investigation into Coppola’s second job two years ago. Coppola contends he faced unfair scrutiny because he refused to help the department sideline a 68-year-old mental health supervisor by acting as her temporary replacement. Until then, he said, the department did not have an issue with his part-time job.
The mental health supervisor, Reba White, also is suing the department with Coppola in San Joaquin County Superior Court. Both of them accuse the department of discriminating against them because of their age.
They allege that three high-ranking corrections leaders sought to force White into retirement in March 2016 because the department leaders believed White was “old and frail.”
Coppola, who was 53 at the time, said in court documents that he declined to help the department discipline White.
Afterward, the complaint says, prison executives sought to restrict Coppola’s ability to work at his second job.
For instance, a new mental health supervisor questioned Coppola’s practice of scheduling two days off each week. Coppola’s complaint said that was a common routine for other experienced doctors.
Later, the supervisor called Coppola on a scheduled day off and asked him where he was, according to the complaint.
By October 2016, Coppola learned that the department opened an investigation into his second job and that a regional prison health care executive, Elaine Force, had remarked to a Tracy prison executive that Coppola appeared to be “double dipping.”
Feeling harassed by inquiries about his second job, Coppola took a leave of absence. He learned from colleagues that the department sent a survey to staff members that appeared to solicit negative information about him, according to the lawsuit.
Finally, in April 2017, the corrections department rescinded almost all of the vacation hours he kept in his leave bank. He and White filed their lawsuit shortly afterward.
In its most recent court filing, an attorney for the corrections department wrote that Coppola had incorrectly been awarded leave credits based on overtime hours.
Coppola remains on an unpaid leave of absence from his state job, Crone said. He’s now working more often for Alameda County, and is earning retirement and other benefits from the local government instead of the state. Coppola was in PERS for 26 years and will get pension benefits from both systems when he retires.
Prison staffing shortages
Coppola’s conflict over his second job is an extreme example of a common arrangement among prison health care workers.
The Bee identified 83 of them who hold two positions at different California government agencies, according to records from the federal office that oversees health care in state prisons. They include low-paid recreational therapists cobbling together multiple part-time jobs, therapists who teach college classes and prison employees who coach youth sports in city leagues.
Three of them worked for Fresno County through 2014, when the county hired private contractors for certain health care positions in its jail. The Fresno County group included a psychiatrist who earned $308,000 from the state in 2014 and $158,000 from the county that year. The other two were a dentist who earned $282,000 from the state and $8,700 from the county, and another psychiatrist who earned $353,000 from the state and $23,000 from the county.
Statewide there were nurses, psychiatrists and doctors who earned six-figure wages from the state and much smaller sums from county jails and hospitals. Six of them, including Coppola, in 2016 earned separate six-figure income from two California government sources.
Mental health professionals are in high demand across every level of government, with competition between state prisons, county facilities and the Department of Veterans Affairs. The state prison department has a 21 percent vacancy rate for psychiatrists and primary care providers. The vacancy rate is nearly that high for psychologists and clinical social workers.
Last year, the state gave special raises to doctors in certain prisons as recruiting and retention sweeteners. Some of them received raises of up to 24 percent.
“There’s a shortage and that is not unique to us. The pool is so limited that we are really in competition constantly,” said Jasinda Muhammad, the deputy director of human resources for California Correctional Health Care Services.
She said the department requires employees to notify prisons if they hold secondary jobs to check if the state worker has a relationship with a company that might do business with the state. For instance, a state prison would want to know if one of its doctors referred inmates for medical care to a private hospital where the doctor works.
The department also would reject requests for outside employment if the employee’s secondary job presented a scheduling conflict.
“If my hours here are 8 to 4:30 and I have a secondary employment that is 8 to 4:30, well, I can’t service two employees at the same time,” Muhammad said.