California tax agency whistleblower honored by SPJ


The California Department of Tax and Fee Administration building in Sacramento is pictured on Monday June 12, 2014 ..

Sacramento Bee File

Journalism organization honors California state employee who helped expose nepotism and questionable hiring at state agency that at one point raised tens of billions of dollars per year in tax revenue.

The Northern Section of the Society of Professional Journalists presented a James Madison Freedom of Information Award to Mark DeSio, former director of communications for the Board of Equalization.

“DeSio’s courage to speak out against wrongdoing was a public service, creating better government in California,” the SPJ said in a statement announcing the award.

DeSio, a former reporter himself, said the nomination and victory surprised him.

“I got the call about a week ago that I had won and I was just thrilled,” DeSio said.

He said the award meant a lot to him because he knows the value of journalists’ work, “shining a light on the government.”

In 2017, DeSio helped bring to light an assortment of questionable activity at the Equalization Board by providing information to auditors that showed members of government working on seemingly political events and nepotistic hiring practices.

At that point, the Equalization Board was already having issues with lawmakers after previous audits and investigative reports drew attention to questionable spending, promotional events and conflicts of interest.

The audits for which DeSio provided information were the last straw, leading the legislature to strip the Equalization Board of nearly all of its staff and its power to collect taxes.

State Treasurer Fiona Ma, then an elected board member, saw DeSio as a key player in uncovering information for audits.

“Without people showing up, no one would be registered, and that’s why this (tax board) went wild,” Ma told the Sacramento Bee last year.

DeSio was assigned to the tax collection service which replaced the Equalization Board and subsequently lost his job. He sued the state citing unfair dismissal and received a settlement covering lost wages and attorney fees.

Today he’s working on a book publication with Christian publisher Covenant Books and pondering what his future holds.

Looking back, DeSio said he knew he made the right choice.

“I had to make a decision based on what I knew if I was going to stay silent or if I was going to meet the moment and speak,” DeSio said. “I am proud of what I have done. I did not remain silent.

This story was originally published March 18, 2021 5:00 a.m.

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Andrew Sheeler covers California’s unique political climate for the Sacramento Bee. He covered crime and politics from the interior of Alaska to the oil fields of North Dakota to the rugged coast of southern Oregon. He attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Esther L. Steinbach