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

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A journalism organization is honoring a California state worker who helped expose nepotism and questionable hiring at the state agency that at one point collected tens of billions of dollars a year in tax revenue.

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

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

DeSio, a former journalist himself, said the nomination and win came as a surprise to him.

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

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

in 2017, DeSio helped shine light on an assortment of questionable activities at the Board of Equalization by providing information to auditors that showed government staff working on apparently political events and nepotistic hiring practices.

By then, the Board of Equalization was already in trouble with lawmakers after previous audits and investigative reporting called attention to questionable spending, promotional events and conflicts of interests.

The audits for which DeSio provided information were the final straw, leading the Legislature to strip the Board of Equalization of almost all of its staff and its authority to collect tax.

State Treasurer Fiona Ma, who was an elected member of the board at the time, considered DeSio to be a critical player in uncovering information for the audits.

“Without people coming forward, nobody would be on the record, and that’s why this (tax board) ran amok,” Ma told The Sacramento Bee last year.

DeSio was assigned to the tax-collecting department that replaced the Board of Equalization and he later lost his job. He sued the state claiming wrongful termination and received a settlement covering lost wages and attorney fees.

Today, he is working on the publication of a book with Christian publisher Covenant Books and contemplating what his future holds.

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

“I had to make a decision based on what I knew if I was going to stay quiet or if I was going to meet the moment and speak up,” DeSio said. “I’m proud of what I did. I didn’t stay quiet.”

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

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