Gabriel Elliott, Adelanto’s former director of development services who was the fifth of seven city manager’s the city of Adelanto has employed over the last three years and nine months, filed suit against the city, its mayor and the current city manager on October 31, 2018.
Elliott was enthusiastically endorsed upon his hiring by Adelanto Mayor Rich Kerr when he was elevated to the city’s top spot in August 2017, only to be suspended four months later and then languish on paid administrative leave for some eight months until he was ignominiously fired in July 2018. He alleges in the lawsuit filed Wednesday that because he resisted graft at City Hall including making reports of what he had seen and experienced to the FBI, he was retaliated against by both Kerr and Jessie Flores, who had been the city’s contract economic development director while Elliott was leading the city. Flores has now moved into Elliott’s top managerial post.
The events depicted in Elliott’s lawsuit occurred against the backdrop of a sustained three-and-a-half-year effort by a majority of the Adelanto City Council to transition the High Desert City of 35,000 onto a cannabis marketing-based economy, after a differently-comprised city council in June 2013 declared the city to be in a state of fiscal emergency. That declaration was considered to be a prelude to a filing for bankruptcy protection, which was narrowly avoided. After the November 2014 election in which Kerr along with John Woodard and Charles Glasper displaced, respectively, incumbents Mayor Cari Thomas and council members Steve Baisden and Charles Valvo, the newly formed ruling coalition of Kerr, Woodard and councilman Jermaine Wright with the on-again, off-again support of Glasper successfully sought to take advantage of the leeway in California law inherent in the 1996 passage of Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use of Marijuana Act, that allowed for marijuana to be sold for medical purposes out of licensed dispensaries. With sales of marijuana banned everywhere else in San Bernardino County except in the City of Needles, the council majority maintained opening the city to the marijuana market would both boost the local economy and create a tax revenue stream for the city. With the move in 2016 to broaden legalized marijuana consumption beyond that for medical purposes to recreational application statewide with the proposal and then the passage of Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, the city council then moved to get Adelanto in on the ground floor of the societal acceptance of the use of marijuana as an intoxicant and intensify the economic benefit the city stood to reap. Simultaneously, however, there was indication that the frenzy among would-be cannabis entrepreneurs to secure operating licenses for such operations in Adelanto, which included the provision of substantial amounts of cash to the city’s decision-makers to induce them to approve and fast track those applicants’ project proposals, was corrupting the function of municipal government.
Pointing out that the city’s normal protocols gave staff the authority to evaluate and approve project applications and determine their adherence to pre-set city standards and codes prior to authorization being given for those undertakings to proceed, Elliott’s suit relates that the city’s elected leadership sought, and often succeeded, in overstepping and misapplying its authority to prevent city staff from carrying out its due and legal assignments to regulate those businesses.
The suit states that “the City of Adelanto has a charter that vests the sole power over the administration of the city’s employees directly upon the city manager. The charter denotes that the mayor and the city council members shall have no direct or indirect control over the city’s employees. The charter further denotes that if there is a violation of the charter in this respect, said person violating the charter shall resign immediately and said violation is a misdemeanor offence.” Calling the interference by the mayor and members of the city council and Flores with the function of city staff concerning marijuana-related and cannabis-based business operations in the city “unlawful,” the lawsuit identifies Kerr and Flores explicitly as having interloped in Elliott’s function. The suit suggests, without directly indentifying them, that Councilman Jermaine Wright and Councilman John Woodard abetted Kerr and Flores in this action.
The suit references with substantial specificity an example of how very early in Elliott’s tenure as city manager the city’s elected leadership militated to facilitate the establishment of a marijuana cultivation facility in a way that was improper and of indefensible expense to the city’s taxpayers.
“On September 28, 2017, Jessie Flores, who was Mayor Richard Kerr’s agent and clandestine assistant and Mayor Kerr himself asked plaintiff to accompany them to the city’s corporation yard located in the city’s industrial area to meet with the potential buyers of this city facility that includes the city’s public works yard,” the lawsuit states. “Upon arriving and meeting all the parties, Flores asked Plaintiff to sign an agreement to sell the property to Mr. C.B. Nanda, who is a marijuana cultivator. The scheme was for C.B. Nanda to then sell the property to a group of marijuana cultivators at a substantially higher price. At the time, there had been no official city council approval for such a sale to take place. Plaintiff refused to allow the sale to go forward because after surveying the property, he realized the property included the city’s emergency operations center, which was part of a federal grant and the land was worth much more than the proposed sale price. Plaintiff also refused to allow the sale to go forward because he learned that Kerr and Flores had orchestrated the sale of the property below market value to benefit C.B. Nanda for which Flores and Kerr were set to receive financial kickbacks from the sale of the property. Plaintiff would not allow this illegal transaction to proceed. When Plaintiff challenged Kerr and Flores regarding the sale of the property, Kerr stated the sale of the property was to an agent of US Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who would in exchange for the sale provide ‘protection’ to Adelanto from any federal raids of the marijuana cultivation and consumption industry within Adelanto.”
Elliott maintains in the suit that Kerr and Flores were betraying the city and its residents in favor of promoting the interests of marijuana entrepreneurs. “Defendants Kerr and Flores would constantly bypass plaintiff and directly told staff at all levels within the city to illegally waive fees for personal friends of Kerr and Flores for city services, threatened employees with their jobs, directed employees to do personal favors and perform services for them, etc.,” the suit states. “Plaintiff raised objections to these illegal practices.”
According to the suit, “Kerr and Flores were believed to be receiving bribes from the growing marijuana industry in the city. Kerr and Flores directed code enforcement officers to ‘stand down’ and prevented them from enforcing code violations against the numerous marijuana businesses operating in the city which were out of compliance with local ordinances. These actions were protested by plaintiff to defendants as illegal. On October 27, 2017, plaintiff went to the FBI to report Kerr and Flores’ illicit deal regarding the city’s public works yard and other violations of the law. After the meeting, plaintiff disclosed to employees with the City of Adelanto and members of the city council that he had met with the FBI regarding Kerr’s and Flores’ illegal activities. Plaintiff also reported to the FBI and others that Kerr, using his power and authority as Mayor, would frequently deposit donations into his wife’s alleged non-profit 501c account. In fact, Kerr’s wife’s account never attained non-profit status. Kerr would often solicit these donations from individuals and businesses who were doing business with the city, causing these individuals and businesses to feel ‘forced’ to donate in order to have Kerr ‘get things done’ in the city. Kerr used Flores to collect some of these monies for him. Kerr also received $30,000 from the then-city’s public works director, Don Woppler, and never returned, reported or accounted for the money in any fashion in violation of reporting requirements.”
The suit propounds that Elliott suffered as a consequence of his confrontation of Kerr and Flores. “Kerr and Flores learned about plaintiff’s meeting with the FBI,” the suit states. “After learning about plaintiff’s meeting with the FBI, Kerr and Flores began a campaign of harassment and retaliation against plaintiff to force him to quit or to play ball,” the lawsuit states. “Flores’ own self-interest in harassing and retaliating against plaintiff was to take over plaintiff’s job as city manager, even though he had absolutely no qualifications for the job. Flores always facilitated plaintiff’s harassment at the request of Kerr. Just days after learning about plaintiff’s meeting with the FBI, on November 8, 2017, at a regular city council meeting, Kerr requested then-City Attorney Ruben Duran place an item on the city council consent calendar agenda titled ‘Employee Performance Evaluation-City Manager.’ This act was in direct retaliation for plaintiff’s visit to the FBI on October 27, 2017 and for plaintiff’s refusal to go along with the sale of the city’s public works yard and for plaintiff complaining about illegal activities within the City of Adelanto. Kerr, Flores and at least another council member agreed in advance of any official meeting to place plaintiff’s performance evaluation on the agenda in violation of the Brown Act. To further embarrass and harass plaintiff, Kerr then had plaintiff’s performance evaluation carried over from one city council meeting to another city council meeting so that plaintiff could remain in fear of losing his job and having a negative connotation to his reputation.”
According to the suit, “After Kerr and Flores were unable to obtain support from members of the city council to dismiss plaintiff, Kerr and Flores solicited the former secretary to the city council and to the city manager, Rachel Suraci, to perjure herself in an affidavit that plaintiff tried to kiss her while she was alone with him in his office. Kerr also solicited another woman to file false complaints about plaintiff stating that he harassed her by repeatedly asking her to lunch and dinner and a third woman to file a complaint against plaintiff to claim that he forced her into his car and drove her to his home. The complaints were immediately sent to the local newspaper. Making the complaints public were Kerr’s and Flores’ efforts to retaliate against and to humiliate plaintiff and to force him to resign.
Thereafter, the city conducted a ‘sham’ investigation into the alleged claims of ‘sexual harassment’ against plaintiff. The investigation was concluded in December 2017, but the city refused to release its findings until July 2018. Even after the so-called investigation was concluded, plaintiff was left on administrative leave for months for absolutely no reason other than to harass and humiliate him.” According to the suit, “While on administrative leave, plaintiff’s office was ransacked, and his personal and private property was removed, further indicating the orchestration of the investigation. Furthermore, as early as December 23, 2017, Flores told his friends and other city clients that Elliot ‘was not coming back.’ The city terminated plaintiff’s contract on July 11, 2018, with cause, claiming the findings in the report as the reason for the termination. In fact, the investigation was a sham, had no factual basis, and calls into question whatever the investigator did to reach a pre-determined conclusion while claiming an attorney-work protected privilege to justify keeping the investigation confidential.” The lawsuit states, “After plaintiff’s termination, he was replaced by Mr. Flores as the city manager as planned months before. Mr. Flores had no qualifications for the position of the city manager and is paid less than plaintiff. Mr. Flores is an alcoholic who used to work for former disgraced San Bernardino County First District Supervisor Bill Postmus as his driver and later as a gardener. Mr. Flores is a Hispanic male younger than plaintiff in age.”
According to the suit, “Plaintiff on numerous occasions reported to his superiors as well as to the FBI that Mayor Kerr, Flores and others were engaging in illegal activity in violation of the city charter as well as various federal state and local laws and regulations. Plaintiff refused to engage in activities that would result in violations of local, state, and federal laws and regulations. Defendants’ managers, officers, and directors retaliated against plaintiff because he reported illegal practices and refused to engage in illegal activities even though he was instructed to do so. After plaintiff reported and refused to engage in the illegal activities, defendants, through their officers and managers, began to search for and dredge up reasons to terminate plaintiff. This retaliation eventually led to plaintiff’s ultimate termination in July 2018. Defendants’ wrongful conduct described above caused plaintiff to suffer ongoing injuries, including but not limited to, lost income and benefits, humiliation, embarrassment, mental and emotional distress, and discomfort; all according to proof at trial.”
Elliott is represented by Tristan Pelayes, a former Adelanto mayor. The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages.
Michael Stevens, the City of Adelanto’s official spokesman, told the Sentinel in the mid-afternoon on Thursday, “As of yesterday we had not been served with a copy of the lawsuit; I’ve not heard from our city manager or human resources as to whether we have today or not. But as you might know, we don’t comment on pending litigation, so I imagine that will be the response even if we have been served.”
Former City Attorney Ruben Duran said, “The allegations in the complaint related to my alleged conduct, action or inaction are utterly without merit, completely untrue and outrageous. Moreover, I am bound by the attorney-client privilege not to disclose the details or content of any communications with or on behalf of my client, and I would never discuss any meetings or interactions with federal law enforcement unless authorized to do so.”