Former county administrative officer Mark Uffer’s wrongful termination suit against San Bernardino County ended with a whimper rather than a bang this week. Slightly more than a month before Uffer’s case was scheduled to go to trial on April 2, a divided board of supervisors agreed on February 28 to settle the matter for $650,000.
The board voted 3-2 in closed session to bring the matter to a close with a payment that was more than two-and-a-half times the annual $242,000 salary Uffer was receiving when he was fired on a 3-2 vote in November 2009. This week, two of the three supervisors who voted to terminate Uffer – Neil Derry and Brad Mitzelfelt – opposed making the settlement. The other supervisor who joined Derry and Mitzelfelt in that vote 27 months earlier – Gary Ovitt – this week voted with board chairwoman Josie Gonzales and supervisor Janice Rutherford to make the payout. In 2009, Gonzales, along with Rutherford’s predecessor Paul Biane, had opposed sacking Uffer.
Uffer, who had been the administrator at the county hospital when he was tapped by the board to serve as top county administrative officer in 2004, was not removed for cause, such that he was provided with a severance payout equal to one year’s salary and benefits – more than $273,000 – at the time of his firing. Derry, Mitzelfelt and Ovitt claimed at the time that Uffer was dismissed for no one cause but because they were seeking different leadership. The board then hired current county chief executive officer Greg Devereaux, who had been city manager in Ontario when Ovitt was mayor there in the early 2000s. Uffer was an at-will employee and his contract contained language allowing the board to fire him with or without cause. Nevertheless, Uffer in his claim accused the county of wrongful termination, defamation, fraud and retaliating against him for cooperating with ongoing grand jury and district attorney’s office investigations into allegations of wrongdoing within the county.
In his suit, which was buttressed by hundreds of pages of documents, memos and emails he accumulated during his five years as the county’s top administrator, Uffer maintained that the granting in November 2007 of a six month severance package to the assistant assessor under Bill Postmus, Jim Erwin, who had previously been the president of SEBA, was an indication that Erwin was extorting Ovitt, Mitzelfelt and Biane. Despite the fact that Biane had opposed his termination, Uffer did not spare Biane in the portrait he painted of a governmental entity mired in corruption.
Before Postmus was elected assessor in 2006, he was serving as chairman of the board of supervisors and chairman of the county’s Republican Central Committee and enjoyed an ironclad alliance with Biane, who was the vice chairman of both the board of supervisors and the central committee. As dual kingmakers, Postmus and Biane doled out party money to Republican candidates they favored and denied funds to those who did not go along with their programs. Backup material Uffer included in his suit, composed mostly of emails between him and Biane and him and Postmus, show that the relationship between Biane and Postmus deteriorated into open hostility in 2006. Profanity-laced emails Uffer provided as exhibits to his claim show that he was directly communicating with Biane about Postmus’s efforts to have him fired in the summer of 2006. Jim Lindley, a former mayor of Hesperia and a Postmus ally, had been provided with political appointments to the position of county director of legislative affairs at Postmus’s behest, and was later hired as the county’s purchasing officer. Emails between Lindley and Uffer offered as exhibits in the suit show that Lindley became aware that during the 2006 election Postmus and his employees were using county facilities to carry out electioneering activities while on the county clock. Later, when Lindley sought to succeed Postmus as county supervisor upon Postmus’s election to the assessor’s post, Postmus went ballistic, seeking to have Lindley cashiered. Postmus wanted another of his allies, Mitzelfelt, who had been his chief of staff throughout the time he was supervisor, to succeed him. Another of Postmus’s employees, Adam Aleman, threatened Lindley with termination and Lindley sought Uffer’s protection. According to Uffer’s claim against the county, “it became known and evident to the board and Bill Postmus that Mark Uffer was supporting and protecting Jim Lindley. Accordingly, Bill Postmus, aware of this fact, targeted Mark Uffer to eliminate him so that he could reach Jim Lindley.”
According to the suit, Lindley, as county purchasing officer, and Uffer worked together to thwart or otherwise question or hold up what the claim termed “suspicious” requisition orders coming from Postmus in his capacity as assessor, including requisitioning the services of Mike Richman, a political consultant involved with the San Bernardino County Republican Central committee and a Postmus ally. Mitzelfelt, as Postmus’s successor and longtime political associate, joined in with Postmus in making inappropriate or illegal use of county funds and facilities, according to the claim, to assist the county Republican Party as well as Derry’s 2008 campaign for supervisor. Mitzelfelt also sought to have Lindley fired, according to Uffer’s suit.
Uffer maintained that he was called as a witness before the 2007-08 grand jury and that he “submitted findings concerning the pervasive corruption” besetting the county at that time, including information that there was “fraudulent use of time cards” in the assessor’s office, that “Bill Postmus unlawfully provided contracts of employment to friends without submitting the contracts to the bidding process, that other board members were involved with and/or encouraged Bill Postmus’ known unlawful political agenda and efforts on county time [and] that Bill Postmus’ staff assisted supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt’s political campaign as well as Neil Derry’s campaign.”
In his suit, Uffer submitted evidence, consisting of interoffice memos, emails between various county employees, and Uffer’s handwritten notes which demonstrate that Uffer had personal knowledge of wrongdoing on the part of county officials and acts of commission or omission on his own part as county administrative officer, which he kept under wraps for years.
Three of these pertain to violations of the Brown Act, California’s open meeting law which prohibits a majority of any governmental decision-making body from meeting and discussing official policy or business outside the confines of an advertised and agendized public meeting. Those Brown Act violations allegedly involved Postmus, Biane and Ovitt in 2004; Biane, Postmus and Ovitt in 2006 and Derry, Biane and Mitzelfelt in 2008.
Uffer’s suit also exposed that Matt Brown, Biane’s chief of staff, in 2008 was reporting to Uffer about apparent illegal activity on Biane’s part.
Other documents provided in support of Uffer’s suit demonstrate the Byzantine intrigue and shifting alliances with, among and against various of the county’s top players. At some points Uffer was working with Biane to compromise Postmus’ power; at other times he was conspiring with Brown against Biane; at one point he had opened up a back channel of communication with Erwin through which less than flattering information about members of the board of supervisors was being exchanged. And at various times, for relatively short durations, Uffer appeared to patch things up with Postmus, including at one point in 2008 when both were commiserating about Erwin and embarrassing information they believed he was providing to the press.
The county had already spent roughly $1 million in preparing to defend against the lawsuit and anticipated spending another $400,000 if it went to trial. Though the “county does not believe any new information would have emerged during a trial” and “the county maintained its disagreement with all of the plaintiff’s claims,” according to a county statement provided simultaneously with the settlement announcement, “the county agreed to settle to avoid the costs of going to court.”
Uffer originally sought $15 million in the suit. He later made a settlement offer of $3.5 million, which the county rejected.
Both Mitzelfelt and Derry said they were adamantly opposed to settling with Uffer, expressing certainty that he would have lost at trial. Mitzelfelt called the suit “frivolous.” Derry said that the board was justified in terminating Uffer because he had misled the board about the county’s financial position. “Following Uffer’s termination, it was soon discovered that the financial health of the county was in significantly worse shape than the board was led to believe by his administration.” Derry said. “After his departure it was learned that the county faced an on-going structural deficit in excess of $100 million over the next five years.”
Derry said that Uffer had already received “a generous severance package.”
Caving in and settling set a dangerous precedent, Derry said. “The apparent lesson for all San Bernardino County employees to learn from this is even if you are an at-will employee and are terminated, go ahead and sue us because we are going to give you a lot of taxpayer dollars,” the supervisor said.
Uffer’s attorney, Sanford Kassel, said the lawsuit had achieved its end without airing the particulars in open court. “As much as people accused Mr. Uffer of seeking huge damages, this case was more about opening the books on the behavior of certain elected officials and their staff and less about winning huge awards,” he said.