Even As He Berated Them, Valdivia Told His Assistants About Taking Money Illicitly

Even as San Bernardino Mayor John Valdivia was engaging in sexually-tinged vulgarities and untoward and inappropriate suggestions that they found offensive, two of Valdivia’s former staff members who resigned from the city on January 29 say he was intimating he was engaged in, or was attempting to involve them in covering up, the misappropriation of public funds or the reception of illegal or unreported money from donors or individuals with a stake in decisions he was involved in by virtue of his public position. That charge was made in claims those women filed with the city on February 13.
Mirna Cisneros, who worked as a customer service representative and was assigned to Valdivia’s office in that capacity relatively shortly after he became mayor in December 2018, and Karen Cervantes, who was hired as Valdivia’s assistant in September 2019, say they were subjected to Valdivia’s sexual harassment and advances, and endured a hostile work environment along with a string of humiliations after rejecting his advances.
Cisneros and Cervantes are represented by attorney Tristan Pelayes, who guided them in their efforts during their latter stage of employment with the city to be moved into positions outside the mayor’s office. When the city demonstrated it was not amenable to placing them elsewhere, they resigned. The filing of their claims begins a 45-day timeline during which the city has the option, or opportunity, to acknowledge the accuracy of their claims or reject them. Upon the claims’ official rejection, the pair would then be at liberty to sue the city, using as their causes of action the substance contained within the claims.
The claims by both Cisneros and Cervantes use the same language in stating that Valdivia “repeatedly subjected” them “to… offensive and/or graphic sexual comments, and sexually suggestive language and gestures.”
Cisneros said that on August 8, 2019, Valdivia sent her “a photo of his college girlfriend and that same day he discussed his relationship with her and ‘how hot’ she was.” On September 24, 2019, according to Cisneros’s claim filed by Pelayes, Valdivia “offered her his credit card and kept telling her to buy whatever she wants, specifically asking her to buy high heels. He also said that his wife does not have to know. He just wants her to feel taken care of. He repeatedly told her nothing is off limits.”
On September 25, 2019, the claim states, Valdivia at a gala in Los Angeles during the cocktail hour, “continuously made lewd comments about women and kept commenting on claimant’s appearance” and “continuously made comments about a specific woman at the gala. He said that she offered to ‘suck his dick’ in Washington. The following day, September 26, 2019, Valdivia renewed his discussion about the woman from the night before. He said, ‘Did you see the slut from yesterday who was wearing the black outfit showing her back? She is always at events; she is an escort who has offered to suck my dick in the elevator in Washington. She is such a whore. She kept looking at me yesterday. She always tries to contact me. But I don’t want to get my dick sucked by a whore.’ He also told claimant a story of him catching an elected official’s husband having an affair in an elevator in Washington. He also said that he ran into that person after and high fived him because the lady was ‘hot.’”
On October 2019, according to Cisneros’s claim, Valdivia “had a conversation about her future career goals and how he would want her to be his chief of staff. He told her that his next chief of staff should be a woman. He then proceeded to tell her about a California Assembly member who was having an affair with his chief of staff and how she should reach out to her to get ‘pointers’ on how to be a good chief of staff. Additionally, he asked her if she was happy in her marriage and would she consider traveling more with him to different states. He also mentioned that he could arrange to fly her out to New York.”
In a conversation that occurred after hours on November 4, 2019, according to Cisneros’s claim, Valdivia “repeated the story of the assembly member who had the affair with his chief of staff,” telling her “that his wife wants a divorce from him. He further told claimant that if she ever needs anything, to let him know. He said that if he wanted to buy something for her, his wife would not know because she doesn’t see that credit card statement.”
On December 16 and 17, 2019, according to the claim, Valdivia had Cisneros “join him on a trip to San Jose with him (against her will), a council member, and two developers. Before the trip she shared her concerns with her coworkers. She told them that she did not feel comfortable having to travel with the mayor. Despite her concerns, she was still asked to attend.” When they were in line getting ready to board the plane, the claim states, “Valdivia stood next to her and told her that she could ask him anything and nothing was off limits.”
On December 23, 2019, according to Cisneros’s claim, “ Valdivia called claimant into his office to help him with his flight and hotel accommodations for the USCOM [U.S. Conference of Mayors] meeting in Washington, D.C. During this time, another female coworker walked in and was speaking to him about the State of the City [speech]. He answered a call during this time and directed both women to stay in his office while he took the call. In front of both claimant and the other female staff member, Valdivia told the person on the phone that he ‘doesn’t care what needs to be done. Take care of him, make sure he is happy and satisfied. Do whatever needs to be done. Suck him off. I will suck him off if I need to! Just make it happen! Make his dick hard!’”
According to Cisneros’s claim, “These ongoing instances of Valdivia sexually harassing claimant, creating a hostile work environment, exposing claimant to unwanted sexual gestures and language, and quid pro quo quickly became a pattern culminating into a hostile work environment. Each time claimant refused Valdivia’s advances or rejected his behavior, he would put her on the ‘misery program,’ which involved, among other things, humiliating her, forcing her to engage in activities outside of her job description and requirements, and threatening her job. Valdivia would then make his advances again.”
According to the claim filed on Cervantes’ behalf by Pelayes, Cervantes went to work for Valdivia on September 30, 2019 and beginning on October 11, 2019, Valdivia intensified his efforts to initiate some order of physical relationship with her. The following day, Saturday, October 12, 2019, Valdivia insisted that Cervantes attend a weekend event, failing to get her to ”carpool” there with him. Cervantes said she attended the event despite being told by Valdivia’s chief of staff, Matt Brown, that attending weekend events was not part of her duties as Valdivia’s field representative. According to Cervantes’ claim, “During the above referenced event, on October 12, 2019, Valdivia insisted claimant drink gin and tonics even though she repeatedly told him she did not want to drink. Upon his insistence, claimant became uncomfortable, refused to drink, and left the table momentarily. Valdivia then proceeded to drink his cocktail and also finished the cocktail he had tried to force claimant to drink. Shortly thereafter, Valdivia told claimant he was feeling intoxicated and started moving closer to claimant, invading her personal space. He touched claimant while he whispered in her ear that at events such as this one, he is ‘not so strict,’ and that he is ‘cool.’ He said, ‘This is not like at work and we can have fun.’ The touching was unwanted and offensive. At one point during this event, Valdivia saw an Asian woman pass by. He told claimant ‘You know how I feel about Asian women!’ Claimant responded by stating she was aware he was married to an Asian woman. Valdivia replied that this woman was ‘so hot’ and that his wife ‘didn’t have to know’ what he does when he’s not home, and that he was going to ‘go after’ that woman.”
According to Cervantes’ claim, “Claimant became increasingly more uncomfortable and became unable to hide that discomfort. It was obvious to her that Valdivia noticed claimant’s discomfort and disapproval. Because claimant refused Valdivia’s advances and despicable behavior, Valdivia began to belittle, bully, degrade, and embarrass claimant in front of her coworkers during staff meetings and other gatherings. This retaliatory behavior continued and escalated throughout the next few months.”
According to Cervantes’ claim, “On various occasions, Valdivia would tell her to do something, then later switch it up and tell her that she didn’t follow his direction. He further sabotaged her work. During staff meetings, in front of her coworkers, he would yell directly at claimant, saying she doesn’t do her job.”
According to Cervantes’ claim, Valdivia sought to pit the women who worked in his office against one another, bringing up a subject, after which he would “insist that someone has to be lying to him.”
In December, in preparation for the city’s Christmas Open House event, according to Cervantes in her claim, Valdivia instructed her to use donation money to purchase decorations and toys for the event, and that “he wanted a big presentation.” Subsequently, however, according to the claim, “Valdivia called claimant and her co-workers demanding to know who authorized spending. He addressed claimant directly, with her co-workers on the line, and yelled at her, demanding to know who told her to spend the donation money. Valdivia was using this as an opportunity to further humiliate her in front of her peers.”
Valdivia also took the opportunity to belittle Cervantes and Cal State University San Bernardino, of which Cervantes was an alumnus, in so doing, discrediting one of the major institutions within the city of which Valdivia is mayor. The claim states, “On Thursday, December 5, 2019, claimant was attending a staff meeting, where another staff member mentioned getting an intern to help claimant with all her duties and projects. Claimant mentioned she could send an email out to SBVC [San Bernardino Valley College] or CSUSB, her alma mater, for a communications intern. Knowing that it was common knowledge that claimant had graduated from CSUSB, Valdivia engaged in a demeaning monologue in front of everyone about the ineptitude of CSUSB students, saying he doesn’t want to work with incompetent CSUSB students and that they are not high functioning.”
According to the claim, “Additionally, on January 10, 2020, Valdivia called claimant on the office line and said, “I have been drinking. It’s happy hour and I’m drunk. I need your assistance with scheduling a meeting with Council Member Nickel. Do whatever you need to do to schedule a meeting with the Council Member Nickel. Suck Valerie [Nickel’s secretary] off, if you have to. Make sure you get it done.”
According to Cervantes, in October, “Valdivia started asking claimant questions about her finances, such as ‘What kind of bills do you pay? Do you have a mortgage? I just want to know – are you worried about not having this job? What are your biggest expenses you need to pay? Tell me more about yourself!’ When claimant refused to answer these questions, Valdivia told claimant that it’s her fault that ‘we don’t have a friendship.’ Valdivia told claimant she should ‘‘try to have a relationship’ with him and that claimant ‘should stay in the office after hours to have friendly conversations’ with him, so that claimant may ‘get to know’ him better and ‘vice versa.’ When Valdivia told claimant this, she immediately knew Valdivia was warning her that if she didn’t consent to his degrading and unwelcome sexual advances and harassment, he would continue his ongoing antagonistic behavior toward her.”
According to Cervantes, Valdivia cooked up complaints about the quality of Cervantes work “after she refused his vulgar advances and behavior at the events in October 2019.”
According to Cisneros’s claim in particular, in his interactions with her Valdivia either let slip or openly acknowledged that he was misusing public funds for personal use and was at the very least in violation of the gift-receiving reporting requirements that are applicable to elected and public officials and perhaps had gone further over the legal line into accepting bribes.
According to Cisneros’s claim, “In December 2019, Valdivia said that he can get VIP tickets for future rave events, if claimant was ever interested in attending. He also mentioned that he also went to EDC [the Electric Daisy Carnival] in Las Vegas and everything was paid for and he did not report any of the gifts.”
Also according to Cisneros, “On December 17, 2019, Valdivia shared that he is really good friends with someone who is always offering him his private jet. He said that he will work something out where he does not have to claim it on his forms and wants to travel in the jet. He asked claimant if she would want to travel with him. He said there is always a way to get around everything. He also asked if she would like to go to New York for New Year’s Eve.”
According to Cisneros’s claim, “On January 14, 2020, Valdivia asked claimant to process a reimbursement to the airport for hotel and breakfast meal. He specifically asked her to be vague when sending the information to the airport staff about the meeting. He also said not to ‘name names’ of the individuals that he met with. Right after that conversation he stated that he had raised a lot of money on that specific trip for his campaign.” The airport alluded to is the San Bernardino International Airport, the executive board for which Valdivia is a member as a consequence of his role as mayor.
According to Cisneros’s claim, “On January 15, 2020, Valdivia shared that an ambassador had gifted him a bottle of alcohol that was worth $900 and he wasn’t going to report it. He also shared that he is always receiving gifts and not reporting them.”
Late last month, according to Cisneros, Valdivia sought to have members of his staff divert themselves to electioneering work on behalf of two of his political allies on the city council up for election on March 3.
According to Cisneros’s claim, Valdivia “called claimant and another female co-worker into an office. He asked claimant to close the door. He said that he wanted to speak to them about working Council Member Bessine Richard’s and Council Member Figueroa’s campaign. He said he would want them to request time off from work from the city and use their vacation time to help with the campaign. He said they would work for free. Claimant was hesitant, and told him she would get back to him after thinking about it. He said, ‘It’s not illegal. You are using your own personal vacation time.’ He said ‘I am not pointing a gun to your head. Just asking for your help.’”
According to Cisneros, Valdivia has aspirations of being elected to Congress, and he maintains that he is one step or more ahead of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies that were looking into accusations of graft pertaining to him and his administration.
In her claim, Cisneros said that in December Valdvia had “shared that his friend at the DA’s office called him personally and said that he is no longer under investigation and the FBI is no longer looking into him.”
In their claims, Cisneros and Cervantes assert they have sustained loss of gainful employment as a result of Valdvia’s actions and that they have suffered a host of maladies as a result, including loss of sleep, mental and physical pain and anguish, fear, as well as loss of self-esteem and confidence. Their claims specify that in each of their cases, “the amount of compensatory and other damages claims exceeds $10,000 and will lie within the unlimited jurisdiction of the Superior Court. Claimant also claims and seeks to recover herein, the statutory and other penalties, damages, attorney’s fees, expert fees, costs as provided by law, to include exemplary damages against John Valdivia.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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