Two Resigned Staffers Hit SB Mayor Valdivia With Sexual Harassment Claims

San Bernardino Mayor John Valdivia, who has been on the dodge from allegations and suggestions of financial improprieties and abuse of his governmental authority since before he assumed the county seat’s highest elected position in December 2018, was hit with public accusations of sexual harassment this week by two women who abruptly resigned as members of his four-person staff last week.
Allegations that he was behaving inappropriately toward one of the women,  Mirna Cisneros, had been festering for nearly a year. Accusations pertaining to Karen Cervantes relate to Valdivia’s interaction with her since shortly after she was hired last fall.
Claims delineating the allegations in specific detail will be filed with the city next week, according to the two women’s attorney. A claim is a precursor to a lawsuit. The city will have the option of acknowledging either or both of the claims as valid and conferring a settlement on one or both of the women. Upon the city’s rejection of the claim in either case and the exhaustion of the claimants’ potential administrative remedies, each of the women will have clearance to proceed with a civil suit.
Cisneros, 30, and Cervantes, 24, submitted letters of resignation to Valdivia’s chief of staff, Matt Brown, on January 29.
In a terse statement, the city has said it has begun an investigation into the accusations.
The lawyer representing the two women, Tristan Pelayes, at a press conference held yesterday morning, February 6,  in front of the city’s 48-year-old City Hall that is now shuttered because of seismic instability, said, “My clients were subjected to repeated sexual harassment and mistreatment by the current City of San Bernardino mayor, John Valdivia. The claims are backed by evidence, including numerous messages, and those who witnessed the behavior. The harassment included sexual advances toward my clients, vulgar comments about women and his sexual activity, and numerous comments by the mayor telling them that they needed to spend more alone time with him after hours in order to be successful and secure their employment.”
Pelayes said both Cisneros and Cervantes while working for the mayor and serving in roles answerable directly to him became aware of Valdivia having failed to report contributions, that he was using city facilities, equipment and resources to raise campaign funds, and that he was engaging in other questionable or illegal activities and financially-based improprieties and misuses of public funds.
According to Pelayes, “Additional conduct of concern included the mayor being drunk while serving in his official capacity, and repeatedly hiding and misreporting financial activities, which is a violation of the law.”
City officials have known of Valdivia’s depredations, and have been remiss in not acting to stem them, Pelayes said.
“All of these incidents have been reported numerous times to city administrators, yet nothing was done, and they continued to be victimized by Mayor Valdivia,” Pelayes said.
The continuation of Valdivia’s misdeeds and the failure of city officials to shield Cisneros and Cervantes resulted, Pelayes asserted, in his clients “experiencing health issues, and they had to seek medical treatment, which was directly correlated with the severe stress they experienced.”
As a consequence, Pelayes said, Cisneros and Cervantes were left with “no choice but to resign from their positions at the City of San Bernardino. It wasn’t until they resigned and retained an attorney that the city started looking into the claims that they had been aware of but did nothing about.”
The city’s response has been little more than window dressing, Pelayes said, and he accused city management of carrying out a sham inquiry into the matter.
“Although the city has begun an internal investigation, they declined our requests to collectively work together through the process and choose an independent investigator to ensure a fair investigation, put the mayor on leave during the investigation, and provide alternate positions for my clients to return to without losing their employment status and benefits,” Pelayes said. “They stated that our requests were unreasonable.”
Cisneros said, “I was employed with the City of San Bernardino as a senior customer service representative. While working for Mayor Valdivia, I was subjected to countless inappropriate acts of harassment. This included him calling the office, saying he was drunk and needing assistance scheduling an appointment with Councilman Henry Nickel.” Cisneros said that Valdivia told her there was such a priority on his meeting with Nickel that “If need be… [she should] perform a sexual favor on one of Nickel’s staff members. He also offered me his credit card, would buy me whatever I wanted and said that his wife didn’t have to know. It disgusts me that that man, who swore to serve the community with integrity, used his position of power and authority to victimize people with no consequences.”
Cisneros said, “I never wanted it to get to this point, but I had no choice after the city failed to protect me and to hold the mayor accountable for his actions.”
Cervantes said, “I was employed with the City of San Bernardino as the mayor’s assistant. Over the last four months, Mayor Valdivia harassed and mistreated me repeatedly. He would talk about sexual escapades and desires in front of me and others. When I refused or didn’t respond to his advances and inappropriate correspondence, he would mistreat me, yell at me and make comments insinuating my job would be in jeopardy if I didn’t do what he wanted me to do. He said ‘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?’ My employment became what I called, the ‘misery program.’ He told me that the situation was my fault and that if I wanted things to change and to have a good relationship with him, I would have to spend time with him after hours. It got to the point where the right side of my face and arm became numb and stiff.”
Cervantes said, “After reporting the mayor’s inappropriate behavior and being told that because he was an elected official nothing would be done and he was above the law, I knew I had no choice but to take legal action and resign from my position.”
Pelayes said, “Based on the information that we know so far, it is my belief that there are others out there who have been victimized by the mayor. Valdivia’s abuse of power has cost my clients their jobs and impacted their physical and mental health, not to mention the disservice to those who put their trust in him as a community leader.”
Wednesday night, at the close of the public portion of this week’s regularly-scheduled council meeting, at the request of San Bernardino City Councilman/Mayor Pro Tem Ted Sanchez, Deputy City Attorney Sonia Carvalho provided this statement, “Mayor and council members, I wanted to assure you and also especially members of the public that the city manager and director of human resources have taken immediate action to address the recent claims that have been referred to in a newspaper article. The city has outside legal counsel that advises the city on all employment matters, and this firm is advising staff on its legal obligations to strictly comply and follow with all of your personnel rules, and to conduct a thorough investigation. We ask for your patience, knowing that staff needs to comply with these policies and state and federal law. The public should know that all of you have been advised of your legal responsibilities and your fiduciary duties, and your obligation not to disclose confidential personnel information, and this may be why some of you cannot speak to the press or members of the public.”
Valdivia for some time has been under investigation by both the FBI and the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office’s public integrity unit with regard to allegations and reports of bribe-taking and influence peddling, as well as misuse of public funds. One of those accusations relates to his having entangled himself, less than two weeks after his election as mayor in November 2018 and while he was yet serving in the capacity of the city’s Third Ward councilman, in financial investments involving business interests who are pursuing licensing of marijuana-related operations in the city, over which the city council has a degree of permitting discretion.
Valdivia’s chief of staff, Matt Brown, told the Sentinel, “The city is taking these allegations very seriously.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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