By Mark Gutglueck
The contretemps enveloping San Bernardino Mayor John Valdivia intensified this week in the wake of a sixth personage at City Hall who is closely associated with him having retained legal representation to pursue a possible claim of damages against the city over the mayor’s conduct and abuse of his elective authority. The news electrified even the most jaded of observers when it was revealed that the person who had lawyered up is his chief of staff.
Matt Brown, who has been Valdivia’s chief of staff for nearly seven months, is now represented by attorney Tristan Pelayes, the legal counsel for four city employees who worked within the mayor’s office as well as a city commissioner nominated to two city commissions by Valdivia. Five of Pelayes’s six clients in the matter are current or former city employees who were or remain members of the mayor’s team, ones intended to carry out contact with city residents and businesses, represent him to his constituents or assist him in communicating with other public officials and help in the formulation and coordination of official policy. All six of Pelayes’s clients were people within Valdivia’s orbit and who were close to him on a regular basis. All six were formerly perceived, both inside and outside City Hall, as parts of the bulwark against recurrent suggestions that Valdivia, who in 2018 leapfrogged from his position as Third Ward councilman to mayor, was a self-serving politician angling to abuse the power and reach of his office to enrich himself and his cronies, while putting himself into position to seek higher office.
Ultimately, however, Mirna Cisneros, Karen Cervantes, Jackie Aboud, Don Smith, Alissa Payne and now Brown are no longer serving to help maintain the mayor’s reputation. Rather, because they once held or still hold positions on his staff or can lay claim to a political affiliation with him, their claims of abuse at the mayor’s hands are being widely interpreted as confirming some of the most untoward of Valdivia’s personality defects and character flaws.
Former senior customer service representative Mirna Cisneros, 30, and Karen Cervantes, 24, who was Valdivia’s mayoral assistant, triggered the mayoral crisis with their dual simultaneous resignations on January 29, which were followed with their public statements as to why they felt leaving the city’s employ was necessary. Cisneros and Cervantes had retained Pelayes, a former San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputy and one-time mayor of Adelanto who is now a principal in the law firm of Pelayes & Yu, to represent them prior to their resignations. While they were working for the city in roles that were answerable to Valdivia, they said, the mayor had subjected them to unwanted sexual advances, innuendo and crude remarks, sought to press them into compromising circumstances, insisted that they perform tasks outside their job assignments, and either sought to involve them in or acknowledged to them his skirting of the law pertaining to the use of public funds as well as his violation of the reporting requirements imposed on public officials relating to the reception of donations, money or services. Cisneros said that Valdivia had pressured her to work on political campaigns while she was serving in her capacity as a city employee, and that the mayor suggested that she should use the vacation time she had accrued to work on the now-concluded campaigns of two of the candidates in this year’s city council races Valdivia had endorsed, Juan Figueroa and Bessine Richard.
According to Pelayes, efforts to alleviate the circumstance through some order of acknowledgment that Valdivia was behaving inappropriately and then have him desist or move Cisneros and Cervantes into other assignments were not successful.
Last week, during a press conference called before San Bernardino City Hall, Pelayes announced that four others who had experienced mistreatment from Pelayes had retained his firm to represent them. Thereafter he introduced three of those four.
Jackie Aboud, a 23-year-old recent San Bernardino State University graduate who had gone to work as a part-time field representative for Valdivia in April 2019 and was fired on January 6, was one of Pelayes’s clients. According to Aboud, she had been provided with no training and was subjected to a circumstance which suggested that she was not hired for legitimate work in serving as a liaison between Valdivia and his constituents but rather as Valdivia’s courtesan. “He told me I needed to spend time with him after hours and invest in a friendship with him if I wanted to reach my career goals,” Aboud said. “He also told me that my job was not to serve the community but to serve him and meet his personal needs.”
According to Aboud, Valdivia was self-centered and abrasive, and his ego-driven ambition prevented him from being of service to his constituents. “The mayor doesn’t care about the community, only certain areas that supported him during his election,” Aboud said. “I was ordered to not help, support, or partner with parts of the community that didn’t support him in the election, like the 4th and 7th Ward.”
Valdivia had a vindictive and means streak, Aboud said, saying he was prone to “screaming,” which was vectored at her and others. “We were all walking on eggshells around him,” she said. Valdivia took recourse in threatening her with termination, belittling her in front of others and constant bullying, she said, observing the mayor found “joy in mistreating others, even talked about how much he loved firing people, and would call other employees names in front of me – making fun of them, based on their age, race, and even veteran status.”
Aboud said, “It was my dream to work in local government. The mayor turned my dreams into a nightmare.”
Don Smith, a part-time legislative aid and field representative assigned to the mayor’s office, said Valdivia “ordered me to work extra hours, while not getting paid, promising me a promotion opportunity. He had me run personal errands like getting his car serviced while on the clock for the city. He offered to pay me for side work, then would never pay me fully after I completed the work. He routinely threatened my job as a means to bully me.”
Smith said the mayor “told me my job was on the line if I didn’t do what he wanted. Even though I was not on call, he would call me and tell me to immediately report to work on days/times I wasn’t scheduled. Anytime I questioned him, he again would tell me that I needed to do what I was told because he gave me the opportunity.”
According to Smith, “The mayor truly believes he is above the law and as a matter of fact, he told me one time ‘We are the law’ when I questioned him about the legal parameters of his actions.”
Alissa Payne, who in October 2019 was nominated by Valdivia and then appointed to both the Arts and Historical Preservation Commission and the San Bernardino Parks, Recreation and Community Services Commission, said, “I was subjected to inappropriate conduct and manipulation by the mayor. He went as far as offering to provide me an apartment, would tell me how to vote and what to say or do at the commission meetings, asked me to meet him alone in the evening after hours, and promised – guaranteed – me a seat on the city dais as the 2nd Ward council member.”
Payne said Valdivia made inappropriate sexist comments about Councilwoman Sandra Ibarra and what she called “homophobic slurs” about a city council candidate she did not specify. Payne recounted that Valdivia “invited me to attend a dinner event as his personal guest where he was persistently trying to get me intoxicated, which I declined, and put his arm around me several times, touching my lower back and making me extremely uncomfortable, which eventually led to him pulling me in for an unwanted hug.
“The mayor was preying on me,” Payne continued, and she asserted that “council members were not only aware but enabled his behavior. Coincidentally, after I didn’t give in to the mayor’s demands and started to become distant with him, my apartment and one of my events for the homeless was reported to code enforcement.”
Payne said she had been disrespected, betrayed and exploited. “When city council members and the mayor began to show their support, I felt like I was achieving something, that my hard work was paying off,” she said. “The more I was around these people, the more I began to realize the truth, and it hurt. The mayor didn’t recognize me because of my hard work and dedication, but because he was preying on me. The mayor wants power and his way at all costs. The mayor knew of my situation as a single mom and preyed on me, used me.”
It is against this backdrop that word now comes that Valdivia’s chief of staff, Brown, is also concerned about Valdivia’s mistreatment of him. At the press conference on February 27, Pelayes alluded to but did not identify a sixth client seeking refuge from Valdivia’s depredations. This week, the Sentinel has confirmed that sixth client is Brown.
Matt Brown hired on as Valdivia’s chief of staff in August 2019, roughly a month after the departure of Valdivia’s original chief of staff, Bill Essayli. Like Essayli, Brown has been heavily involved in politics, in particular Republican politics. Essayli was the Republican candidate for Assembly in the 60th District in 2018. A former member of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee and a former member of that body’s executive committee, Brown is the founder of several Republican Party political action committees, including the San Bernardino County Taxpayers Association and the San Bernardino County Young Republicans. Brown, who had been hired as assistant county recorder in 2010 as a consequence of his political activity and subsequently became assistant auditor-controller after the merger of the auditor-controller-recorder’s and treasurer/tax collector’s offices, was let go from the county last year after the election of Ensen Mason as auditor-controller/treasurer-tax collector in 2018. He was convinced by Chris Jones, a campaign consultant who had served as Valdivia’s campaign manager, to take the job as the mayor’s chief of staff.
This fall, when Cisneros, then Aboud and finally Cervantes lodged complaints about Valdivia’s comportment, Brown found himself in the middle of a difficult and delicate situation. At one point he attempted to intervene and fashion a solution which would have essentially entailed Valdivia moderating his behavior, but the mayor, who regarded himself to be the entity through which power at City Hall flowed, was having none of that. It became immediately clear that were Brown to seek to mediate any sort of a resolution, Valdivia would consider his action to be tantamount to accepting or interpreting Cisneros, Aboud and Cervantes as the mayor’s equals, and an act of disloyalty. In each of the cases, Brown either passed the complaints along to the city manager’s office or facilitated having the complaints lodged and registered. For some time the matter hung in limbo, as City Manager Teri Ledoux was reluctant to take any action that would challenge the mayor, whom she believed had control of the city council. After Cisneros and Cervantes went public with their complaints, the city council took up, during a closed session, whether the city should conduct an investigation into the accusations against the mayor. With members Ted Sanchez, Sandra Ibarra, Fred Shorett and Jim Mulvihill prevailing and members Juan Figueroa and Bessine Richard resisting and member Henry Nickel unwilling to commit one way or the other, the council elected to proceed with the investigation. Brown cooperated with the investigation. On February 20, Brown grew concerned that Valdivia was aware of his cooperation with the investigation, at which point he made contact with Pelayes.
At the council meeting on Wednesday evening, March 3, Brown declined to discuss the matter. “I can’t say anything until the after the investigation is concluded,” he told the Sentinel. “You’ll have to be patient.”
Brown’s disaffection from Valdivia and his involvement in the investigation into his conduct carries with it tremendous potential hazard for the mayor.
A decade ago, Brown was serving in the capacity of chief of staff to then Second District San Bernardino County Supervisor Paul Biane. After the district attorney’s office opened up an investigation into whether Biane and his fellow supervisors Bill Postmus and Gary Ovitt were accepting bribes, Brown agreed to wear a wire, i.e., a hidden audio recording device, with which he surreptitiously captured 85 conversations with Biane. Eventually, Biane became suspicious, and Brown, fearing some order of reprisal from his boss, filed a grievance with the county relating to Biane’s mistreatment of him. Brown’s grievance became public, and to manage what was a very awkward situation and protect the investigation, then-top county administrator Greg Devereaux arranged to have Brown transferred from his chief of staff post to the county recorder’s office. That led to the revelation of the investigation, which redounded to Biane’s political detriment, resulting in his losing his 2010 bid for reelection as supervisor. Biane and Postmus were criminally charged with bribe-taking. Postmus was convicted. Biane, after a nearly six-year delay in going to trial, was acquitted.
That the lawyer Brown turned to for legal representation is the same lawyer representing those having lodged complaints against Valdivia makes the situation doubly worse for the mayor.
The Sentinel has made repeated efforts to obtain from Valdivia his version of events. Valdivia, who has retained a lawyer and is being guided by Jones in an effort to salvage his political career, has steadfastly refused comment, citing the ongoing investigation. Individuals close to him have told the Sentinel that even after the investigation concludes, Valdivia will not be discussing the matter.
Former Mayor Carey Davis, who narrowly lost to Valdivia in the 2018 election, voiced his belief that Valdivia’s self-centered, dictatorial and domineering abuse of the power entrusted to him was apparent previously, before he was elected mayor. He said Valdivia was resistant to taking a team approach to governance and implementing policies that did not allow him to exert his own power.
“During my time in office, much of my focus was working to build a long term plan to successfully exit bankruptcy and address the city’s future course by implementing a more effective and modern government structure,” Davis said, referencing San Bernardino’s 2012 filing for Chapter Nine bankruptcy protection that took place 18 months before his election as mayor, and the move to redraft the city’s 1905 charter and present the new plan of governmental operations to the voters in 2016. “We established a new charter and memorialized operating practices for good government. John opposed many of our efforts. He was the only council member who did not sign the agreed-upon operating practices of good government. He was not an advocate for the new charter that rebalanced the power at City Hall by establishing a council-manager form of government, which gave more power to the city council versus the mayor.”
According to Davis, Valdivia “was opposed to the fiscally prudent and operational enhancement of outsourcing the fire department to the county. When I left office, the city had accrued approximately $40 million in reserves. We successfully exited bankruptcy and had a financial stability plan in place. Fire department response times had improved. The city received a substantial refund from the county fire division, but John wanted to give that money back to the county fire division. We didn’t do that.”
Valdivia’s full court press to place himself in a central position of power is recreating the circumstances that led to the city’s mismanagement and its plunge into a financial abyss that ultimately resulted in the city taking recourse in municipal bankruptcy, Davis said.
“It is unfortunate the city is once again suffering from dysfunctional government, when it was on a much better trajectory before John’s election as mayor,” Davis said. “John does not seem to understand his role as mayor within a council-manager form of government. The actions he has taken since becoming mayor have been to once again place the city’s power with the mayor. This is not what the city’s residents wanted when the voters adopted the new charter. His efforts to gain control over the city council demonstrate his disdain for the new charter.”
Valdivia’s instincts are to undercut those who represent a check on his own authority and ability to wield the power of government, Davis said.
“Before John’s election, the city was being well served by a highly competent city manager, Andrea Miller, who was helping to build a healthy council-manager structure,” Davis said. “It appears John derailed that progress by working to terminate her contract, which had been unanimously approved by the council. I fear the city has been set back and faces a long and difficult road to recovery.”
While Davis said “there is cause for concern” and “things are pretty bleak right now,” he said the scandal overtaking the mayor has a silver lining in that it just might prompt the city council to reassert itself and implement its vision rather than deferring to Valdivia’s commandeering of the ruling process.
“I believe the city council should be taking action to regain the power vested in them by the residents of the city through the city charter,” Davis said.
At this week’s council meeting Wednesday night, Valdivia was on his best behavior. In the past he has wielded the mayor’s gavel to bully the members of the council with whom he has had disagreements, in particular Councilwoman Sandra Ibarra, who was elected to the council at the time he was elected mayor and who was originally a member of the ruling coalition he initially led. Ibarra, however, parted company with him some six months after the 2018 election. On numerous occasions previously, he has ignored Ibarra when she sought to be recognized to bring forth a motion or a topic of discussion. This week there was no hint of Valdivia’s past willingness to lord it over the others on the council, and he indulged all of the council members when they sought to register their comments. Even when the issue pertaining to the accusations against him was brought up, Valdivia did not flinch, treating the matter as if it were routine.
“Something has come up and I would like to agendize something,” Councilman Ted Sanchez said toward the end of the meeting, just as Valdivia was set to adjourn the proceedings to a close.
“Sure,” said Valdivia. “Go ahead, sir.”
“”I’d like the council to consider agendizing the current status of the mayor’s staff,” Sanchez said, signaling what appeared to be an intent to trim the mayor’s reach. “The mayor’s staff right now is on the third floor, and I’d like a discussion as to their status in the city and what they’re doing. So I’d like to make the motion we agendize discussion on this matter, and see if the other council would entertain several options as to what we do with the mayor’s staff moving forward.”
“I’d like to see something like that,” said councilman Jim Mulvihill.
“So, thank you,” said Valdivia. “”I’d like to discuss that with [City Manager] Teri [Ledoux] before we proceed with an agendized item,” said Valdivia.
“I’m going to support [Councilman Sanchez] on this item, at least to have some kind of report back on it,” said Councilman Fred Shorett. “It may fall under budgeting and staff at that level.”
Councilwoman Ibarra noted that the city council was exercising its authority under the city charter by pursuing an investigation in the mayor’s office.
After a vote to support Sanchez’s motion passed 7-to-0, Valdivia said, agreeably, “That’s a very timely topic, and we will agendize it. So, we thank you.”
By Mark Gutglueck