Fourth Claim Against SB Mayor Details More & Deeper Depredations

The fourth of five current and former employees within San Benardino Mayor John Valdivia’s office who maintain they were mistreated by him while serving in  their official capacities has filed a claim against the city.
The claim for damages filed by Valdivia’s former legislative field representative, Jackie Aboud, intimates more directly than the claims of the two other women whose filings preceded hers that Valdivia expected her to have sex with him as a condition of her employment.
Valdivia, who previously served as councilman in San Bernardino’s Third Ward, was elected mayor in 2018, defeating then-incumbent Carey Davis. He came into office as the first mayor elected under the city’s new charter, which was passed by the city’s voters in 2016, replacing the governmental model the city had functioned under for more than 11 decades. The city’s former charter, put in place in 1905, provided the mayor with no vote on the council but did give him/her veto power over any 4-to-3 or 3-to-2 votes, which in practicality gave him/her two votes; it instilled in him/her tie-breaking authority when a council vote deadlocked; he/she presided over the council meetings and thus controlled the ebb-and-flow of discussion and debate, with the power to recognize or ignore the members of the council as he/she willed; and with the city manager he/she had authority to hire and fire city personnel. This combination of political power and administrative reach rendered the mayor, essentially, a co-regent of the city. The 2016 charter revision ended the strong mayor form of government by removing the mayor’s administrative authority, specifically his/her ability to extend employment opportunities to those he/she wished or to, alternately, terminate staff at his/her discretion.
Valdivia came into office, yearning for the power that had been taken away from the position before he was elected to it. One advantage he initially possessed was his political sway. Newly elected with him in the 2018 contests in which he had ousted incumbent Mayor Carey Davis were Ted Sanchez in the First Ward and Sandra Ibarra in the Second Ward. He had supported both in their maiden electoral efforts, and was able to count on their votes with regard to the initiatives he championed. He had previously established a close political alliance with incumbent Sixth Ward Councilwoman Bessine Richard and had a good working relationship with Fifth Ward Councilman Henry Nickel. When a special election was held in May to fill the position he had vacated in the Third Ward to move into the mayor’s slot, the voters had chosen his handpicked successor, Juan Figueroa. The only two members of the council at odds with him were Fourth Ward Councilman Fred Shorett and Seventh Ward Councilman Jim Mulvihill. Shorett and Mulvihill, at that time, had insufficient political muscle to obstruct his control of the council.
To reconstruct the mayor’s dominance of City Hall, Valdivia upon assuming office at once set about beefing up the mayor’s staff. After the mayoral gavel was handed over to him by Davis, the only employee answerable directly to him in the city’s organizational chart was his chief of staff. With the assistance the individual he chose to fill that position, Bill Essayli, Valdivia sought to create for himself a support staff of nine. After some initial resistance on the part of Shorett, Mulvihill and Nickel to the concept of empowering the mayor’s office,  Valdivia ultimately prevailed, and by September of last year he had gone two thirds of the way toward reaching his staffing goal. All told, his office boasted a chief of staff, a constituent/customer service representative, an assistant, a full-time field representatives, a part-time field representative, and a paid intern, in addition to a secretary that served both him and the city council.
Ironically, the addition of staff into the mayor’s office that was done with the intention of extending Valdivia’s power has now redounded in such a way that those employees, with each of their stories compounding on those of one another, represent a very real threat to Valdivia being able to remain in office or continue his political career in any fashion.
On January 29 of this year, two city employees, Mirna Cisneros, who had been working in Valdivia’s office as a customer/constituent service representative since relatively early in his tenure as mayor, and Karen Cervantes, who had worked as his special assistant since September, resigned. They said they had been subjected to abusive behavior by the mayor, including being subjected to insults and sexually-tinged innuendo, sexual harassment and advances, and that they endured a hostile work environment along with a string of humiliations after rejecting those 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 and a little more than two weeks later, on February 13, filed claims against the city.
In short order, it was revealed that Pelayes was representing three other city employees working within Valdivia’s office, as well as a city commissioner who had similarly been subjected to abusive treatment by the mayor. Those clients were two other woman, Jackie Aboud, who had served as Valdivia’s field representative for nearly ten months, and Alissa Payne, whom Valdivia had nominated to serve on the city’s Arts and Historical Preservation Commission and the San Bernardino Parks, Recreation and Community Services Commission. The others were Don Smith, who had worked on Valdivia’s campaign for mayor and was subsequently hired by the city to serve as Valdivia’s part time field representative, and Matt Brown, Valdivia’s chief of staff who has been serving in that capacity since August 2019, roughly a month after Essayli had resigned.
Last Month, Smith, who yet works as Valdivia’s legislative field representative, filed a claim against Valdivia and the city, saying he has been subjected to abusive behavior by the mayor, was ordered to engage in illegal activity and was “constructively demoted” and ostracized by the city’s management when he did not go along with Valdivia’s inappropriate and illegal orders.
This week, on April 28, Aboud filed a claim, saying she was abused and ridiculed while working as Valdivia’s legislative field representative, and that he had subjected her repeatedly to vulgarisms and sexual comments, pressured her to have a sexual relationship with him and then retaliated against her by firing her when she refused to do so and reported his treatment of her to city officials.
Aboud worked for the city from April 24, 2019 until she was fired on January 6, 2020. Throughout that time, according to her claim, she was subjected to “pervasive and severe offensive and/or graphic sexual comments, such as sexually suggestive language and gestures, unwelcomed profanity, sexual comments and behavior, racist comments, and a hostile work environment on an almost daily basis. Claimant was also retaliated against by Valdivia for not engaging in a sexual relationship with him and for reporting Valdivia’s behavior to her supervisors and [the] human resources [department].” According to the claim, “on at least three separate occasions during claimant’s employment, Valdivia told her that she needed to ‘develop a personal relationship’ with him and that she also needed to spend more time with him ‘outside of work.’ He also threatened her that she was ‘replaceable,’ and he would ‘terminate’ her if she did not develop this ‘personal relationship’ with him. Valdivia’s intention for compelling claimant to develop a personal relationship with him was to date claimant and advance Valdivia’s sexual desires on claimant. From Valdivia’s multiple inappropriate interactions, he conveyed to claimant, based on his words and/or conduct, that her terms of employment and/or the favorable working conditions depended on the acceptance of his sexual advances towards her.”
According to the claim, when Aboud did not respond positively to Valdivia’s advances, “he became enraged every time and ridiculed, insulted, and created a hostile work environment for claimant by stripping her from her assignments, denying her training, creating unreasonable demands upon her, changing his expectations of her without giving her any notice and giving her instructions for tasks and then when claimant followed his instructions he would deny them and contradict himself simply to blame and ridicule claimant.”
Her claim states that  “On or about November 14, 2019, Valdivia scheduled a meeting with claimant. Valdivia wanted to discuss how he wanted claimant to learn more about his ‘personal needs.’  From claimant’s perspective, personal needs of Valdivia meant having sex with him.”
According to Aboud, Valdivia “treated her co-workers in the same manner, especially females when it came to inappropriate behavior of a sexual nature and male co-workers when it came to hostile work environment.”
Cisneros’s claim touches on illegal activity by Valdivia, most particularly his failure to properly report donations or gifts, as is required of elected and government officials, as well as his active efforts to misreport or hide his use of public funds, or misspend or misapply public funds or resources. Smith’s claim is far more thorough in this regard, outlining, and in some cases, detailing, what appears to be or comes across as instances of bribery.
Aboud’s claim, while less intensely steeped in pointing out graft, nevertheless alludes to corruptions of Valdivia’s power and authority, which included his efforts to provide city services to those residents in the sections of the city that supported him and to deny those services in those areas where the majority of votes went to his opponent.
Much of Aboud’s function as the mayor’s legislative field representative consisted of engaging in so-called “citizen relationship management” encounters with city residents, gleaning from those interactions issues or problems that City Hall, and in particular the mayor, should address. According to Aboud’s claim, Valdivia instructed her to ignore or not file reports with regard to her citizen relationship management encounters with residents of the Fourth and Seventh Wards, where his council rivals Shorett and Mulvihill are councilmen and where he received fewer votes in 2018 than did Davis.
Valdivia, who is a Republican, also instructed Aboud to remove all photos of Assemblywoman Eloise Gomez-Reyes  from his social media page. Gomez-Reyes is a Democrat.
On one occasion according to the claim, when Aboud was talking to the mayor and said she valued her job as his representative because it afforded her the opportunity “to work with the residents of San Bernardino at a grassroots level, so she was able to see the tangible impact made on residents and to bring good change to the city,” Valdivia “told her that she was not there to serve the people of San Bernardino, that she was only there to serve him and ‘his needs.’”
According to her claim, when Aboud turned to city officials for help in what she was experiencing with Valdivia, they were unable to do so because of their unwillingness to deal with someone in his position of authority.
In August 2019, Aboud met with Michelle Webb, an employee of the city’s human resources department, the claim states. After Aboud told Webb about her encounters with Valdivia and specific things he had said and done to her, including the sexual harassment, “Webb confirmed that Valdivia’s behavior was improper, but that claimant should beware of Valdivia’s actions ‘once [the] human resources [department] notified him of the complaints,’ because he could retaliate without repercussion. Claimant was not given any further guidance,” according to the claim. The claim said that Aboud met with Webb a bit less than two months later “and reported Valdivia’s actions and the fact that things were getting worse. Webb advised claimant to speak with someone else because she herself was ‘not able to take on issues like these’ because she was new. Webb advised claimant to wait until she had put in her notice to leave the position to file the claim with [the] human resources [department] because of Valdivia’s likelihood of retaliating against claimant.”
Valdivia’s positioning is weakening. The alliances he once had with Sanchez, Ibarra and Nickel have deteriorated, in the cases of Sanchez and Ibarra to the point of hostility. His sole remaining support on the council consists of Richard and Figueroa. Richard, in some measure because of her affiliation with Valdivia, was defeated for reelection in March, making her a lame duck who will leave office in December.
The law firm of Best Best & Krieger, which employs Thomas Rice, who serves as San Bernardino’s city attorney, and Sonya Carvalho, who serves as San Bernardino deputy city attorney, had previously sought to protect Valdivia, believing that he still controlled a majority of the council’s members. As the scandal surrounding Valdivia escalated, Best Best & Krieger brought in the law firm of Liebert Cassidy Whitmore to do an “independent investigation,” which in reality had its parameters dictated by Best Best & Krieger. Rice and Carvalho have in the last month-and-a-half come to recognize that Valdivia no longer holds sway over a council majority, and thus cannot effectively act to remove Best Best & Krieger as the city’s contract city attorney if he becomes displeased with its service. Thus, the firm has signaled Liebert Cassidy Whitmore that it can proceed with a legitimate investigation. That Liebert Cassidy Whitmore will return with findings that will politically cripple Valdivia even further than he is already damaged is a foregone conclusion. Of question, however, is how thoroughly Liebert Cassidy Whitmore, which has a reputation for politically shaving its investigative findings to protect governmental establishment figures, will explore the issues of graft which have become exposed since Cisneros and Cervantes went public after their resignations, and which have been enlarged on in considerable depth by Smith’s claim.
Valdivia did not respond to the Sentinel’s offer to provide his version of events.
-Mark Gutglueck


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