By Mark Gutglueck
San Bernardino Mayor John Valdivia’s political career is headed toward a dead end, with virtually no chance that he will be able to gain reelection in 2022 despite his superior fundraising position at present, a former politician who was one of the mayor’s key political backers in 2018 told the Sentinel.
A factor central to Valdivia’s unraveling is that Chris Jones, the political consultant who was the architect of Valdivia’s 2018 electoral victory over then-incumbent Mayor Carey Davis, is abandoning the embattled mayor.
Valdivia’s once seemingly promising political career hit a major snag in January when three members of his staff abruptly left their positions of employment at City Hall. One of those – his field representative Jackie Aboud – was fired. The two others – his resident services representative Mirna Cisneros and his mayoral office assistant Karen Cervantes – quit. In February, Cisneros and Cervantes, represented by Attorney Tristan Pelayes, filed claims against the city and Valdivia, alleging he had put the make on them, sexually harassed them and then created a hostile work environment when they failed to yield to his requests to be sexually accommodated. Parenthetical to those charges of sexual harassment contained in the claims was that Valdivia had engaged in other improprieties and illegal activities, which included bribetaking, misappropriation of public funds and the illicit use of public resources for partisan political purposes. Aboud also retained Pelayes, and in her claim she echoed the charge that Valdivia had sought to induce her to have a sexual relationship with him, and that after she refused to do so, he maltreated her and then fired her. Subsequently, two of Valdivia’s male staff members – his chief of staff Matt Brown and his field representative Don Smith – likewise retained Pelayes and filed claims of their own, alleging abusive behavior by Valdivia and corroborating some of the details in the Cisneros, Cervantes and Aboud claims. Smith related further incidents of political corruption. Brown disclosed an effort by Valdivia to spur false charges and create a falsified record against Cisneros and Cervantes to counteract the prosecution of their claims and the eventual legal action they foreknelled. Adding to Valdivia’s difficulties was that Alyssa Payne, whom Valdivia had appointed to the Arts and Historical Preservation Commission and the San Bernardino Parks, Recreation and Community Services Commission, retained Pelayes, as well, asserting that Valdivia had engaged in predatory behavior with her on the order of what Cisneros, Cervantes and Aboud had described.
For nearly six months, Valdivia and his political team engaged in a strategy of denial, dismissing the claims and their accusations as a politically motivated attack. In seeking to map his way out of the scandal and remain in office, Valdivia had turned to Jones, whose guidance had proven impeccable in getting him into office. And indeed, Jones had a vested interest in maintaining Valdivia in office and perpetuating his political career.
Jones bears similarities and dissimilarities to other political consultants.
Like virtually all others in the political consulting arena, Jones has cultivated an expertise in how to get a candidate elected, using a variety of stratagems, from finding a perfect catchphrase or slogan for a political campaign to creating handbills, brochures and mailers to tout a candidate and his qualities; from devising radio, television and newspaper ads to printing yard signs and securing billboard space; from identifying those voters most likely to vote and concentrating a major portion of a campaign’s effort on them rather than squandering resources appealing to those unlikely to show up at the polls to discerning differing voter types and taking steps to ensure that a campaign is variegated enough and selective in its targeting so properly calibrated brochures or mailers go exclusively to the voters those specially-focused electioneering appeals are designed and intended for; from designing hit pieces to attack the opponent or opponents of the candidate he is working for to creating or having at the ready an independent expenditure committee that can maneuver around limitations on donations that can legally be made to a candidates and which can take responsibility for those hit pieces attacking a politician’s opponent without the attack being associated with the politician the attack is benefiting; and having connections with those entities or operations sending out slate mailers recommending or endorsing candidates so that his clients can secure through payments those endorsements.
Jones, nonetheless, is unlike most other political consultants in one respect. Whereas nearly all other political consultants await the candidates to approach them to engage their services and then charge a handsome price for the assistance they render, Jones is known to take a survey of an upcoming race and the field of candidates in it and to then approach a candidate he feels has potential. Jones will accordingly offer that candidate not just his services in running his or her campaign but will offer his fundraising capability as well. Jones has developed a considerable list of potential campaign donors to whom he can appeal to back the candidates he represents. Built into this arrangement is what is tantamount to a guarantee that the candidates Jones works for will be well-funded, which thus translates into a substantial payday for himself. The evidence of this mode of operation on Jones’s part is the tremendous commonality among the donors to the candidates Jones represents. Inherent in these arrangements is the understanding that in return for their donations to the politicians that Jones is consulting to, the donors will have access to and influence over those politicians they are monetizing. In this way, Jones, in addition to advising candidates on what they need to do to get elected, remains as an informal advisor to those politicians if and once they succeed in getting into office, suggesting to them how they should vote, particularly when a vote will have an impact on a campaign donor. An examination of the body of campaign donors Jones over the years has succeeded in getting to support his clients shows that virtually all of them are in the position of needing the help of government to further their business or monetary interests.
Moreover, Jones’ continuing connections to the candidates who employ him after they have assumed office makes for the creation of a network among politicians, including politicians serving on the same decision-making panel, which provides for a cohesiveness and coordination with regard to policy that ultimately redounds to the benefit of the army of campaign contributors Jones has assembled to support his clients.
The predominate number of politicians Jones works for are Republicans.
In the immediate aftermath of the accusations pouring in against Valdivia, the mayor was being advised by Jones on how to weather the storm. Dozens, indeed scores, of campaign donors, a large number of whom had been vectored to Valdivia by Jones, had a lot riding on the mayor remaining in power in San Bernardino, which, in addition to being the county seat, is the largest city population-wise in San Bernardino County.
Upon his election in 2018, Valdivia seemed to occupy the catbird seat in 218,000 population San Bernardino. The mayor had a strong political bond with Sixth Ward Councilwoman Bessine Richard, who had also retained Jones as her political consultant. On a majority of substantive issues, Valdivia was likewise aligned with Fifth Ward Councilman Henry Nickel, with whom he had served on the council for five years at that point. Upon acceding to the mayor’s position in December 2018, Valdivia could also claim as allies the two members of the council who had been newly elected in the 2018 contest, First District Councilman Ted Sanchez and Second Ward Councilwoman Sandra Ibarra. Jones was Sanchez’s political consultant on his 2018 campaign. In the 2018 Primary Election in the Second Ward, Valdivia had backed his then-council ally, incumbent Benito Barrios. But after Barrios had finished third in that contest, forcing a run-off between Ibarra and Cecilia Miranda-Dolan in the November election, Valdivia supported Ibarra, which included bringing Jones in to assist her in the final stages of the campaign. In the initial days, weeks and months of Valdivia’s tenure as mayor, the only opposition he had on the council consisted of Fourth Ward Councilman Fred Shorett and Seventh Ward Councilman Jim Mulvihill, which thus endowed him with a 4-to-2 ruling coalition. Because his mayoral victory had come while he yet had two years on his council term representing the city’s Third Ward, Valdivia was obliged to resign as councilman, and the city called a special election, held in May 2019, to fill the gap on the council. Valdivia endorsed and campaigned on behalf of Juan Figueroa, transferring money from his campaign account to Figueroa’s, which was used to partially defray payments made to Jones, who served as Figueroa’s campaign consultant. Figueroa prevailed in the Third Ward race over Treasure Ortiz. This gave the Valdivia political juggernaut an even more solid 5-to-2 lock on the council.
With the advent and then the advancement of the mayoral crisis precipitated originally by the Cisneros and Cervantes claims, the Valdivia-led coalition began to fray. Valdivia sustained the first tangible blow to his grip on the council on March 3, 2020 when Mulvihill, Richard, Nickel and Figueroa needed to stand for reelection in this year’s California Primary Election. Richard lost outright to Kimberly Calvin. While Richard is to remain on the council until December, she is doing so as a lame duck. Gradually, over the last seven months, the defection of Ibarra, Nickel and Sanchez from the Valdivia political camp has become more and more apparent. At one point, Ibarra publicly called upon Valdivia to resign if the accusations contained in the claims lodged by Cisneros, Cervantes and Aboud were true.
Well into June, Valdivia and members of his team, which yet included Jones, were confident that the mayor would be able to stand down or stonewall the accusations being made against him, and that he was capable of wielding the power, position and authority that the voters of San Bernardino had vested in him to employ the machinery of municipal government to protect himself and discredit his accusers.
For a time, Valdivia and his entourage, which had grown to include his legal representative, Rod Pacheco, effectively, or so it seemed, held off the mayor’s detractors. Pacheco, like Valdivia, is a rare example of a Hispanic Republican who achieved substantial political success despite the consideration that the vast majority of Latino politicians in California and Latinos in general throughout the Golden State identify as Democrats. In 1996, when Pacheco was victorious in his run for the California State Assembly, he became the first Hispanic Republican elected to the California Legislature in more than a century. He was elected Leader of the Republican caucus, marking the first time in the state’s history that a Latino had served in that capacity.
With panache, Pacheco asserted that Valdivia was a hardworking politician committed to rejuvenating San Bernardino and its sluggish economy after a serious erosion of the municipality’s financial condition led to it having to declare bankruptcy in 2012 and remain in that state until 2017. Valdivia, Pacheco asserted, was under political attack by Democrats resentful of his Republican affiliation and the effective manner in which he was guiding the city toward firm financial footing. The false accusations being heaped upon Valdivia by Cisneros, Cervantes, Aboud, Brown, Smith and Payne were cheap Democratic tactics, Pacheco insisted.
Simultaneously, Jones was working furiously to salvage Valdivia’s political career. The barrage of negative publicity about Valdivia’s comportment had reverberated around the community, exposing cracks in the foundation of the Republican political establishment of which both Jones and Valdivia are a part. When members of that establishment began to speak among themselves and then more openly about their observations of Valdivia’s behavior and parallels with the actions Valdivia was accused of in the claims filed by those Pelayes was representing, Jones leapt into the breach, seeking to convince those once within the mayor’s circle who were badmouthing him to desist. At that point it was yet Jones’ hope that Valdivia would be able to survive the challenges that Pelayes and his clients were throwing at him, maintain control or at least substantial control of the city council and continue to meet the expectations of the political donors who had bankrolled his political rise by ensuring that their projects or their contracts to provide goods and services to the city were given approval.
As spring advanced fully into summer and now as summer is about to give way to fall, however, the ground beneath Valdivia’s feet began, and has continued, to give way. Foremost, perhaps, in the mayor’s declension was the outcome of an investigation the city council, at the recommendation of City Attorney Thomas Rice and Deputy City Attorney Sonia Carvalho, commissioned to examine the allegations made against Valdivia in the Cisneros, Cervantes and Aboud claims. Ultimately, the city council retained Los Angeles-based attorney Carla Barboza to look into the matter, paying her $68,000 to conduct interviews and examine evidence relating to accusations leveled at Valdivia. The lion’s share of Barboza’s analysis dwelt on what the city defined as the incidents of sexual harassment allegedly perpetrated by Valdivia, though Barboza’s examination extended to other elements in the Cisneros, Cervantes and Aboud claims.
According to the executive summaries of Barboza’s investigations of the three claims, the one filed by Mirna Cisneros could be reduced to 43 separate and distinct accusations; that filed by Karen Cervantes comprised 44 allegations; and the claim filed by Aboud boiled down to 29 accusations. Barboza encountered some rough sledding in trying to cover the entirety of what had been alleged against the mayor and ascertain the truth and validity of those accusations. Cisneros, Cervantes and Aboud, advised by Pelayes that the city’s investigation was angling toward a preset conclusion, declined to be interviewed by Barboza. Valdivia likewise refused to be interviewed. With only a few exceptions, Barboza did not identify in her executive summaries of the Cisneros, Cervantes and Aboud investigations the witnesses she interviewed. Each of the executive summaries mentions that 17 witnesses in total were interviewed, which would suggest that she was referencing the same 17 witnesses throughout her investigation of each of the claims. Barboza was limited, it appears, in the documentation she was provided. In the executive summaries, she states that the Cisneros, Cervantes and Aboud claims were the only documents available to her containing the specific allegations relating to Valdivia. This would suggest that the city itself withheld from Barboza the reports that Pelayes maintains Cisneros, Cervantes and Aboud filed with Valdivia’s chief of staff, Matt Brown, the city’s human resources department, Human Resources Director Helen Chan and City Manager Teri Ledoux prior to Cisneros’s and Cervantes’ voluntary and Aboud’s forced departures from the city in January.
Nevertheless, despite those limitations, Barboza indicated she was able to make a thorough enough analysis to derive conclusions as to the truth or falsity – the overall validity – of the multitude of accusations leveled at Valdivia. According to Barboza, she used what she referred to as the “preponderance of the evidence standard,” in making her analysis of all three claims, which she explained as being a conclusion “whether it was more likely than not that the complained-of action or conduct occurred.”
According to Barboza, her analysis of the allegations, the available evidence and the statements of witnesses led her to conclude that 20 of Cisneros’s 43 accusations relating to Valdivia and his conduct could be substantiated; that 13 accusations of the 44 allegations in Cervantes’ claim could be fully substantiated and some though not all of the elements within another one of Cervantes’ allegations were verified; and that three of the 29 accusations lodged against the mayor by Aboud could be substantiated.
Despite the accusations of sexual harassment against Valdivia having garnered the lion’s share of the publicity in the early public exposure of the scandal, Barboza was unable to find sufficient backing to establish that Valdivia had engaged in most of the sexual harassment incidents he was accused of which involved overt sexually-tinged comments or suggestions. Of Cisneros’s 21 allegations of such patently sexually-based transgressions on the mayor’s part, Barboza found seven substantiated and 14 unsubstantiated. Of Cervantes’ allegations against the mayor, 10 related to direct sexual comments, requests, suggestions or references and his attempt to ply her with liquor. Barboza said nine of those were unsubstantiated, finding only one to be, in her parlance, “partially substantiated.” Of the 29 allegations against the mayor in Aboud’s claim, 15 related to him sexually pressuring her. One passage in Aboud’s claim said what she experienced while serving as the mayor’s field representative consisted of Valdivia having “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’’’ and Valdivia telling Aboud “he would ‘terminate’ her if she did not develop this ‘personal relationship’ with him.” Aboud’s claim also stated that “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.” Barboza found all 15 of those sexually-based allegations unsubstantiated.
Despite Barboza’s determination that most of the accusations relating to sexual harassment by the mayor could not be substantiated, she sustained as verifiable numerous accounts, particularly ones emanating from Cisneros, that Valdivia had engaged in improprieties with regard to taking money, gifts and favors from questionable sources in ways that bordered on or crossed the line into the province of bribery, and that Valdivia played fast and loose with regard to the rules relating to filing the reports, certified under the penalty of perjury, required of public officials relating to the reception of those gratuities. Barboza also sustained other accusations that Valdivia had falsified his travel and expense vouchers for activity he engaged in while junketing or traveling on what was supposed to be official city or government business. Moreover, Barboza found credible reports that Valdivia used the authority of his office and public assets, facilities and personnel, to engage in political activity, which is strictly forbidden under the law.
Barboza said her investigation substantiated an allegation by Cisneros that Valdivia pressured his staff members to participate in what was scheduled [but later canceled] to be a campaign event for him on opening day of the 2020 baseball season at Dodger Stadium in April; that Valdivia attempted to force Cisneros and another female co-worker [identified by the Sentinel as Mayoral/City Council Secretary Renee Brizuela] to work on the reelection campaigns of two of his council allies, Juan Figueroa and Bessine Richard, running in the March 2020 election; that Valdivia had accepted a $900 bottle of wine gifted to him by an ambassador without reporting the gratuity on his statement of economic interest as required by California law; that Valdivia had stated he was constantly receiving gifts he did not properly report; that he had instructed Cisneros to be “vague” in filing Valdivia’s request for reimbursement for hotel accommodations and meals from the San Bernardino International Airport Authority, of which he is a board member, when the activity he carried out on that particular trip apparently related to his having met with donors to his campaign fund; that he was the recipient of free travel, including flights in a Gulfstream, from a particular businessman or businessmen; and that Valdivia told Cisneros that he had an inside contact at the district attorney’s office who was delivering to him information relating to any investigation or investigations that office was conducting relating to his activity.
Even prior to the public release of the executive summaries of Barboza’s investigations of the three complaints on September 8, there were indications that Jones, who was so assiduously committed to keeping the viability of Valdivia’s career intact just a few months ago, has come to view Valdivia as more of a liability to his political consulting kingdom than an asset.
According to one well placed individual within the Jones organization, Jones for some time has been concerned with the manner in which Valdivia has defied the advice given him on how he should conduct himself both publicly and privately, but did not consider the relatively minor flare-ups Valdivia’s behavior caused to be an issue that compromised the potential Valdivia possessed in both an immediate and future political context. More recently, however, with the emergence of information and evidence that Valdivia has engaged in arrangements involving monetary exchanges with individuals with business before the city, taking in what otherwise might have been justified as political donations if they had been reported as such but which were never cataloged in Valdivia’s campaign finance documents, it has become clear to Jones, the Sentinel was told, that Valdivia is running the risk of being indicted on bribery and political corruption charges. Given the fashion in which Jones’ services to his various clients already skirts the boundary of pay-to-play politics, remaining associated with Valdivia appears to have grown too dangerous for Jones.
As of June 30 of this year, the John Valdivia for Mayor 2022 campaign fund had an ending balance of $70,509.73, an impressive head start that would seem to favor Valdivia with regard to his effort to stay in office, which will be tested at the election now scheduled for June 7, 2022. The vast majority of the money in that campaign account was accumulated with Jones’ assistance. Since that time, a $5,000 contribution from Michael Armada, the owner of Armada Towing, a $1,000 contribution from AAJ Management, doing business as Town Lodge Motel in San Bernardino, and a $2,000 contribution from Gil Botello’s campaign fund for his current effort to be elected to the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District Board have been made to Valdivia’s electioneering fund. Though that $78,509.73 may be sufficient to ward off some who might consider challenging Valdivia for reelection in two years, there are indications that a few ambitious politicians and would-be politicians are intent on vying for San Bernardino mayor themselves, convinced that the incumbent is vulnerable.
Word came to the Sentinel last week that Jones will not be serving Valdivia as his primary advisor/campaign consultant when 2022 dawns. A former holder of multiple elected offices who was himself within the Jones political camp told the Sentinel, “John may run, but he will not win. He has some money, and he still has a few backers, but his sources of money are drying up. You didn’t hear it from me, but Chris is done with John.”
There is another unmistakable sign that Jones and Valdivia are parting ways. Valdivia has hired Gil Botello to serve as his campaign consultant. In the campaign report that Valdivia’s committee was obliged to provide showing fundraising and expenditure activity during the first six months of 2020, it was reported that Botello was paid $850 to begin serving as Valdivia’s campaign consultant at the tail end of June. Botello’s credentials as a campaign consultant are questionable. As a candidate for the San Bernardino City Council in the First District in 2018, Botello lost to Ted Sanchez, who was supported by Valdivia and who employed Jones as his consultant. More recently, Botello, who is currently running for the seat representing Division 2 on the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District Board, was outmaneuvered in his bid to capture the Democratic Central Committee’s endorsement in that race. While the San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee panel interviewing candidates vying for election this year initially recommended to the entirety of the central committee that Botello be given the party endorsement over the incumbent, Gil Navarro, when the entire central committee considered information brought forth connecting Botello to Valdivia, the full body voted to endorse Navarro over Botello.
Despite Valdivia’s support of Sanchez in his run against Botello in the 2018 election, the alliance between Valdivia and Sanchez has dissolved. This became apparent in October 2019, when Valdivia moved to appoint Botello to the city’s Personnel Commission, which was widely seen as a slap at Sanchez. Botello and Valdivia have grown ever closer, with Valdivia now, it appears, employing him as his main advisor and political consultant, supplanting Jones. According to several San Bernardino city officials and employees, Valdivia is allowing Botello to work out of Valdivia’s office on the third floor of the Vanir Building, which is now serving as the interim City Hall in the aftermath of the shuttering of San Bernardino City Hall because of seismic instability considerations.
Valdivia providing Botello, who is engaged in political activity on the mayor’s behalf, with office space within the city’s governmental premises is illegal. Valdivia’s calculation that his position of power will prevent any enforcement activity with regard to misuse of government facilities, while likely correct, is an example of the errors in judgment and risk taking on the mayor’s part that has convinced Jones that it is best that he end his professional relationship with Valdivia.
By Mark Gutglueck