In fall of 2018, John Valdivia, who was then San Bernardino’s Third Ward city councilman, was in full ascendancy.
He was enjoying the best of multiple worlds as he was embarking on the next leap in his political career. As an incumbent councilman, he was campaigning from a position of strength, meaning his status as an officeholder left those who had business before the city inclined to provide him with political donations so they might curry favor with him. As a Hispanic in a city with a population that was 62 percent Latino, he had an inside track when the city’s voters would go to the polls. He was a Republican. This meant he would get money, lots of it, to carry out his November campaign. In San Bernardino County, Republican political activists are on the order of four times as effective in raising money for Republican candidates as their Democratic counterparts are at raising campaign funds for Democrats.
Valdivia had finished in first place in the June primary election for mayor, with 6,747 votes or 35.75 percent, which compared favorably with the performance of the incumbent, Mayor Carey Davis, who had polled 5,243 votes or 27.79 percent. As a result of that race and their first and second place finishes, Valdivia and Davis had cleared the upcoming field of five other candidates who among them had polled 6,882 votes or 36.47 percent. They were headed to a head-to-head run off that coming November.
Like Valdivia, Davis was a Republican, and he had some money in his political war chest. Four of the candidates Valdivia and Davis had vanquished in the June race were Democrats, which was an indication of how Republican money outmatched greater Democratic voter numbers. Being a Republican in San Bernardino should have been a disadvantage. 49.1 percent of the city’s registered voters are Democrats while just 21.7 percent of the city’s voters are Republicans. Nevertheless, Republicans tended to turn out to vote at a rate of better than two-to-one as compared to the Democrats. What’s more, Valdivia had been careful in terms of whom he let know he was a Republican. Virtually every Republican in the city new Valdivia was a member of the GOP. But he provided different mailers to Republicans than he did to Democrats in appealing for their votes, and he had been selective about how his political mailers were worded when he had been running for city council as well as when he was running for mayor. He hid the fact that he was a Republican from the city’s Democratic voters. Meanwhile, it was no secret to anyone that Davis was a Republican.
In this way, when the Democrats that did go to the polls made their choices, virtually all of them were under the impression that the race had come down to one in which Davis, a Republican, was running against Valdivia, who they figured was a Democrat. They were wrong, but their votes still went to Valdivia.
When the votes were counted after the November 6, 2018 race, Valdivia came out on top, with 19,155 votes or 52.51 percent to Davis’s 17,327 votes or 47.49 percent.
Valdivia was sworn in as mayor on December 19, 2018, at which point he had control of the city. Though the mayor in San Bernardino is not empowered to vote except to break a tie or otherwise with regard to certain very narrow issues such as council appointments and city hiring decisions, he does have veto power on 4-to-3 and 3-to-2 votes of the council. As the one elected city official elected citywide, he possesses a certain level of moral, practical and political authority the individual members of the council do not. San Bernardino’s mayor is also at liberty to unilaterally place items before the council for discussion or action, and he presides over the meetings, controlling the ebb and flow of debate. As the presiding officer of the council, he has the authority to recognize or ignore members of the council as they seek to take part in those discussions and debates.
On the day he was sworn in, Valdivia had the support of Sixth District Councilwoman Bessine Richard and that of Fifth Ward Councilman Henry Nickel, both of whom he had served with while he was Third Ward Councilman and with whom he had an established alliance. He had also supported newcomers First Ward Councilman Ted Sanchez and Second Ward Councilwoman Sandra Ibarra, who were put into office by their wards’ voters in the same November election in which he had been handed the keys to the city as mayor. With the Third Ward council seat he had resigned from to become mayor vacant, Valdivia had four votes he more or less controlled and the opposition of Fourth District Councilman Fred Shorett and Seventh Ward Councilman Jim Mulvihill to contend with.
The very evening of the day he was sworn in as mayor and both Ibarra and Sanchez took their oaths as council members, December 19, 2018, Valdivia flexed his political muscle. Ibarra in one of her first acts as councilwoman made a motion to schedule a special session to evaluate then-City Manager Andrea Travis-Miller’s performance as city manager. Valdivia had a less than positive relationship with Travis-Miller, and he considered her to be a vestige of Davis’s mayoralty. Thereafter for the next three months followed a multiplicity of closed sessions, at both regularly scheduled and specially scheduled meetings of the council, at which Travis-Miller’s performance was to be evaluated, with “performance evaluation” being a euphemism for considering firing her.
Valdivia coaxed the council along, and during the closed session on April 3, 2019, the troika of Ibarra, Richard and Sanchez voted, based upon a motion by Sanchez, to suspend Travis-Miller. Councilmen Jim Mulvihill, Henry Nickel and Fred Shorett voted to hold off on such an action, resulting in a 3-to-3 deadlock. Valdivia, using his tie-breaking authority, tipped the scales into a 4-to-3 vote to make that suspension.
The following month, an election was held to fill the Third Ward gap on the council. Juan Figueroa, whom Valdivia had endorsed and supplied with copious amounts of money to campaign with, won that contest. At that point, Valdivia could count on the unquestioning support of Sanchez, Ibarra, Figueroa and Richard on virtually any item that came before the council and the support of Nickel on most issues, including those that pertained to development in the city. Immediately upon Figueroa being installed as a member of the council, Valdivia finalized the displacement of Travis-Miller, establishing in her place the city’s 62-year-old assistant city manager, Teri Ledoux. Promoting Ledoux from assistant city manager to city manager zoomed her annual salary before benefits from $130,000 to $236,000, and set up a guarantee that upon Ledoux’s retirement a year later at the end of her 26-year municipal career, her pension would increase from $120,000 annually for the rest of her life to $189,000 per year.
At that point, with Ledoux beholden to him for the major windfall of her existence, Valdivia was in absolute control. His political reach in the county seat extended to every corner and scintilla of the 59.65-square mile municipality, matched by a titanium political vice-grip.
There was nothing Valdivia could not do, or so it seemed to him and everyone else.
At that point the real graftfest, only hinted at before, began. He was now able to assure potential political donors or those willing to slide him money under the table or through some other creative means that he had the wherewithal to ensure that city staff would write reports and recommendations favorable relating to any service contract, materials contract, development project proposal or franchise application he signaled met with his approval, and that he could deliver sufficient votes on the council so that any item that came before it which he considered to be in the city’s best interest would pass.
For the rest of 2019, Valdivia sold his services to anyone who would pay, the currency being donations to his political fund or retaining his company, AAdvantage Comm LLC, to provide nebulously described “consulting services.”
Valdivia was feeling his oats, filling his mayoral staff and making appointments to city commissions with those he figured would do his bidding. Among those on his staff were Mirna Cisneros, his constituent service representative; Karen Cervantes, his special assistant; Jackie Aboud, his field representative; 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, who was brought in to serve as Valdivia’s chief of staff in August 2019, roughly a month after Bilal Essayli, Valdivia’s first chief of staff, resigned. Valdivia had also appointed Alissa Payne to the city’s Arts and Historical Preservation Commission and the San Bernardino Parks, Recreation and Community Services Commission.
In January 2020, Cisneros and Cervantes went public with accounts of how Valdivia began pressuring them to have sex with him. Cisneros related how Valdivia had solicited and received bribes. She also laid out how he used city money to travel about nationally and internationally on business unrelated to the city, which included raising money for himself or his future political campaigns. Aboud then came forward to say that Valdivia had squeezed her to have sexual relations with her, and that Valdivia had used his influence as mayor to provide favorable city treatment to his donors and supporters, while working to prevent city services from being rendered to his constituents who were not supporters, in particular those in the city’s Fourth and Seventh Wards, represented by his two rivals on the council, Fred Shorett and Jim Mulvihill. Payne surfaced publicly with accounts that were in some fashion similar to those of Cisneros, Cervantes and Aboud with regard to sexual advances the mayor had made toward her. Smith offered specific accounts of bribetaking by the mayor, including an account of an envelope stuffed with money that had originated from holders of the city’s tow truck franchises.
Valdivia’s difficulties mounted when Brown, who as his senior staff member had an overview of how things were run in Valdivia’s mayoral office from August 2019 until March 2020, sought representation by Tristan Pelayes, the lawyer who was representing Cevantes, Cisneros, Aboud, Payne, and Smith.
Aboud, Brown Cervantes, Cisneros and Smith sued the city over the ordeals they experienced with Valdivia.
Initially, in the face of the complaints and then the lawsuits against Valdivia, the law firm representing the city, Best Best & Krieger, functioning on the theory that it represented the city and that Valdivia, as the duly elected mayor, embodied the city as its political leader, and further presuming that Valdivia had de facto control of the city extending to a comfortable dominance of the city council, refrained from making any concessions with regard to Valdivia’s comportment or behavior. The firm, which employs Thomas Rice as San Bernardino’s chief assistant city attorney and Sonya Carvalho as San Bernardino City Attorney, asserted that making any public admission with regard to Valdivia’s transgressions would subject the city to liability, meaning monetary judgments.
While Valdivia continued to enjoy the undying loyalty of Councilwoman Richard and Councilman Figueroa, by early 2020, Nickel, Sanchez and Ibarra had become keenly conscious of the manner in which Valdivia had been using them to perpetuate the perception of his control of the council and thereby the city, by which he intensified his bribetaking. Wanting to no longer have anything to do with him and to end the perception of their political connection to him or condoned his action, they began distancing themselves from the mayor. This manifested in their no longer supporting him with their votes on the council, as well as Valdivia’s show of growing hostility toward them, at first in particular toward Ibarra. Valdivia supplied money to Richard and Figueroa to assist them in their 2020 electoral campaigns. In 2020, Figueroa gained reelection, but Richard lost, as did both Nickel and Mulvihill, who also had to stand for reelection in 2010.
Despite the fact that the council shed both Mulvihill and Nickel, who at that point were at odds with Valdivia, the mayor did not gain politically by that outcome. Nickel was replaced by Ben Reynoso in the Fifth Ward and Mulvihill supplanted in the Seventh Ward by Damon Alexander. Though it initially seemed that Alexander might align himself with Valdivia, by this point, six months after he took office, Alexander finds himself politically estranged from Valdivia. Reynoso was out of sync with Valdivia from the outset. Kimberly Calvin, who defeated Richard, was likewise at loggerheads with Valdivia from the time she came into office.
Thus, since December, Valdivia’s lone source of support on the council was Figueroa.
Valdivia’s remaining hold on control consisted of his tenuous grip on the city manager who replaced Ledoux last summer, Robert Field, and the city’s director of community and economic development, Michael Huntley, augmented by the city attorney’s office’s unwillingness to challenge him.
This week, a circumstance manifested in which it appears Valdivia has lost the last vestige of his hold on the city. He was scheduled to deliver the annual state of the city address on Tuesday, after which he had scheduled a VIP reception for those who are involved in the governance, promotion and advancement of the city. That reception was to be held at Hilltop Restaurant in San Bernardino, the ownership/management of which is one of Valdivia’s primary campaign donors, having most recently provided him with $5,000. Valdivia had requested from staff, and was provided with, several thousand dollars to hold that reception. When he was challenged on the necessity of that expenditure, Valdivia said it was a continuation of a city tradition, and that the reception was for “residents and stakeholders.” It turned out, however, that attendance at the reception was limited to those who were invited, and the only council member invited was Figueroa, Valdivia’s lone remaining ally on the council. Nearly all of those invited were Valdivia’s campaign donors, whom he intended to hit up again for more electioneering funding.
Taking stock of the way in which Valdivia had used taxpayer money to conduct personal fundraising, the city council on Tuesday June 15, unanimously directed the city manager to cancel the VIP reception, ordered the city attorney’s office to look into the misuse of public funds Valdivia has engaged in, recover the money billed to the city for the reception and asked for an independent review of expenditures from the mayor’s office since January 2019.
Valdivia had his lawyer, Rod Pacheco, fire off a letter to the city, accusing City Attorney Sonia Carvalho of directing the action against the mayor and threatening legal action against her and the city.
This provoked a pointed public denial from Carvalho. Valdivia’s sally against Carvalho appears to have pierced the veil of invulnerability that Best Best & Krieger had formerly wrapped him in.
As significantly, by bringing his donors, most of whom are are developers, under a microscope, this made it difficult or even impossible for Huntley, to stand by him and militate on behalf of those developers in the future.
The action Valdivia provoked the city council into taking against him with the use of public funds to conduct political fundraising now involves the city manager, Field, in an inquiry that is contrary to the mayor’s interest.
Perhaps most telling and significant of all is that Figueroa, Valdivia’s last link to power, joined with his council colleagues in ordering the city attorney’s office and the city manager to bring the curtain down on Valdivia’s depredations.
At this point Valdivia appears entirely isolated and under siege in the city of 214,706.
In fall of 2018, John Valdivia, who was then San Bernardino’s Third Ward city councilman, was in full ascendancy.