The San Bernardino City Council on Wednesday night voted unanimously to censure Mayor John Valdivia.
The action came not quite three years after Valdivia was sworn in as mayor, and was sparked by his diversion, earlier this year, of taxpayer money used to promote himself politically.
Valdivia and his attorney, Rod Pacheco, were unable to dissuade the council from making an official record of its collective condemnation of what has been roundly considered the mayor’s misuse of his authority. Nevertheless, Pacheco and the mayor did effectuate a strategy of calling into question the thoroughness, one-sidedness and therefore the fairness of the censure proceeding, which at least for Valdivia’s partisans served to blunt the onus of the castigation he was subjected to.
The grounds given for the council’s reproval of its presiding officer included those diversions and similar questionable uses of public money over the last two-and-a-half years, but did not extend to even more serious accusations related to graft and bribetaking on Valdivia’s part which have been openly spoken about within the county seat even before he was elected mayor, nor did it catalog multiple examples of his comportment toward several city employees, five of whom have now filed suit against him and the city.
The censure, which stood as the strongest showing of displeasure that the council could make with regard to the mayor’s conduct in office, has no immediate tangible impact on Valdivia’s hold on the mayoral office, but could potentially be used by one of his future political challengers in a campaign to unseat him as mayor, perhaps as early as next year.
Valdivia made an extraordinary ascent to the pinnacle of politics in San Bernardino with his November 2018 election as mayor, which has been followed by an even more dramatic descent. His entry into the volatile world of local politics had come nine years before he had taken possession of the mayor’s gavel.
In 2009, Valdivia made a failed attempt to capture the Fourth Ward city council position. In 2011, after changing his residence, he successfully vied for council in the Third Ward, capturing victory with the support of the city’s employee unions, the San Bernardino Firefighters Association foremost among them, followed by the unions representing the city’s police officers and its regular line employees. He assumed the Third Ward council post in March 2012.
In February 2014, just a little less than two years after he had acceded to municipal office, Valdivia announced he would seek the Republican nomination for Congress in the 31st Congressional District, but within a short period of time decided against following through with that candidacy. In 2015, Valdivia retained his position as Ward Three councilman when no one surfaced to run against him.
Valdivia coveted the mayor’s position, as at that time San Bernardino was yet functioning under the municipal charter the city had adopted in 1905. The 1905 charter instilled in the mayor both political and administrative authority. Politically, the mayor was the presiding officer of the city council who was able to unilaterally place any item for discussion and action before the council. While presiding over meetings, the mayor controlled the ebb and flow of discussion and debate. He did not have a vote on normal business items unless the vote ended in tie, but he did possess veto power on 4-to-3 votes or 3-to-2 votes of the council, such that in actuality he held the power of two votes on virtually any issue of viable controversy or issue where the outcome was not already decided by a clear majority of the council. He was allowed to vote on matters of appointment/hiring of the city manager and appointments of city commission members. On the administrative side, the mayor under the 1905 charter had co-regency with the city manager and control over direct hiring and firing of city employees.
In 2016, the council placed before San Bernardino’s voters a charter redraft which changed the city’s treasurer, city attorney and city clerk positions from elected to appointed ones, shifted its elections from odd-numbered to even-numbered years, and reduced the power and administrative reach of the mayor from what it had been under the municipal charter put in placed in 1905, such that the mayor no longer shared with the city manager control over direct hiring and firing of city employees.
Despite Valdivia’s opposition, the city’s voters approved the new charter in a 2016 vote. Even though the San Bernardino mayor’s post had sustained this reduction in authority, in 2018 Valdivia challenged then-Mayor Carey Davis in that year’s election. Ultimately, Valdivia emerged victorious in that contest with 19,155 votes or 52.51 percent to Davis’s 17,327 votes or 47.49 percent.
Upon being sworn into office on December 18, 2018, Valdivia had the support of both of the council’s two newly-elected members, Ted Sanchez in the city’s First Ward and Sandra Ibarra in the Second Ward, and incumbents Fifth Ward Councilman Henry Nickel and Sixth Ward Councilwoman Bessine Richard. His opposition on the council at that time consisted of Fourth District Councilman Fred Shorett and Seventh District Councilman Jim Mulvihill.
In May 2019, the city held a special election in the city’s Third Ward to select Valdivia’s council replacement, as he had been obliged to resign that post to move into the mayor’s slot. Prevailing in that contest was Juan Figueroa, who was one of Valdivia’s allies.
Immediately upon Figueroa coming into office, Valdivia effectuated the removal of City Manager Andrea Travis-Miller, whom he considered to be a vestige of the Davis Administration. He thereafter installed Travis-Miller’s assistant city manager, Teri Ledoux, into the position of city manager. In so doing, Valdivia and his then-chief of staff, Bill Essayli, brokered a deal that conferred upon the soon-to-retire Ledoux a boost into the city’s senior administrative position she would otherwise never have achieved, and with it an annual pension approaching $190,000 upon retirement in exchange for surrendering to Valdivia the power as mayor that had been attenuated with the 2016 charter change, that being the de facto authority to hire and fire city employees and department heads through the new city manager.
At that point, it appeared Valdivia had an absolute political lockhold on San Bernardino. Over the next six months, however, the control over the city Valdivia had so masterfully cultivated slipped from his grasp.
Before the end of Summer 2019, Valdivia alienated first Ibarra and then Nickel. In October 2019, Valdivia was on the outs with Sanchez. At that point, the only reliable votes on the council he could count on were those of Figueroa and Richard, while he found himself unable to muster the support of Mulvihill, Shorett, Ibarra, Sanchez and Nickel for any of his initiatives. Having effectively lost control of the council, Valdivia, growing increasingly frustrated, began to lash out at city staff, ultimately alienating then-City Manager Ledoux and City Attorney Sonia Carvalho, both of whom were once safely within his camp.
In January 2020, Mirna Cisneros, Valdivia’s constituent service representative, and Karen Cervantes, his special assistant, went public with accounts of how Valdivia had pressured 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 nationally and internationally on business unrelated to the city, which included raising money for himself or his future political campaigns. Thereafter, Jackie Aboud, Valdivia’s field representative, came forward to say that Valdivia had squeezed her to have sexual relations with him, 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 longstanding rivals on the council, Fred Shorett and Jim Mulvihill. Alissa Payne, whom Valdivia had appointed to the city’s Arts and Historical Preservation Commission and the San Bernardino Parks, Recreation and Community Services Commission, publicly surfaced 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. 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, offered specific accounts of bribetaking by the mayor, including one of a kickback that had originated from holders of the city’s tow truck franchises, consisting of a cash-stuffed envelope given to the mayor in Smith’s presence. Matt Brown, who was brought in to serve as Valdivia’s chief of staff in August 2019, roughly a month after his original chief of staff, Bilal Essayli, resigned, stated that he was being retaliated against by Valdivia for having sought to protect Cisneros, Cervantes and Aboud in the face of Valdivia’s treatment of them, and he retained Tristan Pelayes, the lawyer who was representing Cervantes, Cisneros, Aboud, Payne, and Smith. Ultimately, Aboud, Brown, Cervantes, Cisneros and Smith sued the city over the ordeals they had with Valdivia.
In the 2020 election cycle, Valdivia’s political affiliate and council ally, Juan Figueroa, was reelected, and Valdivia’s political affiliate and council ally Bessine Richard was voted out of office, replaced by Kimberly Calvin. Both Henry Nickel, who had evolved into one of Valdivia’s political foes, and Jim Mulvihill, who had never been aligned with Valdivia, were likewise chased from office by the city’s voters, replaced, respectively, by Ben Reynoso and Damon Alexander. While Valdivia held out hope that Alexander would show himself to be a reliable ally, that did not come about. Calvin very early on clashed with Valdivia, and Reynoso has proven to be a more committed antagonist to the mayor than was Nickel. After the new council was seated in December 2020, Figueroa’s was the only vote of consistent support on the council that Valdivia could count upon.
Even before he was elected mayor, there were recurrent reports that Valdivia was on the take, involved in graft and bribery at the worst and at the very least a practitioner of pay-to-play politics in which he was provided with donations to his political campaign fund in exchange for his vote as a council member supporting those donors’ applications for city franchises or project approval with the community development department or contracts to deliver services and/or goods to the city. After his election as mayor, there were further indications that Valdivia was heavily involved in trading his votes for campaign donations as well as evidence suggesting he was receiving bribes from entities doing business with the city or seeking project approvals, such as many of the applicants for permits and licenses to operate commercial marijuana/cannabis-related businesses in the city. Those revelations included accounts of Valdivia being provided with cash that was not reported as campaign donations and which he simply pocketed, or payments made to him through his consulting business, AAdvantage Comm LLC, which served as a laundering mechanism for the payoffs he received.
Earlier this year, Valdivia and Figueroa were dealt the blows of revelations pertaining to both receiving support and money, characterized as bribes, from entities with applications for commercial marijuana operations in the city as well as from SCG America, which was competing to obtain redevelopment rights at the Carousel Mall in downtown San Bernardino.
Late this spring, Valdivia courted further controversy by billing the city for $4,686 to cover the expenses – extending to the cost of gilded invitations, flowers, balloons, meals and drinks – for a so-called VIP reception to be held at the Hilltop Restaurant in San Bernardino in the immediate aftermath of the mayor’s state of the city address. That event, Valdivia insisted, was to accommodate his list of invitees, a group Valdivia characterized as San Bernardino’s “residents, stakeholders and movers and shakers.” It turned out, however, that attendance at the reception was to be 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.
Valdivia’s boldness in utilizing public funds for political purposes further estranged him from the members of the council, and they called upon City Manager Robert Field to have the matter investigated.
Field and City Attorney Sonia Carvalho arranged to have the Costa Mesa-based law firm of García Rainey Blank & Bowerbank delve into the particulars of what Valdivia had done. An attorney with García Rainey Blank & Bowerbank, Kendra L. Carney Mehr, in conjunction with the Openheimer Investigations Group probed the matter and generated a report. That report, which was reviewed by the city council, became the basis of a proposal for the city council to officially censure Valdivia.
According to Mehr’s eight-page report, “The mayor’s office caused 2,075 postcards featuring Mayor Valdivia to be mailed at the city’s expense on or about June 4, 2021, in violation of Government Code section 89002. Elected officials are prohibited from sending mass mailings at public expense as described in Government Code sections 89001-89003.”
The postcards did not invite those to whom they were sent to the state of the city speech but rather served as invitations to the mayor’s reception/fundraiser held after the speech, Mehr noted. The reception, she stated, was not “a public meeting or event, but instead… a private event [that] promoted the mayor individually. The city spent more than $2,500 of public funds to design, produce, print, and mail post cards at the direction of the mayor. The design and printing costs were $2,134.08 and the bulk rate mailing cost was $546.33. The mayor violated the mass mailing prohibitions set forth in Government Code section 89002.”
Furthermore, according to Mehr’s report, “In June 2021, the mayor solicited a contribution of $5,000 from the Inland Empire Health Plan to be paid to the City of San Bernardino. Inland Empire Health Plan paid the contribution. The mayor did not report the behest payment as required by Government Code section 84224. An elected official who fundraises or otherwise solicits payments from one individual or organization to be given to another individual or organization is required to report the payment over $4,999. The mayor did not report the behest payment as required by the Fair Political Practices Commission rules.”
According to Mehr, at the mayor’s “exclusive VIP reception… which took place after the annual state of the city address on June 15, 2021… the event provided a giveaway item, a ‘hot drink travel set’ that promoted the mayor, not the city, demonstrating the focus of the event was to promote the mayor personally and not the city. In fact, the mayor requested that the city logo be removed from the travel set and replaced with a logo used by the mayor. Invitations were restricted to a list of individuals selected by the mayor. Valdivia did not include most city staff or other city elected officials. City staff and other city elected officials were kept in the dark about the event. The mayor misused city funds by applying for reimbursement of expenses for the VIP reception following the state of the city address for personal or campaign purposes.”
According to Mehr, Valdivia from 2019 through June 2021 also sought reimbursements for travel and meals to which he was not entitled at various times during his tenure as mayor, including, she documented:
• A hotel stay and meal in San Diego on September 20-22, 2019;
• Overnight parking charges from June 29-30, 2020;
• A hotel stay in Irvine on September 10-11, 2020;
• Parking at Mission Inn, Riverside on October 27, 2020;
• Parking at West Beverly Hills Hotel on January 17, 2021;
• A hotel stay and meal in Irvine on March 8-9, 2021;
• A hotel stay in Irvine on March 18-19, 2021;
• Meals in Nevada on March 22-23, 2021;
• A meal in Newport Beach on March 23, 2021
• A meal and hotel stay in Irvine on April 13-14, 2021.
The city council’s consideration of the censure of the mayor was set for a special meeting at 5 p.m. on December 1. That meeting was adjourned separately from the regularly scheduled city council meeting, which was scheduled for 7 p.m. San Bernardino holds its regular council meetings on the first and third Monday of each month. The December 1 special meeting featured only a single item, that being the consideration of the mayor’s censure.
Presenting the substance of Mehr’s report that evening was not Mehr, but rather the founder of the García Rainey Blank & Bowerbank law firm, Norma García Guillén. The choice of García Guillén to make the presentation was a calculated one. García Guillén was an associate at Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton, a prestigious national law firm, before she created what has become García Rainey Blank & Bowerbank with Tabitha Rainey Pullara in 2012. It was thought that she would have sufficient gravitas to match Valdivia’s legal representative, Rod Pacheco, such that she might merely lay out the facts contained in Mehr’s report without having to argue a case for censuring Valdivia, thus maintaining the fiction of García Rainey Blank & Bowerbank along with Mehr having conducted an impartial and dispassionate review of Valdivia’s actions. More importantly, García Guillén is a Latina, and as such she possesses an inherent immunity to the charges of racism that Valdivia has a demonstrated propensity for using when he is confronted with accusations of political or legal impropriety. On repeated occasions, upon being questioned or challenged with regard to his violation of city policy, state law, Fair Political Practices Commission regulations, the pay-for-play nature of his votes on the council or indications of outright graft, Valdivia has responded by asserting that he is being victimized by the white establishment. And while currently three of the city council’s seven members – Sanchez, Figueroa and Ibarra – are Hispanic, two of the council members – Calvin and Alexander – are African-American and one of the council members – Reynoso – is of mixed Hispanic and African-American parentage, one of the council members – Shorett – is white, as is San Bernardino’s city manager, Robert Field. The two investigators with Openheimer Investigations Group – Zaneta Seidel and Renee Jansen – are likewise white, as is Mehr. Thus, the way was clear for Valdivia to maintain that the censure proposal was part of a racist plot to discredit him, only the second Latino mayor in the city’s history. García Guillén presenting the evidence arrayed against him in this way was a means of preventing Valdivia from asserting that the cataloging of his misuse of his authority was overblown, illegitimate and an outgrowth of the white community’s hatred toward Mexican-Americans.
That being the case, Valdivia and Pacheco opted to abandon utilizing the subject of race or ethnicity in the mayor’s defense, and instead explored an opposite course from what was expected, that being to attack both García Guillén and City Attorney Sonia Carvalho. Personalizing the attack on two of the principals Pacheco represented as being key to the information being presented against the mayor ostensibly was meant to call into question the grounds for the censure. Though in the end it did not dissuade the council from censuring Valdivia, what Pacheco was able to achieve was to create a spectacle in which he successfully bated García Guillén into responding to his attack on her, such that she abandoned the aspect of an independent investigator dispassionately reciting the facts that had been churned up during the inquiry conducted by Mehr, Jansen and Seidel, instead showing herself as an advocate for the censure.
Part of the Valdivia defense strategy was dependent upon Pacheco’s gravitas relative to that of García Guillén. Pacheco at one time was the leading Hispanic Republican politician in California. A half of a generation before Valdivia, Pacheco made his entry into politics in a rather spectacular fashion. After having acceded to a position of high rank within the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office under then-Riverside County District Attorney Grover Trask, Pacheco in 1996 made a successful run for the California Assembly, becoming the first Latino Republican elected to the Assembly in more than a century. He was elected leader of the Republican caucus, marking the first time in the state’s history that a Hispanic legislator had risen to that position. Because the Republicans surrendered their majority hold on the Assembly in the 1996 election, Pacheco narrowly missed out on becoming the first Hispanic California Assembly speaker. After being termed out of the legislature, he returned to the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office, where in 2006, he was elected district attorney, serving a single four-year term. He is now in private practice.
When Pacheco began his presentation, he attempted to present documentation he implied would serve to vindicate Valdivia with regard to at least some of the accusations of misappropriate conduct against him. Pacheco wanted those documents photocopied and distributed among the council. That met with immediate rejection, and it was stated that the time for marshaling any such evidence had elapsed, as such material should have been presented while the investigation was ongoing, Pacheco was told. It was pointed out that Valdivia had been invited to meet with the investigators to provide his version of events, but had declined.
In his presentation, Pacheco maintained Valdivia was a man of rectitude who was undeserving of the obloquy being heaped upon him. The mayor’s lawyer represented his client as an earnest public servant seeking to lead a city out of the financial doldrums it has been caught in. Pacheco imputed to several members of the city council political motives in the move to condemn the mayor, and he harshly criticized the process as it was being conducted and overseen by García Guillén and Carvalho as one-sided and unfair. The former prosecutor accused García Guillén of misinterpreting the law or omitting facts and details to suit the case for censure.
With every aspersion that Pacheco would cast toward García Guillén, she felt obliged to defend herself and justify the conclusion of the report as being even-handed and non-political. In the face of Pacheco’s insinuations that she was nothing more than a gun-for-hire who was serving as the city council’s attack dog, the more strident García Guillén’s responses became and the more she came across as someone who was indeed gunning for Valdivia.
The atmospherics at the meeting, which was held in the auditorium at the Norman Feldheym Library redounded to Valdivia’s benefit in this regard as well, rather paradoxically because they were so unfavorable to the mayor. Though there were Valdivia supporters present, the majority of those in attendance were decidedly those holding the mayor in low regard. Throughout the meeting, many of them did not hesitate in vocalizing their disdain for Valdivia, applauding and cheering those members of the council speaking from the dais or members of the public during the comment period who voiced criticism or disapproval of Valdivia and his actions. Nor did they hesitate in jeering or mocking any of those who spoke positively of the mayor, interrupting those speakers with catcalls or guffaws. This contributed to the overall impression that Valdivia was being subjected to a kangaroo court in which he was not being given a fair and balanced hearing.
“What is the purpose of this hearing?” Pacheco at one point asked rhetorically. “Is its purpose to improve the lives of the citizens in San Bernardino or is this to drive political objectives being engineered by the city attorney? This is not the first investigation she has created and probably won’t be the last.”
Pacheco asserted, “The mailings made by the city on behalf of the mayor for the state of the city address and the VIP reception for the mayor were in fact legal. The law allows a mass mailing to be done if it is an invitation to an event.”
García Guillén pointed out that while California law allows public money to be used to promote public events, Pacheco omitted the word “public” when he quoted the law stating that city money could be used to promote events. García Guillén said that though the state of the city address was a public event, the reception held afterwards was a political fundraiser, which was not a public event in the sense referred to in the California Government Code that she maintained Pacheco had misquoted, and she insisted that Valdivia had used city money and resources to promote the fundraiser rather than the state of the city speech, thereby running afoul of the law and the city’s policy.
Presiding over the meeting was Mayor Pro Tem Sandra Ibarra, who at one point importuned the crowd to remain respectful toward Pacheco after members of the audience had begun to hurl epithets at him.
During the council’s discussion of the censure proposal, the prevailing sentiment toward making the censure was apparent.
“He [Valdivia] has been asked and given all the opportunities and has never felt that he has to operate by the rules,” Councilman Fred Shorett said.
“We must purge City Hall of all corruption and members who choose to do the exact opposite of the oath we’ve voluntarily taken,” said Councilwoman Kimberly Calvin.
Councilman Ben Reynoso stated his belief that the issues delineated in the investigation were sufficient to warrant Valdivia’s censure, while intimating that the council, through information provided to it in closed sessions, was aware of even more serious transgressions on Valdivia’s part that for reasons of the city’s legal liability cannot be disclosed. He said the city could not dare to let Valdivia off the hook.
“What happens when you let little things like this go on forever?” Reynoso asked. “This is principle. I don’t care if it’s a dollar. I don’t care if it’s $10,000.”
He denounced Valdivia for having comported himself in such a way that he was shedding discredit on the entire city council.
“We are putting ourselves in an embarrassing spotlight to rid ourselves of corruption,” Reynoso said. “People ran for office who are on this dais today for multiple reasons. One of them was a clear conception that this city is corrupt from the inside. It is disturbing the things we can’t tell you that actually happen inside the city. I am disheartened by the community of developers and business owners who potentially jeopardize yourself by saying that you can reach a crooked person at any time of the night, any time of day, to get anything done that you want. That’s not why we came here. This is embarrassing. This is something we had to do.”
Councilwoman Ibarra said it was apparent to her that Valdivia had utilized taxpayer money to promote the VIP reception as a personal fundraiser and that his intention was not to draw people to listen to his state of the city address but to aggrandize himself.
“I am also a voter in the city,” Ibarra said. “I did not get an invitation. The concern we are having here is the private VIP reception he held, and the people he invited. That was not for the public. When only a limited amount of people are invited, that is not the public. He did not represent the public at that VIP reception. That was a private event only to benefit himself. What matters here is the ethics, the integrity of the work we do here for our city.”
The sole deviation from the tenor of the council indicating its members were resigned to rebuking Valdivia was a round of questioning of City Attorney Carvalho and García Guillén which Councilman Figueroa attempted to engage in during the time allotted him. In the precepts to some of Figueroa’s questions was the suggestion or outright assertion that the investigation had not been thorough.
“Part of my issue or concern with it is there was a mention of at least two council members, and I would like to have asked, ‘Were any council members actually interviewed during this process?’” Figueroa said to Carvalho. “I know that I wasn’t. So, I wasn’t interviewed but yet I can openly say that my name came up a couple of times. In fact, it’s in the back-up material here. Yet the person who investigated didn’t seem to reach out to council members to ask further questions. I have serious concern with that. Why wasn’t I contacted? I’m greatly disappointed in that. There was a comment made earlier about information being withheld and not doing your due diligence and not following up with the council member who has actually been named in this. I feel you actually have an obligation to reach out to that individual.”
Despite Figueroa’s consistent previous standing as a key Valdivia political ally and his statements and questions during Wednesday night’s discussion indicating his less than complete satisfaction with the investigation of the mayor, Figueroa joined with his colleagues in voting to censure Valdivia, such that the motion to do so passed unanimously. Furthermore, Figueroa joined in with the others in unanimously supporting a second motion to schedule a future council consideration of removing the mayor as the city’s representative to various regional and joint powers authority boards.
The San Bernardino City Council on Wednesday night voted unanimously to censure Mayor John Valdivia.