$446,000 In Legal Work Later, Mayor Valdivia And His Lawyer Pacheco Part Company

The relationship between lame duck San Bernardino Mayor John Valdivia and Rod Pacheco, the attorney who defended him so passionately against a bevy of lawsuits and accusations of sexual harassment, abuse of his official authority and political corruption, has apparently gone south.
Pacheco, who a generation ago waged a battle to establish a niche for Hispanic politicians within the Republican Party, is credited by some with having created or at least partially created the atmosphere within which Valdivia was able to establish what just a few years ago appeared to be a promising political presence as arguably one of the more significant Latino officeholders in San Bernardino County.
A San Bernardino native who went onto a successful legal career, initially as a deputy prosecutor in the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office, Pacheco in 1996 was elected to the California Assembly. In November 1998 he was chosen by his colleagues as the Republican Assembly leader, marking the first time in the state’s history that a Latino had served in that capacity. He narrowly missed out on becoming assembly speaker as a consequence of the Republicans having lost a net five Assembly seats in that month’s election rather than picking up two seats as had been the GOP’s hope going into that election cycle. In 2002, he was termed out of the Assembly and went back to being a lawyer. In 2006, he was elected Riverside County District Attorney, serving a single term in that role.Valdivia was first elected to the San Bernardino City Council 2011, representing that city’s Third Ward. In 2014, he flirted with a run for Congress in California 31st Congressional District, but ultimately decided against doing so because he and his political handlers recognized that to run for the partisan post he would need to clearly demark himself as a Republican, which would potentially redound to his detriment in his efforts to remain on the city council or in a future run for mayor in San Bernardino, given the overwhelming Democrat-to-Republican voter registration advantage within the City of San Bernardino.
In 2015, Valdivia was reelected Third Ward councilman without opposition.
In 2018, he sought election as mayor, qualifying as the top vote-getter among seven candidates to compete in the runoff against incumbent Carey Davis, whom he beat in the November final, 19,155 votes or 52.5 percent to Davis’s 17,327 votes or 47.5 percent.
Valdivia came into office in December 2018 with what appeared to be a commanding dominance of the city council, with only two of the panel’s members set against him. In May 2019, when a special election was held to select his replacement as Third Ward councilman, his ally Juan Figueroa was elected to that post, such that it appeared Valdivia would have a ruling coalition on the seven-member council that was absolutely going to give him control over the city for the first two if not all four years of his term as mayor. Before 2019 had run its course, however, the San Bernardino scepter had slipped from his grip as he was pounded by one political scandal cascading into yet another political scandal followed by another political scandal and yet further scandal that ultimately undid him.
First, his chief of staff, Bill Essayli, left to take a position with an Orange County law firm. Then, one by one, as Valdivia pursued his own objectives, three of the members of his coalition – Sandra Ibarra, Henry Nickel and Ted Sanchez – saw the political course the mayor was taking as averse to their own goals. Moreover and more crucially, they grew to perceive that Valdivia was using their votes and support to construct quid pro quos with the clients of his consulting firm in which he was given money to deliver their votes in favor of those clients’ business interests when the council was called upon to render decisions impacting those businesses.  Ibarra, Nickel and Sanchez parted political company with him, such that he no longer had five reliable votes on the council but only two to support whatever he was attempting to achieve.
There followed a series of revelations: cannabis entrepreneurs came out of the woodwork, regaling newspaper reporters and the public with how he had promised marijuana operation licenses and permits to those who had applied for them in exchange for cash; an employee in his office, Mirna Cisneros, told of how he had made sexual advances to her and how he misused city funds to engage in travel and activity that had nothing to do with city business and was taking money from those with business before the city; another employee of the mayor’s office, Karen Cervantes, related how the mayor had made sexual advances toward her; his field representative, Jackie Aboud, likewise said Valdivia had pressured her to accommodate his sexual needs; Alissa Payne, a single mother whom Valdivia appointed to two city commissions, said Valdivia had made similar indecent overtures to her; Valdivia’s field representative Don Smith related how he had been present while Valdivia made a late night rendezvous with a city tow service franchise holder who handed Valdivia an envelope stuffed with cash; Matt Brown, who had succeeded Essayli as Valdivia’s chief of staff, came forward to say that Valdivia attempted to have him make fraudulent unfavorable work reviews of Cisneros, Cervantes, Aboud and Smith to justify their firings and discredit them with regard to the allegations they had made.
Based on a host of Valdivia’s actions, the city found itself facing nearly a dozen lawsuits.
With untoward accusations mounting, Valdivia continued to engage in questionable, bold and risky behaviors, utilizing city resources, funding and personnel to provide or defray the cost of providing materials and services relating to political promotions of himself and his associates while using city money to cover the cost of travel, meals and lodging while he was engaged in matters unrelated to his duty or function as mayor.
With legal challenges against him mounting, Valdivia created a fund, the Mayor John Valdivia Legal Defense Fund, which was separate from his existing political electioneering funds. He accepted direct donations into that legal defense fund and he also transferred money out of his electioneering accounts into the defense fund. He used the money in that defense fund to hire Pacheco.
In addition to asserting a defense in the face of the various lawsuits filed against Valdivia, Pacheco went on the public offensive on the mayor’s behalf, propounding that Valdivia was an exemplary public servant who was being demonized by his political opponents.
According to Pacheco, Valdivia was a man of rectitude who was undeserving of the obloquy being heaped upon him. His client, Pacheco said, was an earnest public servant seeking to lead a city out of the financial doldrums it had been caught in, including the filing for bankruptcy protection the city had made in 2012, less than six months after Valdivia had been sworn in as Third Ward councilman. Pacheco imputed to several members of the city council political motives in the move to condemn the mayor with a censure vote it ultimately carried out in December 2021, and he harshly criticized the process as it was being conducted and overseen by the city’s lawyers as one-sided and unfair. The former prosecutor accused the lawyer the city had hired to make the case for censure against Valdivia, Norma García Guillén, of misinterpreting the law or omitting facts and details to suit the case. Pacheco lampooned García Guillén as nothing more than a gun-for-hire who was serving as the city council’s attack dog.
In a defense of Valdivia, Pacheco told the Sentinel, “I grew up in San Bernardino. I was raised there. I moved there when I was six. My father was in the Air Force and he was stationed at Norton Air Force Base. I went to college in San Diego, but I remained very close to San Bernardino. It was a wonderful city. It was called ‘A City On The Move.’ There was a lot going on in San Bernardino. It was the first city to have two malls. It was, then, a much better city than the one I live in now, Riverside. Now, they’ve flipped. That great city of my childhood has gone into the tank. It is very different now. Now you have a mayor, John Valdivia, who like former Mayor [Judith] Valles is trying to save it. The city has fallen into an abyss, and it is not a regular effort that is going to fix things. You are not going to turn things around working nine to five. It is going to require a Herculean effort. This is not the time for half measures. Public safety has become a real problem. For years, San Bernardino was the murder capital of California. San Bernardino has a lot of problems, and this mayor is ready to make a lot of extra effort. As mayor, John Valdivia has the desire to put forth that effort. He is a Type A person who wants to run the city right and he is demanding that people who work for him or work in the city do what they are being asked to do. That is the only way that things are going to be turned around. The hardest hit cities are the poorest cities. Rich people can sustain it or walk away and start over. The poor have the greatest difficulty, and San Bernardino is filled with the poor. It is really unfortunate that the one person in the city working hardest to make a change is now being subjected to this.”
The city employees who had filed complaints naming Valdivia or had sued him, Pacheco said, were lazy and good for nothing. They resented Valdivia because he was the opposite of what they were: hard-working and dedicated.
“The city has really fallen apart and these people who have filed the complaints about having to work hard shouldn’t be working for the city,” Pacheco said. “They should go get a job where they can take it easy. What John Valdivia has taken on is a massive amount of work.”
The reports that Valdivia is on the take and receiving bribes and kickbacks did not hold up, Pacheco said.
“I am familiar with those false allegations,” Pacheco said. “They are abjectly false,” Pacheco said.
Pacheco decried the “mob mentality” that had targeted the mayor. “You have members of the city council – some, not all of them – who have been very aggressive in attacking the mayor. I’m not sure what their motivation is. Maybe they think that this will make them look better in comparison to him. It may be political or it may be personal, but they are publicly stoking the flames based on falsehoods, saying the mayor should resign, trying to drive him out of office. It is ugliness. It is unfortunate. The city must be saved, and they are going after the one person who is committed to saving the city. I have watched the city’s leadership since I was a kid. The one other mayor that was trying hard was Mayor Valles. And now the city has John Valdivia. They have not had true leadership in the city for a long, long time. Mayor [Robert] Holcomb presided over the glory days. When he left the city began to deteriorate slowly but surely over time.”
Pacheco charged, “What is going on is the city council members are grabbing a hold of a false claim and running their mouths, saying, ‘Well, the mayor needs to resign.’ How dare they? Why don’t they do their jobs for the people in the city?”
Accusations that Valdivia has a problem with alcohol and with other intoxicants were, Pacheco said, “laughable.” Pacheco similarly dismissed the sexual harassment charges leveled at Valdivia as hypercriticism of his having complimented a female employee on her choice of shoes.
There was a mercenary element to the false charges that were heaped on the mayor, Pacheco said. “They [the employees suing Valdivia] are trying to drive the city to pay them off,” Pacheco said. “Some people will do anything for money. What was their motive in having a sequence of press conferences? Why not just have one press conference where they have their say? Why did they have four? Why were people who were not even government employees taking part?”
Pacheco continued, “They are trying to drive him out of office. I was hired to make sure he was treated fairly. There have been efforts to hamstring him from the beginning. He tried to hire an attorney, and the city wouldn’t hire an attorney for him. They have not done anything to investigate this.”
Documentation obtained by the Sentinel shows that Valdivia made disbursements totaling $446.762.45 from his legal defense fund to pay for Pacheco’s services, including $9,274.10 in 2020; $386,354.25 in 2021 and $51,134.10 in the first six months of 2022 ending on June 30.
Looking toward his 2022 election campaign, Valdivia created a political war chest titled John Valdivia For Mayor 2022. In 2021, he received donations of $380,987.21 into that account. In the first five months of 2022, he received another $106,500 into that account for a total over 18 months of $487,487.21. Over the first three-and-a-half years that he was mayor, Valdivia collected $854,626.21 into his mayoral electioneering fund.
In 2021, he expended $136,367.04 in preparing for his 2022 campaign. In 2022, from January through to the end of June, he spent $513,138.85 on the campaign.
Thus, Valdivia expended $649,505.89 overall on his effort to remain in office in conjunction with the 2022 election. Despite that, and the consideration that he outspent all six of his opponents in the contest, Valdivia finished third, with 2,970 votes or 16.92 percent, behind second-place finisher Jim Penman, who polled 3,510 votes or 20 percent, and the top vote-getter, Helen Tran, with 7,310 votes or 41.65 percent. Thus, Valdivia did not qualify for the runoff.
A one-time Valdivia associate/political supporter shortly after the election observed that if Valdivia had used the money provided to him by his donors as they intended it for electioneering purposes rather than diverting it to defray his legal bills, he would have been reelected.
As of June 30, Valdivia’s election fund had an ending cash balance of $43,988.38 and cash equivalents of $222,695.24. Immediately after the election, Valdivia departed for the East Coast, where, it was said, he was to fly to Europe. There was concern that he was engaged in an effort to secret a substantial portion of his remaining electioneering funds into banking institutions in New York and potentially Switzerland, allowing him eventually to take control of that money and convert it to his own personal use. As it turned out, Valdivia did not make a sojourn to Europe as it was reported he had previously intended.
According to the mid-year filings for Valdivia’s electioneering and legal defense accounts, which run through June 30, Valdivia owed Pacheco’s firm $42,000 as of May 22. Thereafter, the law firm billed Valdivia for another $9,200 worth of legal work prior to the June 30 finance reporting deadline.
It thus appears that Valdivia is in arrears to Pacheco by some $51,200.
Over the last six months, Pacheco’s deep faith in Valdivia as a faithful and honest public servant has been compromised or, recognizing that Valdivia as a lame duck no longer has the ability to bring in political donations as he did before, is unwilling to stand up for him as the prospect of being remunerated handsomely for that advocacy diminishes.
Pacheco on July 19 filed separate motions to withdraw from representing Valdivia in each of the four cases yet outstanding against him by Cisneros, Cervantes, Smith and Aboud. On September 7, that motion to withdraw was returned because of an error in its form. Pacheco refiled the motion on September 13.
On October 10, Judge Khymberli S. Apaloo is scheduled to make a ruling on that request.
Because of attorney-client privilege, Pacheco is not at liberty to disclose the issues that have led to the falling out between him and Valdivia. Valdivia’s failure to pay the latest installments on Pacheco’s billings is likely a factor. That Valdivia will soon leave office and as such will not have the political money raising capability he has had for the last ten years makes it questionable as to whether he can make payments to Pacheco as he had in the past. Moreover, Valdivia’s alleged move to transfer his campaign funding into separate accounts may have given Pacheco pause, leaving him to wonder whether his representations about Valdivia’s honesty and integrity comport with actuality.
The Sentinel asked Pacheco about those reports in June, to which he did not at that time respond. The Sentinel renewed that line of questioning this week, referencing word on the street and reports emanating from those who are close to the now soon-to-depart mayor that he has well over a quarter of a million dollars in campaign funds that he has hidden and which he will eventually or has already partially transferred into various personal accounts.
“Thank you for the inquiry,” Pacheco responded. “I have no comment other than I have no knowledge of what you are talking about.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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