San Bernardino Has Burned Through $1M & Counting On Valdivia Defense

Nearly six months after John Valdivia’s departure as San Bernardino Mayor, the city he formerly headed is yet seeking to defend more than a half dozen lawsuits brought against it over his actions while in office.
With the cost of defending those lawsuits now having grown toward or exceeding the million-dollar mark, a former member of the city council is calling upon his one-time colleagues and successors to stanch the hemorrhaging of red ink and settle the cases to close the chapter on that phase of the city’s history.
Valdivia, who was first elected to the city council to represent the Third Ward in 2011 and was seated on the council in 2012, was reelected in 2015 without opposition and then ran successfully for Mayor in 2018 when the city had transitioned to even-numbered year elections, defeating the incumbent, Carey Davis.
In the initial stages of his mayoralty, Valdivia had cultivated a five-member ruling coalition on the council, consisting of his presumed allies, First Ward Councilman Ted Sanchez, Second Ward Councilwoman Sandra Ibarra, Fifth Ward Councilman Henry Nickel, Sixth Ward Councilwoman Bessine Richard and in May 2019 following a special election to fill the gap on the council that came about because of Valdivia’s resignation to move into the mayoral post, Third Ward Councilman Juan Figueroa. At that point, Valdivia’s rivals on the council, Fourth Ward Councilman Fred Shorett and Seventh Ward Councilman Jim Mulvihill, were unable to effectively oppose his aggressive agenda, much of which was intended to solidify his political and administrative hold on the city and reward his political backers with project, contract and franchise approvals. By the end of summer/early fall of 2019, however, Valdivia had alienated Nickel, Ibarra and Sanchez, such that his control over the city slipped from his grasp. Coupled with the August 2019 resignation of his chief of staff, Bill Essayli, Valdivia began pressuring his staff members to help him reestablish his position of preeminence in the city, often in ways many felt improper. By the fall of 2019, Valdivia no longer had five reliable votes on the council but only two – those of Richard and Figueroa – to support whatever he was attempting to achieve.
There followed a series of revelations as commercial cannabis/marijuana entrepreneurs vying for licenses to operate in the city began to speak openly and bitterly about how the mayor had promised, in exchange for cash, to provide their businesses with operation licenses and permits. An employee in Valdivia’s office, Mirna Cisneros, related how Valdivia made sexual advances to her and she related how he misused city funds to engage in travel and activity that had nothing to do with city business. Cisneros further revealed the mayor 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. Valdivia’s 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, brought to light 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. The mayor’s staff related how they were instructed by Valdivia to withhold city improvements and infrastructure provision to those areas of the city – Wards Four and Seven – represented by Valdivia’s main council rivals Shorett and Mulvihill, and later from wards One, Two and Five, represented by Sanchez, Ibarra and Nickel, after Valdivia’s falling out with them.
Another casualty of Valdivia’s behavior was then-Human Resources Director Helen Tran. In 2006, the then-29-year-old Tran had started with the City of San Bernardino as the executive assistant to the human resources director. Two years later, she was promoted to the position of human resources analyst. In 2013, she was promoted to human resources division manager and in 2016 more than two years before Valdivia became mayor, she acceded to the position of director of human resources. Initially, while Cisneros, Cervantes and Aboud were still employed by the city and they first registered objections with the human resources department about the mistreatment they were being subjected to, Tran was at a loss as to how to deal with the challenge. Those lodging the complaints were employees of the mayor’s office, ones who, even though they were city employees, served, basically, at the pleasure of the mayor, who had the ultimate political power in the city. If she intervened by injecting herself into the function of the mayor’s office – over which the mayor had absolute autonomy – she put herself at risk, since there was the possibility the mayor might join forces with a majority of the city council to direct the city manager to have her terminated. It was only after a second, then a third, then a fourth complaint about Valdivia’s caddish comportment was registered with her department that she came to recognize that she was not being faced with an indolent or incompetent or nonperforming or insubordinate employee but rather a malevolent boss who was misusing his political position to intimidate city staff. In this case, the offending party was the mayor who was her own political master. Tran was dealing with an intractable problem, which, if dealt with forthrightly, might lead to the destruction of her own career. In what some said was an adroit or clever or shrewd move and which others said was cowardly and unprincipled, she chose not to mix it up with Valdivia and in October 2019 simply jumped ship, leaving the post of San Bernardino’s human services director to take on the human resources director/risk manager assignment with the City of West Covina when that position came available and was offered to her. In doing so, she accepted a reduction of her salary before benefits from $150,824.46 to $135,069.90. Nevertheless, doing so was for her more than a worthwhile trade-off, figuring in the reduction in stress she achieved by getting out from a position between the mayor and his abused employees and the pitfalls that existed in having to continue to deal with the circumstance in San Bernardino.
Meanwhile, at San Bernardino City Hall, or at the neighboring Vanir Tower, which sufficed as City Hall, given that the actual City Hall had been shuttered because of its seismic instability, life was growing insufferable for Cisneros, Cervantes, Aboud, Brown and other members of the mayor’s staff such as his secretary Renee Brizuela and Alexander Cousins, a paid intern. As 2020 approached, Valdivia grew insistent that his staff work on political campaigns of the council members he considered part of his team who were up for reelection in that year’s election – Richards and Figueroa – and on behalf of the candidates he was supporting in the races against Mulvihill and Nickel, those being David Mlynarski and Peter Torres, respectively. Valdivia had already begun to look forward to 2022 when he would need to stand for reelection, and he repeatedly emphasized the importance of his reestablishing political dominance over the city in the 2020 election through his control of the council so that he could deliver results for his campaign donors. During weekly mayoral staff meetings, Valdivia would routinely reprimand virtually all of his staff members, and was particularly harsh with Aboud and Smith for responding to constituent inquiries in Mulvihill’s and Nickels’ Seventh and Fifth wards, threatening them with the loss of their jobs if they continued to do so. Simultaneously, Valdivia demanded that his staff be intensely attentive to constituent inquires in Richards’ and Figueroa’s Sixth and Third wards.
During one mayoral staff meeting in January 2020, Valdivia told his staff members, who by law were prohibited from working on election campaigns while working in their taxpayer funded capacities, that they were in “reelection mode” and they needed to “get on board the train” by working on the Richards, Figueroa, Mlynarski and Torres campaigns and complete a list of priority projects he was assigning them that would ensure his reelection two years hence. One such assignment was having Cousins, whose internship was supposed to be devoted to municipal policy analysis, intercede with the Chinese government to have Peking cover the cost of the San Bernardino Symphony traveling to China in a ploy intended to allow Valdivia to extract money from Chinese business leaders in support of his electoral efforts. When Cousins informed the mayor that the money to fly the symphony members and their instruments to various cities in China and provide them with hotel accommodations was not going to be forthcoming, Valdivia flew into a rage, bellowing “Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit! I want results, not excuses!”
When Valdivia was reminded that city employees could not work on political campaigns while they were on the clock and being paid by the public, Valdivia sought to have what he called “mandatory office closures” during which the employees would be furloughed, creating time for them to work on political campaigns. Valdivia indicated he was going to require all of his staff who wanted to remain on the city payroll that they should use their vacation leave to attend campaign events.
A number of Valdivia’s staff members were graduates of California State University San Bernardino. Despite the consideration that Cal State San Bernardino was obviously a major local institution in the jurisdiction in which he was the leading political light, during his mistreatment and domination of his employees Valdivia made scathing references to the college, characterizing it as a third-rate educational facility servicing intellectually challenged students.
While his staff at first sought to please Valdivia and most either went through the motions of or actually complied with completing the improper tasks they were assigned, virtually all, after a time, proved unwilling to carry them out. At the end of January 2020, both Cisneros and Cervantes resigned and retained attorney Tristan Pelayes, who subsequently assisted them in filing claims against Valdivia and the city. Subsequently, Aboud, who had been fired by Valdivia, and Smith also retained Pelayes. In response, Valdivia sought to have Cousins, Brizuela and Brown provide him with written statements refuting the allegations from Cisneros and Cervantes. To Valdivia’s chagrin, the three refused.
As the atmosphere in the mayor’s office was deteriorating, Brown later related, an increasingly desperate Valdivia sought to preemptively destroy the credibility of his own staff members to head off the legal trouble his treatment of them had created.
Following Cisneros’s and Cervantes’ departure, the city had undertaken an investigation into the accusations they made against Valdivia, hiring Los Angeles-based attorney Carla Barboza to carry out that assignment. Valdivia sought to use his political reach to weaponize Barboza’s investigation by seeking to have her conclude that the difficulties the city was experiencing was a product of the mayoral staff’s collective insubordination.
Brown, Smith, Aboud, Cervantes and Cisneros, represented by Pelayes, filed suit against the city and Valdivia, alleging various forms of employment discrimination, employee mistreatment and/or wrongful termination. As the acts Valdivia was alleged to have engaged in were done while he was serving in his official capacity as mayor, the city council, in seeking to defend the city against the suits, elected to indemnify Valdivia as well, even as he complained that the city and the attorneys it had hired were not being aggressive enough in defending him. As the suits progressed, the discovery process allowed both sides to arm themselves with information to pursue the suit or defend against it, including the provision of evidence in the form of documents and obtaining testimony relating to the substance of the allegations and the refutation of those allegations, involving the taking of sworn depositions of various city officials. Details with regard to how Valdivia comported himself as mayor began to emerge, extending to his bribetaking; his receiving money from entities with business before the city; his efforts to pressure city staff to accommodate those who had donated to his campaign or retained his consulting company, Aadvantage Comm; his attempted use of city facilities, resources and employees for political purposes; his pressuring of city employees to provide him with sexual gratification and his verbal abuse of the employees within his office. Simultaneously, Valdivia formed, in addition to his electioneering committee, a legal defense fund, to which he accepted donations and into which he transferred money that had originally been donated to his electioneering efforts. He then used some $460,000 of those funds to retain and pay attorney Rod Pacheco to defend him in the face of the accusations contained in the lawsuits.
In June 2021, spurred by revelations from the discovery processes for the various lawsuits and other developments, the city undertook another investigation into Valdivia’s activities, the upshot of which was that it resolved to consider censuring him. In December 2021, during a public hearing in which the city and city council were represented by attorney Norma García Guillén, who presented the case against Valdivia, and Valdivia was represented by Pacheco, the council voted to censure him.
This created an unprecedented spectacle of the city simultaneously utilizing taxpayer funds to defend the mayor against charges, some of which the city council had declared him to be guilty of.
In 2022, six challengers to Valdivia emerged in that year’s mayoral race, including Tran, who lives in San Bernardino; former City Attorney Jim Penman, a longtime Valdivia supporter who had been instrumental in Valdivia’s initial success in getting into office as the representative of the Third Ward and who provided crucial support to him in his successful 2018 run for mayor and had more recently been gripped by a deep sense of contrition for having enabled Valdivia; Nickel, who was seeking to revive his political career after he narrowly lost his bid from reelection as Fifth Ward Councilman in 2020; and Treasure Ortiz, a former city employee and longtime Valdivia critic.
The lion’s share of the anti-Valdivia forces that had formed in the community coalesced behind Tran. In the June 2022 Primary Election, Valdivia, despite his overwhelming funding advantage, placed a distant third. Tran and Penman, having placed first and second, respectively, faced each other in a run-off held in the November General Election. Tran prevailed in that contest.
In the meantime, the lawsuits continued to be litigated. Valdivia, who after the June primary had become a lame duck and could no longer promise donors that he would be able to influence decisions in their favor at City Hall, saw the donations that had flowed freely into him in the form of political donations or contributions to his legal defense fund dry up. After the money in Valdivia’s legal defense fund ran out, Pacheco, who over the course of the previous two years had been paid in the neighborhood of half of a million dollars to defend the mayor and serve as his spokesman, abandoned his client. Valdivia remained as a defendant in the lawsuits, having made no real progress during the previous two-and-a-half years of warding off the charges leveled at him. Despite his discomfiture with the lack of aggressiveness the city’s lawyers were exhibiting in fighting the lawsuits brought by Pelayes on behalf of Brown, Smith, Aboud, Cisneros and Cervantes, he had no choice, Valdivia recognized, to being represented by the lawyers the city had hired on his behalf.
In December, Valdivia left office and Tran became mayor. During closed sessions of the city council since that time, Tran and the council members have been given no fewer than seven updates on where that litigation stands. According to well-placed sources at City Hall, things are not looking good for the city. At this point, Pelayes is armed with a plethora of evidence and testimony to indicate that his clients were being put upon to engage in activity that was illegal, unethical, outside the city’s own protocol or policy and that they were retaliated against when they resisted.
At the same time, the city has spurned at least three opportunities to settle the matters short of going to trial.
Multiple factors are at play in the continuation of the lawsuits which the city’s lawyers and at least three of the city council members acknowledge the city has no hope of prevailing on. One of those is out-and-out bureaucratic inertia, by which dislodging an institution as large as the city from the path it has been following requires an extraordinary show of resolve on the part of either one dynamic person within the bureaucracy or a critical mass of decision-makers, a shift which simply has not come about. Second is the financial incentive that the city’s various legal representatives, including City Attorney Sonia Carvalho, Assistant City Attorney Thomas Rice and the law firm that employs them, Best Best & Krieger, have in keeping the litigation going, as continuing court appearances, the conducting of depositions, the filing of motions and other documents and work in general on the case generates billable hours for the law firm. Moreover, Tran’s action or lack thereof when she was with the city in the capacity of human resources director is an issue in several of the lawsuits, which is something she would prefer not to become publicly exposed. In this way, continually suspending action on the lawsuit is desirable to the council she is leading.
While those delays may be favorable to the mayor and at least some of the members of the city council, they are costing the city’s residents money.
City officials were unable to quantify precisely how much money the city has spent on the lawsuits filed against it and Valdivia so far. There is no single line in the city’s budget for legal and litigation costs, as the actual expenditures on the city’s various lawsuits are spread throughout the city’s individual department budgets and no bottom-line accounting of what the cost of litigation is exists as a single line item in the city budget. Based on what figures the Sentinel could obtain and estimates provided by knowledgeable individuals with access to City Hall, the city has spend well beyond half of a million dollars on legal services and other activity related to the lawsuits and when the legal fees and other costs tied to the lawsuits are tallied, including the time staff spends in dealing with litigation issues, the figure approaches or has exceeded one million dollars, one city source said.
Former Councilman Nickel said $1 million is on the conservative side.
“I don’t have a total and I don’t think they have a total, but at just the normal cost of litigation, when you consider this has been going on for more than three years now, it can’t be anything less than a million dollars,” he said.
He called upon the council to settle all of the cases pertaining to Valdivia at once.
“If the city had a winning case, then I would say, ‘Fight on,’ because we can’t let people take advantage of us, and if we have to make examples of people who would come at the city with a frivolous case so others don’t get the same idea and bleed us to death, then we should go all the way to trial if need be,” Nickel said. “But this is not a winning case. I say that most emphatically. We had a womanizing mayor who put us into a really weak position. We need to recognize before we spend any more money on this that it is a losing case and settle it. The council needs to show enough courage to bite the bullet and admit we screwed up and move on.”
The council has to recognize, Nickel said, that “BBK [Best Best & Krieger] is not on our side in this. Yes, they are our city attorneys, but in the end, they are a profit-making corporation. They have been engaged with us during this litigation for years, and they have accumulated billable hours with motions and just crazy efforts that haven’t worked to get us out of this. At some point, which should have been a long time ago, we have to come to terms with the fact that this is a losing case. We need to settle so we don’t continue to burn through our city’s reserves, what’s left of them. We are just throwing good money after bad. Our former mayor did some things that were incredibly stupid. Our current mayor was involved in that when she was our human resources director, and she wants to avoid having to answer for that. Well, she’s the mayor now and she should just suck it up and move us past this.”
Tran needs to get over it and not worry about looking bad, Nickel said. She will survive if she acts forthrightly rather than being cowardly, he said.
“People are forgiving,” he said. “She will make it even worse if she continues to drag out a case the city will not win. No matter how much money we spend, the city will lose. We should stop applying taxpayer money for Mayor Valdivia’s defense. There’s no principle involved here. This is someone trying to save face. Let’s be honest and call a spade a spade.”
The Sentinel’s efforts to get Tran’s response by press time were not successful.

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