San Bernardino City employees accuse Mayor John Valdivia of sexual harassment, hostile work environment

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Courtesy photos: Former SB city employees Karen Cervantes (L) and Mirna Cisneros (R) held a press conference Thursday in front of SB City Hall with their attorney Tristan Pelayes (middle).
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Two former San Bernardino City employees who resigned from their positions last week have retained legal representation to file a claim against Mayor John Valdivia for sexual harassment, hostile work environment and illegal financial activity, allegations their attorney Tristan Pelayes said are supported by “plenty of evidence” – text messages, electronic communication and witness accounts.

The two victims, Mirna Cisneros and Karen Cervantes, shared their experiences during a press conference in front of City Hall on Thursday, Feb. 6 with their attorney.

According to Pelayes of the Law Offices of Pelayes & Yu, Valdivia’s inappropriate conduct involved sexual advances, vulgar comments about women, talk of his own sexual escapades and repeatedly telling his clients that in order to be successful and secure professionally they had to spend time alone with him after business hours.

Mayor John Valdivia, City of San Bernardino

“Additional conduct of concern includes the mayor being drunk while serving in his official capacity, and repeatedly hiding and misrepresenting financial activities,” Pelayes stated. “All these incidents have been reported numerous times to city administrators yet nothing was done and they continued to be victimized by Mayor Valdivia. As a result of the continued abuse and neglect by the City to protect them, they began experiencing health issues and had to seek medical treatment which was directly correlated to the severe stress.” 

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A former customer service representative, Cisneros described an incident when Valdivia was allegedly drunk when he asked her to reschedule an appointment with Councilman Henry Nickel, and if necessary, to “perform a sexual favor on one of Nickel’s staff members to get it done.” She also claimed Valdivia offered her his credit card “to buy anything I wanted and his wife didn’t have to know.”

“It disgusts me that that man who swore to serve the community with integrity uses his position of power and authority to victimize people with no consequences,” Cisneros said, adding that she had no choice but to resign and seek legal counsel when the City failed to protect her and hold the mayor accountable.

A former assistant to the mayor Karen Cervantes who described her ordeal over the last four months as a “misery program” that led to numbness and stiffness to the right side of her face and arm, alleged Valdivia spoke of his sexual escapades and desires in front of her and others, and when she failed to respond to his inappropriate correspondence he would mistreat her by yelling and insinuating her job was in jeopardy.

“(Valdivia) told me that the situation was my fault and if I wanted things to change and to have a good relationship with him that I would have to spend time with him after work hours,” Cervantes said. “After reporting the mayor’s inappropriate behaviors and being told that because he was an elected official nothing would be done and he was above the law, I knew I had no other choice than to take legal action and resign from my position.”

Valdivia denied any wrongdoing, maintaining, in a written statement, “These allegations are false, politically-driven and interrupt representative democracy.”

“Garbage,” Pelayes responded to the claim being politically motivated. “I’m certainly not after the mayor’s seat, my client, a customer service representative, is not after his seat, or being backed by anybody that’s running against the mayor. This is a typical reaction by a public official when he has nothing truthful to say.”

In regards to the claim of alleged financial malfeasance Pelayes told reporters evidence will soon surface that Valdivia was running expenses for the airport to be reimbursed to him which Pelayes will contend is illegal. He added that there was no legitimate reason for Valdivia’s trip to China that was funded by taxpayer dollars.

“It is my understanding with the evidence that we have that the Council itself cautioned the mayor on his conduct, that he was even sent cease and desist letters telling him to stop the behavior, in particular, to one of my clients – he wanted to take one of my clients on trips, my client is a customer service representative, he wanted to take her to China and on a plane to San Jose; there’s absolutely no legitimate reason for those requests other than the obvious.”

During Wednesday’s city council meeting the city attorney assured the public that the city manager and director of human resources have taken immediate action to address these claims and an investigation launched.

“We ask for (the public’s) patience in knowing that staff needs time to comply with these policies and state and federal law. The public should know that all of you (council members) have been advised of your legal responsibilities and your fiduciary duties and your obligation not to disclose confidential personnel information, and this may be why some of you cannot speak to the press or members of the public.”

The claims come only a few months after a complaint was formally filed against Valdivia by former City Manager Andrea Miller for harassment, discrimination, and whistleblower retaliation, amongst other allegations. Miller states she was terminated in May of 2019 after exposing the mayor’s misconduct.

Based on the evidence Pelayes believes there are other victims, and encouraged them to come forward. “It is my belief that there are others out there who might have been victimized by Mayor Valdivia. Hopefully some of those people will have the courage to know that they can come forward and they will be protected.”

Pelayes indicated the claim will be filed sometime next week, after which the City has 45 days to accept or reject the claim, and if rejected, which Pelayes anticipates, they will proceed with a lawsuit.

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