Walnut Creek city attorney resigns, saying he was pressured to derail Lesher Center investigation
WALNUT CREEK — Council members tried to derail an internal investigation once it revealed that the city manager knew of the allegations of child sex abuse by a Lesher Center employee earlier than he disclosed, according to outgoing City Attorney Bryan Wenter.
Wenter said this type of pressure from the people who hired him and what he called a "difficult" work environment prompted him to resign Monday after two years as the city’s top counsel.
Mayor Cindy Silva said Tuesday she was not aware of any effort to shut down the investigation.
After Wenter announced his resignation, one of his two assistant city attorneys announced she, too, was leaving.
The atmosphere at City Hall has apparently become intolerable for Wenter in the wake of the Lesher Center child abuse "mandated reporting" internal investigation. That investigation examined whether city employees fulfilled their responsibilities to report suspected abuse to police after firing a former Lesher Center employee who was allegedly having inappropriate contact with teenage girls. The employee, Jason Pedroza, was charged by prosecutors in February with two felonies and a misdemeanor, three months after he was fired.
Four employees were placed on leave until the internal investigation was complete, and all four were eventually brought back to work after the investigation found that overall they acted appropriately. But the investigation revealed that City Manager Ken Nordhoff and others had the same information as the employees on leave.
"As you may know, the City Attorney’s Office undertook that difficult, time-consuming, and thankless work, through independent outside counsel and an independent investigator, for a variety of important reasons, including potential civil liability the city may yet face," Wenter said in an email to city staff announcing his resignation. "Avoiding that challenge or shutting down the investigation when the pressures mounted internally because the investigation went ‘up the chain’ was not a legal or moral option I could support."
Wenter told this newspaper Tuesday that at the end of April, about a week after the council was made aware that Nordhoff knew more of the Lesher Center situation than he originally disclosed, Silva and another council member he declined to name asked him to make legal recommendations on the investigation that were not his own. At that meeting, he said he was accused of abusing the power of the City Attorney’s Office, and his upcoming job review was mentioned.
Subsequently that day, Wenter said, he received a call from another council member who told him that he needed to watch his back and that the investigation needed to end.
"I continue to interpret both conversations, including raising the specter of a performance evaluation in the middle of an ongoing investigation, as efforts to alter my legal advice and influence me to shut down the investigation," Wenter said.
Silva and Councilman Bob Simmons acknowledged they met with Wenter in late April but disputed his account of what transpired. The goal was to find ways to bring "closure" to the situation, not to stop it, Silva said.
And it couldn’t have been stopped anyway because interviews were already done, Silva said.
"The whole intent was to try and bring everything to resolution," she said.
Simmons agrees with Silva’s recollection, and said that at the time Wenter was the only one in the city empowered to make any decisions in regards to the Lesher situation. Simmons said he wanted to give Wenter ideas, such as setting a due date for the investigation to conclude. He wanted the investigation completed, not to stop it, and mentioning Wenter’s review was not an implied threat, Simmons said.
"The city attorney job is to provide legal advice; you don’t insert your own sense of what is right or wrong when you are giving legal advice," he said.
Wenter declined to name the council member who called him to say he needed to watch his back, but Councilwoman Loella Haskew acknowledged Wednesday it was her.
Haskew said that when she told Wenter to "watch his back," it was not a threat. She thought he had chosen a side and that people on that side would turn on him, so he should watch his back, she said. In no way was she trying to get him to do anything "nefarious," she said.
"It’s not in my style ever to threaten," Haskew said. "I am the most open guileless person I know. I have no threats. And I honestly believe that all three of us were trying to get to resolution so the city could move on to the city’s business."
Wenter made it clear in the resignation emails he sent to the council and to the city staff that he had planned to stay at this job for much longer.
Following his move, assistant city attorney Katy Wisinski submitted her resignation effective Aug. 23. She is one of two assistant city attorneys.
Wisinski declined to comment about her exact reasons for leaving, but in an email to all Walnut Creek employees she made clear that Wenter’s resignation was key to her decision. She commends him for his leadership and says she is proud of what he has accomplished.
"I have taken tremendous pride in being one of your attorneys, and I had expected to remain here for many years," Wisinski said in her email. "My heart is very heavy, but I can see that it is time to go."
With a nearly vacant attorney’s office by the end of August, the City Council will need to act soon. Silva said it’s a council decision on what to do about finding a new city attorney, even an interim one. As of Tuesday, no meeting had been called to discuss the issue.
Wenter’s is the second high-profile resignation in the wake of the scandal. Last week, Human Resources Director Sally Rice, one of the four employees at the center of the investigation, resigned to take early retirement.
Silva said it saddens her when anyone in the organization leaves, but employees continue to do an incredible job for Walnut Creek.
"We will be able to work together to set a positive course for the future," she said.
Nordhoff is out of town and could not be reached for comment.
Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617. Follow her at Twitter.com/enardi10.
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