WALNUT CREEK -- A new report concludes that four city employees acted appropriately to protect minors by firing the Lesher Center employee who is accused of having inappropriate contact with a 13-year-old girl, but that the city manager and human resources director impeded the internal investigation by evading questions.
The report, which focused on the failure of employees to report suspicions of child abuse as mandated by state law, also sheds light on "political tensions" and mistrust between various city departments.
In particular, the report says City Manager Ken Nordhoff knew about the Lesher Center employee's suspected inappropriate conduct with a teenage girl soon after his subordinates did, and failed to notify police. The document also said Human Resources Manager Sally Rice failed to fully inform investigators when asked about the incident.
Some council members, including Mayor Cindy Silva, said they were skeptical of the report, while others found its contents troubling.
"The overall responsibility of city operations -- and the failure findings contained in this report -- falls on the city manager," Councilman Justin Wedel said. "The investigative processes unearthed additional transgressions that clearly need to be addressed in order to preserve the community's trust in City Hall."
Done by an outside investigator hired by the city, the report details the actions of city workers in relation to former employee Jason Pedroza, 28. He was fired from the Lesher Center in November after city employees learned of inappropriate text messages between him and a minor. Other victims later came forward with more serious accusations; Pedroza eventually was charged with two felonies and two misdemeanors.
The report is clear that the employees -- Lesher Center Manager Scott Denison, Arts Director Barry Gordon, his deputy Kevin Safine and Rice -- had no knowledge of any other suspected crimes by Pedroza.
Denison, Gordon, Safine and Rice were placed on leave in March over the suspected reporting failures, then brought back in June after the investigation concluded. The district attorney's office decided in April not to press charges.
The report concludes that Nordhoff knew about the Pedroza accusations soon after they were discovered but didn't deem it necessary to notify the city's police department, even after he knew the department was conducting a mandated reporting investigation. He then placed four subordinates on leave for knowing the same information he knew, the report says.
Nordhoff learned of the Pedroza issue from Rice and Assistant City Manager Lorie Tinfow, the report says. None of them alerted Walnut Creek police or the city attorney's office. For months afterward, then-Police Chief Joel Bryden frequently updated Nordhoff on a criminal investigation of Pedroza, according to the report.
The investigator who wrote the report concludes that Nordhoff was "evasive" and "not attempting to tell the whole truth" in interviews.
When Nordhoff was asked if, in retrospect, he should have taken the initiative to report his knowledge of the Pedroza accusations to Walnut Creek police when he first learned of it, "Nordhoff declined to answer the question," according to the report.
In a statement Thursday, Nordhoff said he assumed his upper management staff would handle the Pedroza matter, and that "the system worked." In a follow-up phone call, Nordhoff said he disagreed with some of the "less than flattering" characterizations of him in the report.
"In retrospect, I wish I had said something sooner. ... I never intentionally lied or misled anyone," said Nordhoff, adding that it is time to move forward.
The investigator concludes that Rice, who declined to comment, essentially lied to police when asked if she knew anything about the Pedroza matter -- failing, at first, to provide a memo from Safine detailing the accusations.
"Rice's failure to provide the notes was not an accident. It was intentional," according to the report.
The report also describes various city officials' inability to recall certain dates, times and conversations or to remember their own actions.
The document also describes internal struggles within City Hall that may have contributed to a breakdown in departments working together.
"The investigator became aware of some ongoing 'political tension' between the police department and the (Lesher Center), between the city attorney's office and the administrative services department, and between the police department management and Chief Bryden," according to the report.
Nordhoff acknowledges some of the internal issues and said he challenged his department heads this week to think of how to "create a culture that best serves our community."
Mayor Pro Tem Kristina Lawson said she expects Nordhoff to make any necessary organizational changes. She also does not agree that all employees involved did nothing wrong.
Citing personnel privacy issues, Nordhoff would not discuss whether any employees would face disciplinary measures.
Silva finds fault with the report itself.
"I believe the report makes broad and poorly substantiated conclusions regarding their level of knowledge about or involvement in the handling of the allegation involving the part-time employee," Silva said in a statement. "From Scott Denison to Ken Nordhoff, nothing in the report changes my opinion of their integrity or character. I believe these employees are credible and dedicated to the safety and welfare of this community."
Councilwoman Loella Haskew also supported city staff members.
"The investigative report supports that, under Ken Nordhoff's administration, city staff is empowered to act to assure that a participant's safety and well-being, especially if that participant is a young person," she said. "At the first whiff of impropriety, the action was swift and sure."
To deal with the gaps in mandated reporting training, the city is creating a formal policy, Nordhoff said. Safine, Gordon and Denison had received no training related to state-mandated child abuse reporting before this incident.
Gordon, Rice and Safine had no comment on the report's findings. Denison, however, said he felt vindicated.
"I am pleased that the city's investigation confirmed that I acted appropriately and that I have been fully exonerated," he said in a news release provided by his attorney.
To view the entire report go to http://www.walnut-creek.org/civicax/filebank/blobdload.aspx?BlobID=7895
Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617. Follow her at Twitter.com/enardi10.