WALNUT CREEK -- Four city employees, ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing in relation to a former Lesher Center employee accused of child sexual abuse, asked the city to pay their legal fees -- and in one case much more.
But it doesn't look like the City Council is willing to take on anyone's tab, having rejected this past week paying legal fees for three of those managers. It all may be a precursor to lawsuits over the city's handling of a "mandated reporting" child abuse criminal and internal investigation that grew from the firing of a former Lesher Center employee, Jason Pedroza.
Pedroza pleaded guilty in Contra Costa Superior Court in August to child sexual abuse charges. During that hearing, his teenage accusers described how they had been ostracized by the local theater community for coming forward.
And now employees who were cleared of failing to report child sexual abuse under state law claim they too have been injured.
Four city employees -- Scott Denison, manager of the Lesher Center for the Arts; Barry Gordon, arts, recreation and community services director; his deputy, Kevin Safine; and Sally Rice, recently retired human resources director -- were placed on paid leave for more than two months as investigations looked into whether employees acted appropriately concerning Pedroza.
The district attorney's office decided in April not to press charges against the four, determining they believed another police agency was already investigating Pedroza. But it wasn't until June, and a lengthy internal investigation, that the four were allowed to return to work. Rice has since retired, and Gordon will retire at the end of the year, both saying they were forced into early retirements over events surrounding the Lesher investigation.
All four employees asked the City Council to reimburse their legal fees, which range from $7,500 to more than $25,000. In letters, employees say lawyers wouldn't have been necessary had a confidential police memo filled with errors not have been written and then leaked to this newspaper.
"Even the city's own independent investigator found that the leaked police memorandum contained numerous false and defamatory material that falsely accused Mr. Gordon of morally reprehensible conduct and criminal acts involving the exploitation or abuse of children," according to a letter sent to the city from Gordon's lawyer, Dirk Manoukian.
During a late-night closed session meeting Tuesday, the City Council decided unanimously to not reimburse Safine, Denison or Gordon, said interim City Attorney Steven Mattas. Those three have until next week to file a claim, a precursor to a lawsuit. While some of their attorneys had no comment, William Gagen -- who represents Denison -- said it's a tough decision whether to sue because his client loves his job and the city where he's worked for years.
Denison, and others, were willing to waive rights to sue the city if the council agreed to reimburse legal fees, Gagen said.
"You have a situation where a municipality has an indispensable employee for 39 years who has now been forced to pay for his own defense ... that now everyone acknowledges did nothing wrong," Gagen said.
None of this would have been needed if the city had investigated first before suspending people, he said.
Within the next month, city leaders expect to decide on Rice's claim, which asks for $92,320 -- including damages, lawyers' fees and lost retirement wages.
In her claim to the city, Rice details that the ordeal, including the council's decision to release the investigation report, which stated Rice was dishonest with police, has greatly injured her reputation.
"One of the hardest things I have ever had to do in my life is this -- make this claim against the city," Rice said in her letter. "I spent seventeen years of my life trying to protect public agencies from claims by being proactive, and by doing things right, even with limited staff and time."
Rice goes on to say that the stress of this ordeal has affected her health and well-being, and she seeks $50,000 for defamation and slander of her character, as well as another $34,320 for loss retirement wages because she didn't plan on retiring when she did.
Rice's claim, which was sent to the city last week, is under review.
"My office and, as necessary, the City Council will consider Ms. Rice's claim within the next month," Mattas said in an email.
Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617. Follow her at Twitter.com/enardi10.