Supervisor tries to intervene on behalf of aide stopped by police
BY RAMONA GIWARGIS
When Merced police stopped a woman driving a vehicle at a high rate of speed last May, they didn’t realize she was an assistant to a longtime Merced County supervisor.
But the sergeant who made the traffic stop soon learned of that relationship when the woman called her boss, District 1 Supervisor John Pedrozo, and asked him to intervene. Pedrozo wanted to know what was going on with his employee but was told by the officer that she was an adult, and he couldn’t divulge that information.
Pedrozo then told the officer he would call Merced police Chief Norm Andrade to find out what happened. The traffic stop revealed the woman had an outstanding bench warrant and was driving on a suspended license, all stemming from a previous DUI arrest.
Pedrozo would subsequently write a letter on county letterhead to a Merced County Superior Court judge in support of his assistant, calling her a safe driver and someone who needs to drive for work. Her DUI penalties – fines and fees – were converted to 195 hours of community service.
A Merced Sun-Star investigation of court records, police reports and county documents revealed that the assistant, Brenda Liza Valenzuela-Porras, signed out a county vehicle on multiple occasions while her driver’s license was suspended for the DUI conviction. There is no record of who actually drove the vehicle on those occasions, and she denies driving a county vehicle with a suspended license.
Merced County Superior Court Judge Carol Ash issued a bench warrant for Valenzuela-Porras’ arrest on Oct. 11, 2013, after she failed to show up for court and provide proof of her community service hours.
In the days leading to publication of the Sun-Star’s story, Valenzuela-Porras went to court after multiple missed appearances to have the warrant removed on Dec. 11, 2013. Valenzuela-Porras claims she didn’t know a warrant was issued in October 2013 until she was tipped off last month by a “person” she refused to identify.
A spotty driving record
Fourteen months after Valenzuela-Porras, 29, began working for Pedrozo, she ran into legal troubles. On March 14, 2012, she was arrested by Merced police for driving under the influence, reckless driving and driving on a suspended license.
That night, she was stopped around 1:45 a.m. for driving 80 mph on G Street and Bear Creek Drive. Her blood-alcohol level was 0.11 and 0.10 based on two breath tests, according to a police report. A driver is considered over the legal limit with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent or higher, under California law.
Valenzuela-Porras told the officer she was driving erratically because she was “going to pee her pants.”
“I could smell an odor of alcohol … she had watery, glassed over eyes and they appeared to be bloodshot,” the arresting officer reported. Pedrozo’s assistant admitted to drinking two glasses of vodka and cranberry juice at a restaurant that evening, according to the report, and was taken to John Latorraca Correctional Facility.
Valenzuela-Porras on Jan. 8, 2013, pleaded no contest to DUI and driving on a suspended license. She was sentenced to two days in jail and nearly $3,000 in fines.
She was required to begin her jail sentence Feb. 11, 2013, in connection with the DUI arrest, but records show she didn’t show up at the jail. As a result, the court issued a warrant for her arrest on March 6, 2013, according to court documents.
When Valenzuela-Porras was stopped again by Merced police on May 18 – the night she made the call to Pedrozo – she was cited for having the outstanding warrant, driving on a suspended license, having no proof of insurance and expired registration.
During that incident, Valenzuela-Porras called Pedrozo on her cellphone and handed it to Sgt. Jay Struble as he wrote her citation.
“When I got on the phone with the individual on the other end, he asked me what was going on,” the sergeant wrote in his report. “I explained to him that I was not going to discuss this matter with him because Valenzuela is an adult.”
The response on the other end of the phone was, “Fine, I’ll call Chief Norm Andrade,” according to the police report. Struble, who said he recognized Valenzuela-Porras’ car because it had been impounded three times before, cited Valenzuela-Porras for four violations.
Pedrozo called police chief, sent letter to judge
Pedrozo acknowledged he received a call from his assistant on May 18, after she was pulled over by Struble. The supervisor told the Sun-Star he also called Andrade that evening to find out why his assistant – who he said is like a daughter to him – was pulled over.
“I get a call from (Valenzuela-Porras) crying, saying ‘I don’t know why I got pulled over,’ ” Pedrozo said. “The way I put it to Chief Andrade is I know there are two sides to every story. I just want to know why Brenda was pulled over.”
Andrade confirmed receiving the call from Pedrozo that night, but stood by his sergeant’s decision to not discuss the details of Valenzuela-Porras’ case with the county supervisor. “Pedrozo said the person who worked for him was pulled over and he said the officer would not give him information,” Andrade recalled. “And I said yes, that’s correct. I told him he is not entitled to any information, and the officer was correct in not giving any information.
“My officer handled it appropriately and, in fact, I would say he went a little above and beyond talking to the gentleman on the phone,” Andrade continued. “He didn’t have to do that.”
In a recent Sun-Star interview, Valenzuela-Porras explained calling her boss during the May 18 traffic stop to “let him know the situation” because her “job was on the line.” She said she didn’t know a warrant had been issued for her arrest.
“I could lose my job if my car was getting impounded,” Valenzuela-Porras said, explaining the phone call. “I in no way want to lose my job whatsoever.”
The call to Andrade would not be the last time Pedrozo tried to lend his assistant a hand. Although Pedrozo knew of Valenzuela-Porras’ May 18 run-in with Merced police, he wrote a letter on county letterhead to a judge in June 2013 calling his assistant a “safe driver” and asking the judge to forgive her civil penalties.
“I believe Brenda is a safe driver and she has never had any incident of any kind while driving the county vehicle or her own while working,” Pedrozo wrote in the June 17 letter. “Her job requires a large amount of driving therefore having a valid Driver’s License is a necessity due to her assigned duties.”
Pedrozo defended writing the letter, saying it was to verify how important it is for Valenzuela-Porras to keep her license. “That was the only reason I wrote the letter – because she needs to drive for work,” Pedrozo said. “I question her choices, but I’m not going to question her ability to be a safe driver when she’s at work. I can’t make that judgment call.”
Valenzuela-Porras confirmed asking her boss to write the letter of support, saying it was at the request of her attorney.
When asked if she believed she was a “safe driver” – the words written by her boss – she hesitated for a moment before answering. “I am a safe driver besides suspensions on my license,” Valenzuela-Porras said.
County could have faced legal, financial risks
A closer look at Valenzuela-Porras’ driving record indicates her license has been suspended eight times since April 2010, most recently from Jan. 19, 2013, to July 2, 2013, according to DMV records.
County driving records obtained by the Sun-Star show Valenzuela-Porras checked out a county vehicle at least five times while on a suspended license – once in May 2011 and four times in January 2012.
Merced County Counsel James Fincher said Valenzuela-Porras would have put the county at risk if she drove a county vehicle while having a suspended license. He said the county would’ve been held financially liable if she had been in an accident.
“Would there have been legal repercussions? The answer is yes,” Fincher said, noting a jury would need to decide who was at fault. “Would we be more likely to lose the case? The answer is probably. We are the ones who are going to pay if she was in a county car.”
According to Merced County’s vehicle policy, employees who drive a county vehicle or utilize their personal vehicle on county business must maintain a valid driver’s license and provide a copy to the county before beginning driving duties.
The policy is also clear about reporting changes to an employee’s driving status, such as a suspended license. The policy states “employees must inform their department by the next workday whenever their driving status changes (license suspension, revocation, expiration or other change in status).”
However, county officials confirmed they did not run a DMV background check on Valenzuela-Porras at the time of her hiring in January 2011. She had three points on her driving record at the time, according to DMV records.
Valenzuela-Porras’ official job title is “extra help student intern,” and she earns $13 an hour. Her job duties consist of scheduling meetings for Pedrozo, conducting town hall meetings and handling comments from his constituents. Valenzuela-Porras’ career in Merced County began January 2010 in the Public Defender’s Office where she worked as an extra help office assistant.
Merced County Human Resources Director Marci Barrera said the county reviews employee driving records only for positions where driving is a major component of the job, such as public works employees or delivery drivers. “In this case, it’s generally not a part of the job,” Barrera said.
DMV never sent letters
Valenzuela-Porras denied driving the county car on a suspended license, but could not recall the dates of her most recent suspension when asked by the Sun-Star.
“When your license is suspended you’re supposed to get a letter in the mail notifying you that your license is suspended, and I don’t receive those letters at all,” Valenzuela-Porras said. “I was not aware that my license was suspended and when I did find out, the first thing I did was tell my boss.”
Valenzuela-Porras claims her license was not actually suspended during the May 18 run-in with Merced police and blamed the DMV for not updating her driving record.
“It wasn’t suspended and I had all the paperwork to prove it – everything, all my receipts,” Valenzuela-Porras said. “Because the DMV, I guess, was backed up and not everything had been inputted or updated yet, my car was being impounded – that was going to be more money I didn’t have at the time.”
But DMV records obtained by the Sun-Star show Valenzuela-Porras hadn’t submitted documents to the department to terminate her suspension until May 22, 2013, four days after she was pulled over for driving on a suspended license.
The DMV updated Valenzuela-Porras’ driving record two days later on May 24, 2013, DMV spokeswoman Jan Mendoza confirmed. Her suspension was lifted on July 2, 2013, after she paid reinstatement fees, Mendoza added.
Valenzuela-Porras also claimed the officer was “so rude” during the May 18 incident and refused to explain why she was being pulled over. She said she was targeted by the officer, who recognized her, and “snatched” her phone from her.
Struble told the Sun-Star the claims made by Valenzuela-Porras are false. “The only time I touched her phone was when she handed it to me and said, here, my boss wants to talk to you,” Struble said. “And if I didn’t disclose to her (why she was pulled over), why did she tell me she was speeding because she had to go pee?”
Struble said he didn’t recognize Valenzuela-Porras or her vehicle until after she began to “name drop” by telling him who she works for. “She said her boss was Mr. Pedrozo and she rents her house from Detective (Paul) Johnson, who works at the Merced Police Department,” Struble said. “She likes to name drop to get out of trouble because she works for Mr. Pedrozo.”
Expert says Pedrozo acted unethically, used his position
When loyalty becomes more important than legality, rules and policies, then you have an example of unethical behavior, said April Hejka-Ekins, professor emeritus in the political science and public administration department of California State University, Stanislaus.
Hejka-Ekins said it appears Pedrozo used his position as an elected official to exert undue influence over the outcome of the law by writing a letter on county letterhead and intervening with a police traffic stop.
“He’s not helping her by protecting her, and he’s violating his office by personally getting involved in the situation rather than allowing the law to be carried out,” Hejka-Ekins said. “So what happens is he’s protecting her even though she’s violating the law and he’s using his office to do it.”
Hejka-Ekins said Pedrozo should not have allowed his loyalty to his assistant cloud his responsibility as a public official.
“It’s not just like a citizen trying to protect their kid, because you take an oath when you’re in public office to uphold the law,” she said. “The law should supersede your sense of loyalty to your family, friends or workers.”
Enabling Valenzuela-Porras’ behavior is not just inappropriate, but also could lead to more serious consequences, she added.
“She’s using her relationship with him on the basis of favoritism to get special treatment for violating the law and obviously that’s not ethical,” Hejka-Ekins said. “But the other problem is the likelihood that something serious could happen. What’s going to stop her from doing what she’s doing until something disastrous happens?”
Pedrozo maintains he didn’t do anything unethical and was simply trying to help his assistant through some tough times.
“It’s a mistake – she made a mistake,” Pedrozo said. “My goal is to help people. I have a single mother with two kids that has an extra-help job that made a mistake.”
“Everyone makes mistakes”
Although Valenzuela-Porras pleaded no contest to the DUI charge on Jan. 8, 2013, the case isn’t resolved.
Merced County Superior Court Judge John Kirihara recalled her bench warrant on Dec. 11, 2013, and scheduled another hearing on Jan. 15. Valenzuela-Porras was required to show completion of her 195 community service hours on that day, according to court documents.
She has 1801/2 hours left. She has completed 141/2 hours, court documents show.
Valenzuela-Porras showed the judge on Jan. 15 a volunteer agreement to complete her hours at Yosemite Church, according to documents. She faces new charges from the May 18 incident, and her next court appearance is scheduled for March 5.
Valenzuela-Porras said she hasn’t received any type of disciplinary action from the county and said she doesn’t believe she deserves to be penalized.
“Everyone makes a mistake, but I have gone above and beyond to fix everything because of my DUI,” Valenzuela-Porras said, noting she missed court hearings because of family emergencies. “My job is what pays the bills and puts a roof over our heads, and I would not do anything to jeopardize that at all.”
The mother of two said she regrets drinking and driving that night and has since apologized to Pedrozo.
“I’ve apologized for my actions because my personal life has been focused on now and it’s because I work for him,” she said.
“I can’t change my past. I can’t change those suspensions; if not, I would in a heartbeat. I really would. Honest to God. But I have no control over that, but I do have control over my future.”
Pedrozo said he continues to stand by his assistant, saying she’s a good employee.
“I’m not cutting ties, because she’s a good employee,” he said. “My goal is to help someone that’s working and trying to make a living for herself and her family. I know she is a good employee when she works for me.”
Report released in Dumars investigation
BY RAMONA GIWARGIS
Claims of favoritism, potential retaliation and workplace safety concerns, all against the backdrop of a perceived relationship between the public defender and a Merced County supervisor’s daughter.
Those were the themes of an independent investigation launched by Merced County after receiving complaints about Eric Dumars, the county’s public defender. The 134-page report, obtained Friday by the Merced Sun-Star through a public records request, paints a contentious picture of a staff divided by both support and animosity toward Dumars.
Dumars’ Fresno-based attorney, Barry Bennett, called the report a “bunch of gossip” and an opportunity for attorneys in the Public Defender’s Office to advance their own careers at his client’s expense. Bennett said Dumars couldn’t comment about the report Friday because of the agreement with the county that led to his resignation.
Dumars, 41, submitted an official resignation letter to the Board of Supervisors this week. Earlier this month, he wrote an email to his staff announcing the decision, which came after county supervisors discussed his potential dismissal in closed-door meetings.
The internal investigation was launched by the county after a late September suicide attempt by Dumars, which resulted in his extended leave of absence. The investigation stemmed from a written complaint by an employee of the Public Defender’s Office in October. The complaint outlined favoritism in the office, erratic and threatening behavior by Dumars and was consistent with two prior complaints, according to the report.
Merced County hired Susan Hatmaker, a Fresno-based attorney, to investigate the claims. Hatmaker could not be reached for comment Friday.
After interviewing Dumars and 12 of his employees, Hatmaker’s report backed up claims of favoritism because of Dumars’ “perceived relationship” with Ellie Souders, the daughter of District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey.
Souders, 32, voluntarily resigned her position as an “extra help deputy public defender” on Jan. 3, according to county Management Analyst Mike North. She was originally hired in March 2011, then laid off and rehired on Aug. 3, 2011.
The report said most interviewees believed Dumars and Souders were “in an intimate relationship” based on conduct observed by them. They were often described as a “couple” and “inseparable,” and Souders was seen inside Dumars’ office for hours on a daily basis – sometimes after 7 p.m. with the door closed, according to the report.
On another occasion, the two were spotted returning to the office 20 minutes after they had both left separately, the report said. Dumars also invited Souders to a training course designed for supervisors, though she was an “extra help” public defender.
The investigation recounted observations by employees, but the investigator also stated none of the interviewees had information that could “definitively support” a sexual relationship between Dumars and Souders. They were never observed “kissing, touching each other” in an intimate manner.
Bennett said claims of a relationship are based on speculation and rumor. He said a number of attorneys, not just Souders, spent time “behind closed doors” discussing cases with Dumars.
“It may be because of her mom’s position that people thought he was trying to help her,” Bennett said. “It made people jealous because she was capable at her job – it was almost like her undoing.”
In a written statement to the Sun-Star, Souders said the allegations about her relationship with Dumars are based on exaggerations and blatant lies. “First, I would like to address the most disturbing of the allegations, namely that there is witness to Mr. Dumars and myself alone in his office after hours with his door shut,” Souders said in the statement. “This is a lie, a complete falsehood spun from whole cloth.
“I have worked late, along with many of the attorneys at the Public Defender’s Office, and on occasion Mr. Dumars would also work late,” she continued. “But he and I have never engaged in any inappropriate behavior. I take my job very seriously and would never treat my workplace with such disrespect.”
Kelsey also responded Thursday to the investigation involving her daughter, saying the author reached “faulty conclusions” by relying on complainants who had not been sworn to tell the truth.
“Apparently, lying to the investigator is an acceptable standard if the end result meets the intended objective,” Kelsey said in a written statement. “I view the fact that this biased investigation has led to the resignation of a capable and dedicated public servant as a disgrace. “
“It is a failure of the county administrative leadership, by the CEO and county counsel, who treated the investigative process not as a search for the truth, but as a means to eliminate an outspoken advocate for his department,” she continued.
Concerns about workplace safety
The investigation also detailed other alleged behavior by Dumars, like beating a file box with a softball bat in his office, punching a filing cabinet and engaging in “screaming episodes.” He allegedly called a subordinate a “f------” in a text message, but said it was done in the “spirit of friendship.”
Bennett said several witnesses saw the softball bat incident and said it was a joke. “It’s hard to credit that people feared for their physical safety,” he said. “I really find that hard to believe because he’s not a violent person. He’s the last person in the world who’d want to get into a fight with someone.”
Bennett said the investigation was one-sided and didn’t include interviews with all employees of the Public Defender’s Office and appeared to favor those who spoke negatively about Dumars. He said the report also didn’t include a dozen letters of support from past and present employees.
“It looked to me that they made up their minds what direction the investigation would go and hired someone who would take it that way,” Bennett said. “It just seemed like anyone that supported Eric weren’t interviewed in the same depth.”
Dumars has been public defender since March 25, 2013, county documents show, and served as acting public defender since December 2011. He was hired Aug. 1, 2005, as a deputy public defender II.
He left office on administrative leave after the attempted suicide on Sept. 28. Dumars apparently visited the office at least once after his leave, but was told by County Executive Officer Jim Brownthat he was not allowed to do so.
The complaints about Dumars came after his leave of absence, Bennett said.
The investigation by Hatmaker doesn’t detail Dumars’ medical history, but Bennett said his client was seen by an independent doctor selected by the county and was deemed fit to return to work.
On Friday, the Sun-Star also obtained a copy of a letter Dumars sent to the Board of Supervisors on Jan. 10, explaining his illness and asking for his job back.
“I am not a perfect person and have made many mistakes. However, the complaints are false. The timing was incredible. The investigation was poorly done,” Dumars said in the letter. “I firmly believe that if restored to my position I can put it back on track. I am well, and my decision-making is no longer clouded by the acute attack I suffered in September. I am undergoing a course of treatment that could potentially last a lifetime.”
Even though Dumars submitted his voluntary resignation to the board, he will remain on paid administrative leave for a couple more months as part of his agreement with the county, officials said.