Southern California

After 5 code officers lawyer up, city probes whether top officials protected cannabis businesses

ADELANTO — Five current city code enforcement officers, including the department’s supervisor, say Mayor Rich Kerr and new City Manager Jessie Flores have illegally shielded commercial cannabis cultivators from inspection and enforcement.

The protection, they add, goes beyond stand-down orders. It extends into the more serious charges of making citations disappear, altering reports and threatening the employment of officers trying to do their jobs.

The accusations were submitted to City Attorney Keith Lemieux and the city’s Human Resources Department on Oct. 2 on behalf of the five employees by attorney James Alderson, who now represents nine current or former city workers.

“I think it’s overall just a shame about what’s going on in the city on how Mayor Kerr and the Council are just destroying good people’s lives,” Alderson said by phone Friday. “And they’re doing it because of the corruption and until someone actually stops that, it’s going to continue.”

In text messages to the Daily Press, Flores said that all claims by employees are taken very seriously and that the city will be conducting an independent investigation into the allegations.

“Investigation will be conducted as expeditiously as possible,” he wrote, “and both the Mayor and I have offered our full cooperation.”

Kerr denied wrongdoing, calling the claims “false” and “absolutely incorrect.”

“I never protected any one person or any one company,” he said by phone. “Would I slow something down if I knew it was wrong? Yeah, I would. That’s my job. But I would never just tear a ticket up.”

Alderson said he would make the five code enforcement employees he now represents, including Community Safety Manager Steve Peltier, who oversees the department, available for an internal investigation into alleged charter violations by Kerr and Flores. He also suggested that a probe be opened into the dealings Kerr, Flores and the Council (except Councilman Ed Camargo) have with cultivators “since there is an appearance of illegal activity and abuse of authority.”

Ultimately, he said the alleged behavior was grounds for Kerr to resign and Flores to be fired.

To be clear, Kerr has acknowledged issuing a stand-down order in the past, when he told officers to back off an inspection of a purported illegal marijuana grow on Koala Road a year ago. But he said in November, when asked about it, that he believed the tenant possessed a certificate of occupancy to cultivate cannabis. It was ultimately determined they did not.

An applicant in that grow operation was directly tied to a company that later bought the city’s public works yard for $1 million. Two city employees in November, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, told the Daily Press that they questioned whether Kerr had a financial interest in the deal.

Kerr was adamant that he did not, but former City Manager Gabriel Elliott later reintroduced the suggestion when he reported to the FBI during a Nov. 15 meeting that Kerr had accepted a $200,000 bribe in the transaction.

Elliott also told federal investigators in that meeting, where he was accompanied by former City Attorney Ruben Duran, that Flores also had received financial kickbacks, which Flores later refuted. Elliott’s account to the FBI was described in a claim he filed against the city, but it did not indicate how he learned of the alleged bribes.

Three of the current code enforcement officers, in letters obtained by the Daily Press detailing their complaints, described the conditions where certain cannabis cultivation and extraction was occurring in the city: Illegal wiring, plumbing, structural integrity and hazards that violated the law.

Yet those three employees — Roman Edward De La Torre, Apolonio Gutierrez and Gregory Stephen Watkins — said they were “told not to cite or enforce or inspect” the facilities by Kerr and Flores, and then threatened with firing if they didn’t adhere to those commands. They also claimed they were told by cultivators to speak with Kerr and Flores regarding any alleged code violations.

All five current code enforcement officers claimed they had witnessed citations disappear “where the cited person has a rapport with Mayor Kerr.” All also say they are being subjected to a hostile work environment, harassment and retaliation.

Peltier, the department head, and Amber Lynn Tisdale, a fifth code enforcement officer, claimed that their verbal complaints to the city have gone unheeded.

Tisdale claimed she had witnessed code enforcement reports altered by Kerr and Flores as well as the two men engage in charter and Brown Act violations, concluding that her 15-year job was being put into jeopardy despite “excellent reviews” during her tenure. Additionally, she suggested that anyone who seeks to speak up regarding alleged wrongdoing, including city attorneys, is discharged.

Peltier also accused Flores of using another code enforcement officer, one who has not filed complaints, for “his own personal assignments” and then requesting Peltier falsify the employee’s time card to vouch for the employee’s time. “My client will not do so,” Alderson wrote to city officials.

“I’ve just never seen such blatant misconduct in my life by officials,” Alderson said by phone, adding that the majority Council — excluding only Camargo — were effectively ratifying the alleged behavior.

Perhaps most notably, the suggestion that city officials would act to protect commercial cannabis companies from inspections is a transgression first raised in an FBI affidavit providing probable cause for the arrest of former Adelanto Mayor Pro Tem Jermaine Wright.

Wright, who has pleaded not guilty to federal bribery and attempted arson charges, was accused of vowing to obstruct code enforcement efforts for a cannabis developer in exchange for cash. The developer was in fact an undercover FBI agent.

In responding to the claims Friday, Flores also sought to articulate how the current administration would be more accountable than those that came before — an assessment that seemed to suggest officials were steadfast to see mismanagement and controversy in the rear-view mirror.

“In the past, we lacked council leadership, administrative management direction and oversight which has led to the problems throughout our city’s history,” he wrote via text. “We are changing that course very quickly!”

© 2018 Daily Press, Victorville, Calif.. Visit Daily Press at www.vvdailypress.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.