Milpitas City Manager Tom Williams, who has threatened to sue Mayor Richard Tran and the city for defaming and harassing him, is now being accused of using a city charge card to pay for private attorney fees.
According to a letter obtained by the Milpitas Post that City Attorney Christopher Diaz wrote to the City Council, Williams used the card to pay $7,000 in legal fees to his attorney at San Francisco-based Ad Astra Law Group and signed off on the expenses as “official city business.”
Williams also attempted to charge $30,000 in city funds to pay the same attorney after the initial $7,000 was paid out, according to Diaz’s letter.Williams denied the allegations last Friday, saying in a phone call that no city charge card was used and “100 percent of my legal fees have been paid for by me.”
On Saturday, he followed up with an email, saying: “I absolutely in no way misused a city credit card. The accusations are ridiculous and another attempt by someone trying to hurt and retaliate against me.”
On Tuesday, after being asked if he had any additional comments, Williams told the Post in an email: “Legal fees were billed to the City because the City has an obligation to protect all of its employees from harassment and a hostile work environment.”
Williams alleged that other city employees have come forward to complain about the mayor and that he was acting on their behalf as well. Neither Diaz nor Human Resources Director Tina Murphy returned calls and emails to verify whether complaints have been lodged against Tran.
Milpitas’ policy on employee use of city credit cards states that personal use of them “is strictly prohibited,” Diaz’s letter points out. According to the city’s operating procedures, an employee found guilty of misusing public funds can be disciplined or terminated. And under state law, any such violation could result in a prison term of two to four years, Diaz’s letter states.
According to the letter, then-Interim Finance Director Jane Corpus told Diaz on May 2 that Williams used a city credit card on March 20 to pay his attorney $7,000 in legal fees for what he described as “official city business.” Diaz was also told that Williams had signed off on “various documents requesting $30,000 in city funds to pay his personal attorney,” the letter adds.
Diaz’s letter says he was informed two days later by Corpus that the city’s independent auditors had raised concerns about the charge on the city’s credit card and subsequently deemed the city at “high risk.” The auditors called for a “more thorough review of the city’s finances and controls.”
The auditors were aware of Williams’ legal dispute with the city through media reports and of the name of his law firm, according to the letter.
The auditor, Pleasant Hill based-Maze & Associates Accountancy Corp., was conducting an annual audit of the city when news broke of the city manager’s legal disputes.
Amy Myer, a partner with the auditing firm, said she could not comment about any allegations that a city employee may have misused city funds.
Sean Webby, public communications officer for the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office, said Monday “we are aware of the allegation” against Williams but refused to elaborate.
The Milpitas City Council met in closed session the evening of May 11, exactly 24 hours after the special meeting was called by Vice Mayor Marsha Grilli. Although Tran is the target of Williams’ potential lawsuit, he couldn’t attend the meeting because he had left for Guam the same day for military service as a member of the Air National Guard.
According to the agenda for that closed session, items to be discussed included a performance evaluation of the city manager, a conference with Diaz over a court order that Williams’ attorney sought to prevent any documents related to a previous closed session from being released to the media, and a conference with Diaz over anticipated litigation against the city.
On Monday, the city released an agenda for another closed session, called for Tuesday’s regular council meeting. This time, one of the items listed for discussion included anticipated litigation with the city as a plaintiff; no announcement was made following the session.
Before the council convened last week’s closed session, Interim Police Chief Steve Pangelinan presented it with a letter from the city’s “executive management” in support of Williams. Almost all city department heads then sat and conversed with Williams while waiting for the council to emerge from closed session. Corpus and Murphy were the only two department heads absent.
Pangelinan would not provide the Post with a copy of the letter, saying only that it supports the city manager.
After coming out of the almost two-hour session, the council announced there was nothing to report. Councilman Bob Nunez said he could not comment about why the meeting was so urgent it couldn’t wait for Tran’s return and declined to elaborate on any of the agenda items.
The Milpitas Police Officers’ Association had issued a statement approved by its board on April 28 supporting Williams against the mayor’s criticism and extolling his achievements. Asked last Friday whether the allegations of misuse of city funds changed the union’s stance, President Tara James said no.
“It doesn’t change our view on his past performance history,” she said. “I mean, we obviously hope that the allegations aren’t true. It doesn’t sound like something he would do, but that being said I am a big proponent of transparency and I would expect council to appoint the appropriate people to do a full-on investigation to get to the truth. I am more concerned about who is leaking information within the council about meetings and items on confidential agendas and what not. You know they need to be able to trust each other to get their job done efficiently. So I don’t know, I think it’s a mess at the moment.”
James said as a police officer she believes people are innocent until proven guilty and everyone should be given due process. Williams has done a good job as the city manager and should be given the opportunity to explain his actions, she added.
“I can speak from the board, it is not that we are offended that someone is picking on Tom or looking into him and his work product,” she said. “I expect that, I think we should all be looked in on or have checks and balances. But I would hope we could go about it in a way that is not so sensationalized, so nasty, because you can get down to the truth without doing those things.”
The association sent the memo after Williams’ attorney, Claire Cochran, sent an 11-page letter to Tran and Diaz on April 13, stating: “This letter operates as both a demand to cease and desist violations of the Civil Rights Act, which continues to repeatedly and aggressively be violated by Mayor Tran on an almost daily basis, and also to serve as notice of pending litigation for age related discrimination, retaliation and hostile work environment, also stemming from Mayor Tran’s behavior.”
The letter alleges that Tran has directly confronted Williams about his age, 53, “suggesting repeatedly that Mr. Williams should quit his job because he is ‘too old.’ ”
The letter goes on to accuse Tran of engaging in a “witch hunt unnecessarily and with malice” against Williams.
The letter demands $500,000 in damages for harming Williams’ reputation, $500,000 for emotional distress and $15,000 for reimbursement of attorneys fees to date.
Several days earlier, at the City Council’s April 4 meeting, Tran repeatedly asked that a vote on his proposal for a third-party review of Williams’ job performance be placed on the next meeting’s agenda. Diaz tried to advise Tran and the council that such a request should be made in closed session, not in public.
During the debate, Williams intimated he would get his private lawyer involved and Diaz urged the mayor to refrain from continuing to discuss the matter in public session.
Tran previously told the Post he couldn’t comment about any possible litigation, but noted that “I don’t discriminate based on any type of social category.” He is still in Guam on military duty and did not respond to an email seeking comment for this story.
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