Two former Westminster employees claiming workplace discrimination have reached settlements with a city still weathering corruption and bullying allegations leveled by both former and current city officials.
“Cases settle when the city has no defense for its unlawful conduct,” said an email from Dennis Wagner, the Riverside-based attorney for both employees, former Westminster police officer Brian Perez and former Housing Coordinator Tami Piscotty.
Both offices for the Westminster City Manager and the City Clerk declined to comment Monday.
Perez — who won part of a $3.4 million judgment in 2014 after a federal jury found he and two other Latino officers were denied assignments and promotions and were retaliated against by the police department — signed a non-disclosure agreement with the city on Jan. 23 and will receive a $550,000 payout following his additional October 2017 claim of continued discrimination by the department over his military status.
Per the settlement agreement, Perez will no longer speak publicly on the additional discrimination claims.
Roughly $137,000 of Perez’ payout will account for lost wages when he was on administrative leave between October last year and January this year following a September altercation he had with fellow officer Ryan Reyes — a co-plaintiff of Perez’ in the initial discrimination lawsuit — in the police department’s detective bureau.
Perez’ employment, per the contract, officially ended Jan. 23.
And Piscotty reached a settlement with the city in late 2018 after a year-long discrimination lawsuit that started in 2017, though it’s unknown how large her payout is or when she signed the settlement because the city hasn’t responded to requests for a copy.
But according to court records, her case was officially dismissed amid the settlement on Dec. 21 last year.
Piscotty in her lawsuit alleged she was discriminated against by city staff and pushed out of her previous role as assistant to the city manager in 2005 in favor of Chet Simmons, a younger male employee who was allegedly the best friend of then-city manager Ray Silver’s son.
Simmons still serves in that role under current City Manager Eddie Manfro.
Silver at the time called Piscotty’s claims about him inaccurate and said he was the “primary person who protected, defended and supported her from the constant complaints from then-Mayor Margie Rice.”
Piscotty also claims to have reported illegal activity, including alleged embezzlement and potential violations of conflict of interest laws, but that “she was kept off-site to be kept quiet.”
City officials didn’t respond when asked how much they’ve spent on attorney fees against Perez and Piscotty.
Perez’ settlement came roughly a month before Westminster Police Chief Ralph Ornelas was placed on administrative leave on Feb. 20 pending the results of an outside investigation into unspecified “possible policy violations,” according to city officials. Deputy chief Mark Lauderback is serving as acting police chief in Ornelas’ place.
“The current administrative leave of the Chief speaks volumes about the mismanagement of the Westminster Police Department and the legitimacy of the claims that have been made by employees of the PD and for the future claims to come from this Chief’s administration,” said Wagner, who’s represented a long list of former city employees alleging corruption and mismanagement either in the police department or at City Hall over the last several years.
Among them is former Police Chief Kevin Baker, who submitted a 14-page legal claim against the city in April 2016, one month before he retired, which was made public in December 2017 as a result of a year-long court battle between the city and Voice of OC.
Baker in his complaint described a city where corruption runs rampant and council members at the time operated like a “gang,” pushing for police enforcement against certain businesses to punish political enemies and using city resources to enrich themselves and political allies.
The city has maintained that Baker’s allegations were a smear effort and that he never substantiated his claims, though Baker got a $500,000 settlement with the city in order to prevent him from suing or talking publicly about his corruption allegations.
Meanwhile, at City Hall, allegations of ethical violations and bullying resurfaced during the later portion of a Feb. 12 City Council meeting, when Councilwoman Kimberly Ho burst into tears on the dais and publicly threatened newly-elected Councilman Tai Do with a defamation lawsuit in response to comments Do made about council members’ interactions with city staff.
“Members of the City Council cannot go directly to the staff and order staff to do things for the Council regarding city business. Everything has to go through the City Manager. The rules were designed so we can protect city staff from hostile work environments,” said Do, discussing a city government ethics workshop he attended in Irvine a month earlier.
Councilman Charlie Nguyen responded by asking if it was a law “that we have to abide by that the council cannot go directly to staff?”
“I think that’s a recommendation … a courtesy,” Nguyen said. “But it’s not a rule.”
Do responded by alluding to Baker’s 2016 report, adding that direct interactions between council members and staff could “lead to a lot of problems, a lot of corruption.”
“I’d like you to learn the status quo, how things go first,” responded Ho almost immediately. “Find your way out of the gate before you make comments and before you start trying to accuse this Council … this Council works very well.”
“So I’m gonna warn you. Ok?” Ho added, at this point visibly emotional. “If you don’t watch what you say, I’m gonna send a defamation lawsuit your way.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed a question about council member interactions with staff to Mayor Tri Ta. Councilman Charlie Nguyen asked the question. Voice of OC regrets the error.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC intern. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.