San Bernardino mayor misused public funds, investigation finds

San Bernardino Mayor John Valdivia misused public funds by billing the city for invitations to a private event as well as for trips that included fundraising, according to an investigation commissioned by the City Council.

On Dec. 1, the council will decide whether to officially censure Valdivia.

The investigation by the law firm Garcia Rainey Blank & Bowerbank found that Valdivia printed more than 2,000 postcards for a private event on June 15 at the Hilltop Collection restaurant, billing the city $2,500.

Valdivia prominently featured himself on the postcards inviting recipients to the “Mayor’s VIP Reception” at the restaurant after he delivered his State of the City address.

Hardly any city officials were invited to the private event, the report said.

Instead, the postcards went out mostly to people from Valdivia’s personal Christmas card list.

“City staff and other City elected officials were kept in the dark about the event and only learned about it after a constituent brought it to the attention of certain City staff,” said the report, which the city council commissioned after residents accused the mayor of misusing funds.

Valdivia used the event to promote himself and not the city, according to the report.

Valdivia requested that the city logo be removed from a giveaway item, instead featuring his own mayoral logo.

He also did not report a $5,000 payment from the Inland Empire Health Plan to the city that was intended to offset costs for the event, according to the report.

The payment should have been reported to the city clerk’s office, violating state Fair Political Practices Commission guidelines, while the postcards violated state mass mailing regulations, the report said.

“[Inland Empire Health Plan] annually sponsors San Bernardino’s State of City Event and provided a $5,000 sponsorship in support of the City’s 2021 virtual address,” a spokesperson, Chelsea Galvez, said in a statement. “IEHP does not provide sponsorship to personal events and did not provide sponsorship to the San Bernardino City Mayor’s VIP Reception.”

Valdivia, 46, joined the city council in 2012 and was elected mayor in 2018. He is up for reelection in 2022.

The independent report also found that Valdivia commingled campaign fundraising with city business.

Between September 2019 and this April, Valdivia requested reimbursement from the city for travel and hotel expenses that coincided with large contributions received by his reelection campaign, the report said.

Those contributions increased in the first part of 2021, when Valdivia made unexplained trips around Southern California, according to the report.

Valdivia did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday, but he has decried the censure attempt.

At an Aug. 4 meeting, Valdivia called the City Council “do nothing” and said it has blocked his efforts to improve the city.

“I worked my tail off to bring responsible and world-class development to our downtown,” Valdivia said.

At the same meeting, the City Council unanimously voted to move forward with the censure hearing and for the city attorney to investigative Valdivia.

While a censure would not stop Valdivia from performing his duties as mayor, it would constitute an official reprimand.

The last time the City Council took a similar action was in 2001, when it censured then-City Atty. James Penman for offering a Latino resident a one-way ticket back to Mexico.

Penman has announced that he is running for mayor in next year’s election.

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