After his surprise resignation this week, Walnut Creek City Attorney Bryan Wenter said that City Manager Ken Nordhoff knew about a burgeoning child sex case at the Lesher Center earlier than he disclosed and that city leaders – including his mayor – pressured him to bring the growing investigation into the case to an early end.
“As you may know, the City Attorney’s Office undertook that difficult, time-consuming, and thankless work, through independent outside counsel and an independent investigator, for a variety of important reasons, including potential civil liability the city may yet face,” Wenter wrote in a farewell email to city staff. “Avoiding that challenge or shutting down the investigation when the pressures mounted internally because the investigation went ‘up the chain’ was not a legal or moral option I could support.”
Wenter told the Contra Costa Times that mounting pressure from Mayor Cindy Silva and members of the city council had made the climate at City Hall “difficult,” with Silva and another council member asking him to “make legal recommendations on the investigation that were not his own” in a meeting convened after the investigation into abuse case began. At the meeting, Wenter told the Times, he was accused of abusing the powers of his office and his upcoming job review was mentioned. Later that same day, he said, he received a phone call from another council member who said he needed to “watch his back” and bring the investigation to a close.
The Lesher Center investigation sought to determine whether city employees knew of suspected sexual abuse by a former center worker and whether they fulfilled their responsibility to report suspected sexual abuse to police. The employee, Jason Pedroza, was fired after accusations of inappropriate contact with underage girls came to light. Pedroza was charged by prosecutors in February with two felonies and a misdemeanor, three months after he was dismissed.
Four city employees were placed on leave while an internal investigation was undertaken, and all four returned to work after the investigation found that – despite “evasiveness” by some – they had acted appropriately. But the investigation further revealed that City Manager Ken Nordhoff and others had the same information as the employees placed on leave.
Silva and Councilman Bob Simmons told the Times they acknowledged a meeting with Wenter in late April – but contradicted his account of what transpired. The goal was to find ways to bring “closure” to the situation, not to stop it, Silva told the paper.
After Wenter announced his resignation this week, assistant city attorney Katy Wisinski – one of two assistant city attorneys – also submitted her resignation. The rapid evacuation of the city’s legal arm has placed pressure on city officials to find suitable replacements.
Wenter’s departure from City Hall is the second high-profile resignation in the wake of the scandal. Last week, Human Resources Director Sally Rice, one of the four employees at the center of the Pedroza investigation, resigned to take early retirement.