Milpitas City Manager Charged Personal Legal Fees to Taxpayers

Milpitas City Manager Tom Williams tried to get taxpayers to cover $37,000 in personal legal expenses, San Jose Inside has learned.

Invoices obtained through a California Public Records Act request show that Williams charged his city-issued credit card $7,000 to pay Claire Cochran, his personal attorney at Ad Astra Law Group, and later requested another $30,000 for the same firm.

In a letter disclosed to San Jose Inside last week, Milpitas’ city attorney, Chris Diaz, warned Williams that he had misused public funds and his actions were not only grounds for termination, but could also be a felony punishable by imprisonment.

The city’s outsourced legal counsel also described in the May 5 notice that Williams had been directed to reimburse the city for the charges. Williams obliged, but, according to the city’s own policy, that makes him no less liable for the misstep.

Since that report last week, San Jose Inside has obtained copies of the financial records, which show two separate payments for “outside legal advisory services.”

Screen Shot 2017-05-15 at 1.33.12 PMThe statements—available online here—show that Williams got his executive assistant, Rachelle Currie, to sign off on a $7,000 charge on March 17, and a request for $30,000 more on April 28. Sources say those expenses were incurred because Williams was building a legal case against Mayor Rich Tran, who has publicly criticized the city manager’s connection to several high-priced legal settlements.

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Williams’ lawyer from Ad Astra sent Tran a cease-and-desist letter in April, accusing the 32-year-old mayor of discriminating against the 53-year-old city manager because of his age. The letter also accuses Tran of repeated harassment and threatens to sue the city for more than $1 million in damages.

When reporters filed a public records request for the letter and other documents, Williams had his personal attorney sue to block the city from releasing the records to San Jose Inside’s parent company, Metro Silicon Valley, and the Milpitas Post.

The court granted the temporary restraining order, which prevents Diaz from releasing at least some of the requested records. San Jose Inside had already obtained the cease-and-desist letter, however, and published it before the judge’s April 28 decision.

In his cautionary letter dated May 5, Diaz indicates that Ad Astra was hired for Williams’ own benefit. He also describes how city auditors might not have discovered the inappropriate charges were it not for media reports linking Ad Astra to the cease-and-desist notice from Williams to Tran.

The city manager defended the expense, saying he reached out to the law firm because several city employees had filed complaints about Tran. However, Williams tried as recently as the end of April to get the city to pay for his legal issues with the mayor.

Last week, Vice Mayor Marsha Grilli called for an urgent closed session meeting to address Williams’ performance, his public-records lawsuit and additional “anticipated litigation” against the city. The timing raised a few eyebrows, because Grilli scheduled the meeting for the same day Tran was on a flight to Guam for a two-and-a-half-week assignment for the Army Reserve.

Needless to say, Tran missed the meeting. And after a two-hour deliberation, the council made no public report about what occurred. However, another closed-session discussion is set for Tuesday. The agenda for that meeting also mentions “anticipated litigation,” but this time it lists the city as plaintiff.

Only the council has the authority to discipline or fire Williams. According to the city manager’s employment contract, the city in 2012 changed the terms from “at will” to “for cause,” which means his elected bosses—the mayor and council—would need to cite a legitimate reason for letting Williams go.

City policy indicates that misappropriating public money, whether it ends up getting reimbursed or not, qualifies as grounds for termination and entitles the city to pursue “any other remedies, both civil and penal.” In Williams’ contract specifically, it notes that he could forfeit his severance and benefits package if he’s convicted of a crime involving “moral turpitude.”

The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office confirmed to San Jose Inside that it is keeping an eye on the situation.

“Right now we are monitoring,” said John Chase, the prosecutor in charge of the DA’s public integrity unit. Chase added that his office is “waiting to see what the city of Milpitas learns, what those legal services were.”

Jennifer Wadsworth is a staff writer for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

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