Arbitrator Rejects Ex-Milpitas Official’s Harassment Claims

Tom Williams, the Milpitas bureaucrat who threatened to sue his own city for more than $1 million in 2017, will apparently walk away with just $1,372 and some change.

An arbitrator on March 29 categorically denied the ex-city manager’s claims of, among other things, age discrimination, retaliation and breach of contract. The only relief granted to Williams: a partial reimbursement for cellphone bills.

The arbitration opinion first obtained by San Jose Inside concludes a drawn-out dispute between Williams and the city, where he resigned in the latter half of 2017 after getting caught for spending taxpayer money on his personal legal fees.

Records show that Williams—a lifelong civic servant who’s in his mid-50s and has since found a job as city manager of his hometown, Millbrae—tried to play the victim. The former Milpitas official blamed his abrupt exit on his most vocal critic, first-term Mayor Rich Tran, and on his own city for denying him due process, miscalculating his pension and failing to protect him from age-based harassment.

But Martin H. Dodd—the arbitrator who punctuates his final 54-page ruling with revealing footnotes and a slew of shots at Williams’ integrity—wasn’t buying it.

One Excuse After Another

To Dodd, it appeared that Williams lost his $257,575-a-year gig by misusing a city credit card to pay his personal attorney at Ad Astra Law Group, trying to cover it up by lying about it and intimidating witnesses and then availing himself of a chance to clear his name in a Skelly hearing by resigning before the City Council could fire him.

“With respect to the first, Williams seems to be saying that his flagrant attempt to misappropriate city funds was not worthy of discipline or termination because he was ultimately unsuccessful,” Dodd writes.

The arbitration ruling says the evidence “plainly shows” that the only reason Williams paid the city back the $37,000 he charged for Ad Astra was because the finance department caught him red-handed after reading a San Jose Inside report that mentioned the name of his law firm.

“It was, after all, Williams who tried to have the city pay his legal bills,” Dodd says, “he did not retract his requests or even reimburse the city until after his gambit to secure the funding had been exposed and challenged.”

Williams tried to justify the legal expense by saying he initially retained Ad Astra on behalf of the city. “The retainer letter, dated March 17, 2017, was however addressed to him personally at his home address, i.e. not to him in his capacity as city manager at his workplace in City Hall,” Dodd points out.

The first two paragraphs of the communique drive that point home.

“Thank you for retaining Ad Astra Law Group ... to represent you,” it reads. “This letter will set forth the basic agreement between you and Ad Astra concerning the work that we will perform to represent your interests ... Ad Astra has been retained to represent you concerning claimed defamatory statements made to the media and on social media as well and acts being taken to push out or delegitimize you in roles with the city, by the mayor of Milpitas, Rich Tran.” (Emphasis Dodd’s).

So that alibi fell flat.

As did another in which Williams claimed he was unaware of city charge card rules that barred their use for not only personal expenses but also service contracts. Those claims of ignorance were belied by later attempts to cover his tracks.

On April 28, Williams told his finance director, Jane Corpus, that he needed a check to cover a purchase by the city for unspecified legal advisory services: $7,000 of which was already paid by credit card and another $30,000 requested by Ad Astra. The finance director recognized the name of the law firm from a legal demand letter published that morning by San Jose Inside ahead of a court hearing for a restraining order filed by Williams to block its release under the California Public Records Act.

“Recalling that the San Jose Inside article had indicated Ad Astra represented Williams, Corpus questioned whether she could authorize use of city funds to pay the firm,” Dodd writes in his narrative. “She contact City Attorney Chris Diaz and also spoke with Williams, explaining that she needed to see a contract between the firm and the city.”

Per the arbitrator, Williams promised to hand it over but never did.

New Details, Dubious Claims

Overall, the arbitration opinion affirms San Jose Inside’s previous reporting on the saga. It also adds some previously undisclosed details about the way things went down.

For one, it highlights how paranoid Williams became about leaks to the press. The embattled boss accused numerous subordinates for sharing documents about his financial misappropriation and his attempt to shake down the city for $1.2 million.

“Indeed, Williams had something of a fixation on identifying the source of alleged leaks to the press about events in which he was involved,” Dodd remarks in a footnote.

Later, he slams Williams for blaming the city for various un-permitted disclosures.

“How the city can be held liable for a leak to the press about the investigation into Williams’ misconduct is entirely mystifying,” Dodd writes. “Williams makes no effort whatsoever to suggest any basis for holding Milpitas responsible for an unauthorized statement to the press by some unspecific person. In any event, there is nothing false or inaccurate about the fact that Williams’ actions were being investigated.”

Because, he adds, “They were being investigated.”

The arbitration also notes how both Williams and Tran came off as less-than-credible. According to Dodd, Williams repeatedly tried to excuse his own actions, throw other people under the bus—including his executive assistant Rachelle Currie—and, in one instance, blame his dishonesty on some anti-anxiety meds he took before a deposition.

“This is the rare case in which the arbitrator has found it difficult to believe large portions of the testimony of each of the principal players,” Dodd says in a footnote early on in the report. “Tran’s testimony generally lacked indicia of reliability. Witness after witness testified to his ‘inappropriate’ behavior and comments. His denials were not convincing. That said, Williams was hardly a model of truthfulness. With respect to critical events at issue in this case, Williams’ demeanor frequently indicated he was not being truthful. In other instances, his testimony was shown to be lacking in credibility.”

More than for Williams, Dodd seems to give Tran the benefit of the doubt for being well-intentioned by wanting to deliver on a campaign promise of holding the city manager accountable, but awkward in his delivery by going about in a way that could be construed as mildly ageist. Meanwhile, the arbitrator completely dismantles Williams’ claims of being the subject of a witch hunt by the young mayor.

If Tran’s behavior was so harassing starting in the spring of 2017, Dodd wonders, then why did Williams wait until September that year to resign?

“In sum, the evidence shows that Williams’ employment conditions—however unpleasant or stressful—were not so intolerable that he was compelled to resign,” he writes. “Instead, he chose at each step of the way to wait before deciding how to proceed: he waited on the outcome of the investigation into his own conduct and only when he knew he was at potential risk of termination did he decide to resign. And he did not resign because his circumstances were intolerable, but to protect his retirement benefits. These were all entirely understandable choices—but choices they were.”

City CEO

Though Williams singled out Tran as the source of his troubles, Dodd notes in the ruling that the mayor had to recuse himself from all disciplinary proceedings once the city manager threatened legal action against him in April of 2017. That left the rest of the four council members to make all the consequential decisions at issue in the arbitration.

Also, the context of Williams’ work environment undermines his claims of being subject to harassment so severe that it was unbearable, Dodd goes on to say.

“First,” he posits, “Williams was the highest-ranking city employee with enormous authority and influence. For lack of a better term, he was the CEO of the city. He could be terminated only for cause. Tran’s ability individually to influence or impact Williams’ conditions of employment was thus limited; he was one of five council members and at least three were necessary to make formal decisions regarding Williams’ employment. Indeed, as the city manager, Williams surely knew and understood the procedures for reporting harassment and discrimination.”

Second, Dodd continues, the alleged harassment simply didn’t rise to the severity that would merit a legal claim. Rather, Tran’s allegedly age-based comments centered on whether or not Williams should call it quits.

All were of a piece, Dodd explains: the retirement comments by Tran largely related to whether Williams should step down, which would help the mayor make good on his campaign vow of bringing accountability to a city manager linked to a number of costly legal settlements and a reportedly toxic workplace.

“[I]t appears more likely than not that Tran continued to harp on his hope that Williams might retire, not because of Williams’ age as such, but because it would have solved several practical problems in a single stroke: Tran’s apparent inability to enlist other council members in quickly pursuing a performance review for Williams, the need to establish ‘cause’ for termination, and removal of a person (Williams) Tran perceived to be an impediment to accomplishing his agenda,” Dodd determines.

‘Ain’t Bean-Bag’

Finally, the arbitrator says, Williams should’ve braced for a politically charged workplace after a 2016 campaign season in which Tran—and other candidates, too, for that matter—made the city manager’s performance an overarching theme of the local election.

“For better or worse,” Dodd says, “[Williams] was or had become a high-profile local public figure as a result of the litigation in which the city had been involved and his tenure and performance as city manager had occupied a central role in the recent political campaign. Tran had made it his political mission before and after the election to focus on Williams and his alleged responsibility for the ‘turmoil’ at City Hall.”

After all, Dodd quips citing a character imagined by writer Finley Peter Dunne in an 1895 newspaper column: “Politics, it has been said, ‘ain’t bean-bag.’”

Jennifer Wadsworth is the news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

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