A third-party investigation into two Valley Water directors who voted against the recent appointment of CEO Rick Callender—the first Black man to lead the agency—determined that their actions were not motivated by race.
Callender, a long-time Valley Water employee who most recently served as the chief of external affairs, was appointed by the seven-member Board of Directors last May and took over in July following former CEO Norma Camacho’s retirement.
But the decision to put Callender at the helm of the agency wasn’t unanimous. Barbara Keegan, Linda LeZotte and Director Nai Hsueh voted against his appointment.
The day following the vote, San Jose-Silicon Valley NAACP President Rev. Jethroe Moore sent a letter to Valley Water demanding an investigation into Keegan and LeZotte.
“It appears that we have a clear case of ‘managing while Black,’ occurring right here in Silicon Valley,” Moore wrote.
In the letter, the local NAACP president accused Keegan and LeZotte of “releasing incomplete confidential personnel information to members of the public and the media, and lobbying external people during the course of a confidential hiring process.”
Moore also alleged that one of the women tried to “label” Callender “of being convicted of a variety of felonious criminal activities to try and keep him from obtaining the position.”
Two months later, Valley Water retained Berkeley-based Oppenheimer Investigations Group to conduct the independent review, which included interviewing all seven directors, Callender, Moore and six other witnesses.
The 12-page report, which the board will review at its Jan. 26 meeting, discussed whether Keegan and LeZotte leaked confidential information from Callender’s personnel file, spread rumors about him being a sexual harasser and asked the agency to conduct a criminal background check on him as part of the hiring process.
But the overarching question that the investigation sought to answer was whether any of Keegan and LeZotte’s actions were related to Callender’s race.
According to the report, investigators found a “preponderance of evidence” that Keegan and LeZotte weren’t being racist by objecting to his appointment. Instead, they found the pair had serious concerns about claims of sexual harassment against Callender.
Those concerns stemmed from a 2008 complaint from one of Callender’s colleagues.
While many of the details of the 2008 investigation are private, the employee—Jessica Collins—ended up taking Callender and Valley Water to court in 2009 after the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) affirmed her right to sue for sexual harassment, assault, retaliation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
In the lawsuit, which she eventually dropped, Collins said that from September 2007 to February 2008, Callender subjected her to unwanted advances and comments. His behavior allegedly escalated in fall 2007 when the pair attended a conference in Chico and “Callender kept insisting on buying drinks and hanging out,” and tried to kiss her.
After the conference, Collins said in the lawsuit that “Callender would be very nice to her for a period of time, paying her compliments both personally and professionally, building up to a point when he would make an advance, whether it be through inviting her to Napa or texting her to have drinks.”
Once she rejected his advances, she said, he turned “hostile.”
After filing an internal complaint, a three-month investigation ensued that resulted in investigators recommending that Callender be terminated, the lawsuit states. However, then-Valley Water CEO Olga Steele decided not to fire him.
Investigators with Oppenheimer reviewed the 2008 complaint and subsequent investigation, which said Callender violated Valley Water’s policies against harassment and found that it was “thorough and fair.” Callender reportedly asserted that those findings were the “result of racism.”
Investigators Amy Oppenheimer, Julie Matlof Kennedy and Vida Thomas eventually decided that Keegan and LeZotte “raising and discussing Callender's past sexual harassment cannot fairly be considered, in and of itself, racist.”
They also found that Keegan and LeZotte did not leak confidential information from Callender’s personnel file. They did, however, find that Keegan and LeZotte discussed concerns they had about Callender and the overall appointment process.
Notably, investigators also found that directors Gary Kremen, Tony Estremera, Dick Santos and John Varela also spoke to at least one non-board member about the appointment process.
Keegan and LeZotte both acknowledged during the investigation that they suggested a criminal background check. Some other board directors supported the idea, but there was a disagreement about what kind of background check would be done and if it was reserved just for finalists.
Callender declined to comment on the results of the investigation, stating “it’s not mine to discuss.” LeZotte also denied a request for comment and Keegan did not respond a request for comment.