An independent investigation of misconduct by Santa Clara Valley Water District director Gary Kremen concluded that he bullied some staff members over a three-year period, but found no evidence of sexual misconduct.
In a 32-page report released this week, the investigation by San Francisco law firm Renne Public Law Group affirmed seven of 21 allegations against Kremen that the Valley Water board had accumulated from employees, most of them anonymous; rejected 10 allegations, and reported there was insufficient evidence in another four.
None of the employee complaints involved sexual misconduct, the investigation reported.
Kremen stepped down as water board chair in March and requested the investigation after one employee complained to media about seeing a semi-nude family photo on the director's Dropbox folder. Kremen kept his seat on the seven-member board of directors and is seeking re-election Nov. 8.
In a statement to San Jose Inside today, Kremen expressed relief, claiming the report vindicated him.
Kremen says report clears his name
“I want to thank the investigative team for completely clearing my name of any and all innuendo of sexual harassment,” Kremen said in the statement. “As some might recall, I requested this independent investigation and voted for such. I have always championed women’s rights and civil rights and my private conduct matches my public commitment.”
He added: “The vast majority of the complaints by a few employees and political opponents were not sustained and were found to be false by the investigators. I thank the independent investigators for their fairness and completeness.”
Facing a re-election fight, Kremen vowed to mend his ways. “Water District employees and staff are among the best public servants around,” he said. “They work hard and they get results. I have nothing but the highest respect for their diligence and effort. To any degree I have not conveyed this admiration, I will do better in the future.”
The water district board’s Ethics and Conduct Ad Hoc Committee, consisting of Chair Pro Tem John Varela, a former Morgan Hill mayor, and Directors Tony Estremera and Nai Hsueh, received the report, but the earliest they could return to the full board with a recommendation would be on Election Day, Nov. 8. The board’s policies give it the options to “admonish, sanction or censure” wayward directors.
“While we wait for the results of this investigation, Valley Water’s Board of Directors is focused on our mission to provide safe, clean water, flood protection and environmental stewardship to Santa Clara County,” Varela said in a statement during the investigation.. “We’re currently enduring the driest start of the year on record. This severe drought is threatening our water supply. The Board will continue to take the necessary steps to ensure we have enough water for Santa Clara County.”
Nov. 8 election
Water district voters will be electing two directors, Nov. 8, for District 7 (the western district, stretching from Palo Alto past Los Gatos, and for District 6, East San Jose.
Kremen, an eight-year incumbent, is being challenged in District 7 by lawyer Rebecca Eisenberg. District 6 incumbent Tony Estremera, on the board for 26 years, faces two challengers: San Jose Planning Commissioner Chuck Cantrell of San Jose, and Diego Barragan, a local public relations manager.
Varela will return to the board as the unopposed incumbent for District 1 and former state Sen. Jim Beall will join the board as the unopposed candidate for District 4, held by Linda LeZotte, who is retiring.
Valley Water manages an integrated water resources system offering both wholesale and retail safe water, as well as flood protection and streams management for county residents.
Kremen defended his aggressive style. “As a fighter for the interests of taxpayers and water ratepayers, it is within my duties to not only question whether the mission, policies, and procedures of the district are being fulfilled but to insist that the direction of the board be followed. In a few instances, my defense of taxpayers, ratepayers and constituents was too ardent and I apologize. To that end, I appreciate any constructive criticism I can take from this report to be a better advocate.”
In the report, prepared by Renne Law Group partner Jenica Maldonado, concluded that::
“Based upon the preponderance of the evidence, it appears more likely than not that Kremen made a personal charge and verbal assault on the manager’s character or motives by suggesting that the manager had willfully disregarded his earlier instructions regarding the presentation materials and by questioning the manager’s qualifications to maintain her position.”
“It also appears more likely than not, based upon the credible accounts of multiple witnesses present for the interaction, that Kremen engaged in abusive behavior toward the manager in the presence of co-workers.”
One-third of complaints upheld
The investigator said a “preponderance of evidence” sustained one-third – seven – of the 21 allegations about how Kremen treated Valley Water staff, finding either no evidence or insufficient evidence in the 14 other allegations.
The investigator, while criticizing the “rude” way Kremen treated members of The Sierra Club at public meetings, stopped short of calling his comments “abusive.”
In February, former campaign staffer on his campaign for County Assessor had alleged that Kremen directed them to access a DropBox account that included semi-nude photos and that Kremen had treated the staffer unprofessionally.
On March 2, Kremen submitted a statement to the board, that the “alleged assertions do not relate” to the District in “any way,” and asked that the board’s ethics committee “conduct an independent investigation with due process to determine if any of the allegations of illegal sexual harassment have occurred with water district staff.”
On March 16, the committee decided to begin the investigation requested by Kremen, and also to respond to complaints from the Sierra Club, which in a letter accused Kremen of “disrespectful treatment towards environmental advocates,” and to examine “Kremen’s failure to treat members of the public with respect.”
On March 22, the full board decided to hire an outside investigator to examine two issues: 1) whether Kremen violated any Valley Water policies with regard to staff, including sexual harassment, and 2) whether Kremen violated any Valley Water policies with regard to treatment of “members of the public at Valley Water meetings.The investigator limited her review to two years, March 2019 through March 2022.
Complaints of bullying
The board had two written complaints about Kremen from two water district employees, accusing him of “using his power as a board member inappropriately.” One was excluded because it occurred before March 2019, the second was included. It also had five anonymous written complaints that accused him of “bullying and mistreating district employees, but it excluded these because of “their lack of specificity.” A sixth anonymous complaint about Kremen, that he used his authority inappropriately, was received after March 22, and also excluded.
“None of the written complaints accused Kremen of sexual harassment,” the report said, adding that “investigators did not identify any material allegations of sexual harassment.”
The law firm interviewed 50 witnesses between May and October, who “raised both material and non-material allegations concerning Kremen,” and identified allegations “regarding inappropriate treatment of staff…and mistreatment of the public.” The witnesses included Valley Water CEO Rick Callendar and Assistant CEO Melanie Richardson, and did not include any board members other than Kremen. Also, “multiple witnesses expressed concerns about retaliation and demonstrated reluctance to share their thoughts candidly.”
The investigators observed that Valley Water board policies “do not include language that prohibits an individual board member from engaging in specific conduct toward district staff or members of the public.” Instead, most board policies, according to investigators “are framed as expectations or principles or in aspirational terms.”
Sierra Club complaints
As an example, they cited a board policy that board members “shall refrain from abusive conduct, personal charges or verbal assaults upon the character or motives of staff and the public.”
With regard to complaints from members of The Sierra Club, the investigator said, “It may have been rude, counterproductive, or unprofessional when Kremen responded to comments,” but did not find that Kremen’s conduct was ‘abusive’
Further, investigators were “troubled by the use of a racially charged statement” by Kremen, appearing to criticize the Sierra Club for a “white privilege position.” While investigators made no findings about whether Kremen’s conduct violates board policies, they said his statements “may have been rude, counterproductive, unprofessional and inconsistent with …the district’s Values Statement.”
In February, Kremen withdrew from the race for Santa Clara County assessor, dropping his challenge to 27-year incumbent Larry Stone and promising to return thousands in campaign donations.
Kremen, the millionaire entrepreneur founder of Match.com, was elected to the water board in 2014 and re-elected in 2018.