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Commerce OKs Investigation Into ‘Employee Complaint’

An anonymous complaint emailed to Commerce’s City Clerk in July, prompted the city council Tuesday to take the unusual step of authorizing staff to hire a private investigator to look into allegations that the spouse of one its members has been harassing city employees.

The three-page letter, allegedly written by Commerce employees who wish to remain anonymous because they fear retaliation or being fired, was read into the record during the public comment portion of the July 16, 2013 council meeting.

It is addressed to all the members of the city council, with the exception of Denise Robles whose husband Richard Robles is accused in the complaint of harassing city employees while on city business; a claim he and the councilwoman vehemently deny.

Mayor Pro Tem Lilia Leon was not at Tuesday’s meeting due to health reasons, but had asked that the letter be placed on the Sept. 3 agenda so the council could discuss issues raised in the complaint.

During the discussion both Robles and her husband questioned whether there is even proof that the letter is from a city employee. In the end, however, Robles voted with the council, 4-0, to direct staff to begin looking for an independent investigator, at a possible cost of $20,000-$50,000, to look into the allegations raised by city employees.

The controversy comes at the same time that three of the council members, Leon, Tina Baca Del Rio and Ivan Altamirano are facing a possible recall.

EGP has obtained a copy of the letter and it alleges that Richard Robles works at the Commerce Home Depot and that he has insulted and bullied city employees while they shopped there on behalf of the city.

“On several occasions, as we are trying to do our jobs, we have been confronted by Richard Robles …” reads the complaint which also says the harassment has been going on for about a year and a half.

The letter also alleges Mr. Robles has confronted city employees regarding political matters and criticized other council members and the city while they tried to shop.

It cites comments such as “don’t you think you are taking too much?” and “are you taking some of the materials to your home,” as well as his repeatedly pointing at his watch as examples of him accusing employees of stealing from the city and wasting time on the job.

The “Very concerned City of Commerce Employees,” as the letter is signed, allege they have taken their complaints to their supervisor, who has also had run-ins with Mr. Robles. The letter appears to further imply that Councilwoman Robles has intervened by speaking to their supervisor following the alleged confrontations.

That’s when they claim they decided to avoid future confrontations with Mr. Robles by shopping at the Home Depot in Pico Rivera, rather than in Commerce.

The letter asks the council to take action to protect then and to “do something about this situation,” and to end the “harassment and bullying from continuing.”

“We would like to say something to him but because he is the husband of Councilmember Robles we are afraid for our jobs… We have thought about keeping quiet but we think we are safer if we complain to everyone.”

Mr. Robles has denied the charges saying that as Home Depot’s number 2-ranked salesman in the region, he would never do anything to discourage anyone from buying anything at the store. In fact, he said, his job is specialized and he only comes in contact with two city employees, one of whom he says he is sure would not support the anonymously made accusations.

He called the letter “libelous and slanderous,” with no truth or proof to back it up.

Councilwoman Robles also denied any wrongdoing, noting that she has no authority to fire anyone.

Both questioned why the employees had not taken their complaints to upper management or their labor union representatives.

Mr. Robles on Tuesday pointed out that they had obtained copies of city invoices for items purchased during the last year and a half at Home Depot, and only one out of 435 receipts was from the store in Pico Rivera. He says that shows claims that employees had started shopping in Pico Rivera in order to avoid him, are false.

He said the city should be investigating the origins of the letter, rather than its accusations. “Why investigate anything based on lies?” Mr. Robles told the city council.

Councilwoman Robles also spoke at length about the origin of the email, questioning whether it had been altered or if it is from someone with a vendetta pretending to be a city employee.

Del Rio said the investigation would focus on whether the allegations have any merit and put Councilwoman Robles on the spot by asking whether she was suggesting no investigation be made into the accusations.

“We have an obligation to our employees… We don’t have a choice,” Del Rio said. “If nothing comes out of it, that would be great … but when employees come [asking for help] we need to look out for them.”

It was also noted at the meeting that a representative from the city’s Joint Powers Insurance Authority (JPIA) was at the meeting where the letter was first read, and has twice inquired what action the city has taken to follow up on the complaint.

City Manager Jorge Rifa said the JPIA sees it as possible liability exposure. Liability issues, with or without a lawsuit, always pose a risk when it comes to determining who is responsible for the risk or damage, he told EGP.

Altamirano, who seconded Del Rio’s motion to authorize the investigation, pointed out that while Councilwoman Robles and her husband had made requests for documents, including some 400 to 500 emails which took the City Clerk and City Attorney about two weeks to gather and review, but in the end, Mr. Robles only paid 20 cents for two copies from the hundreds of pages of documents they had requested, charging it had unnecessarily cost the city money.