Updated May 16, 2022 - 7:16 am
The Clark County Public Administrator’s office has been mired in turmoil and internal dissension over the past two years, with allegations of emotional stress, bullying and favoritism leading to secret videotaping of the boss and a co-worker outside the office.
A half-dozen current and former employees interviewed by the Review-Journal are alleging the hostile work environment was fueled by the elected administrator of the office, Robert Telles, carrying on an “inappropriate relationship” with a staffer that has harmed the office’s ability to deal with the public in overseeing the estates of those who have died.
The staffer, Roberta Lee-Kennett, 45, has acted in some cases as an office supervisor beyond her assigned duties as one of several estate coordinators because of her favored status with Telles, the employees said.
Because of the brewing animosity, the top supervisor under Telles, Rita Reid, decided to run against him in this year’s Democratic primary. And several employees took the bold step of secretly videotaping Telles and Lee-Kennett meeting in the back seat of her car at a parking garage to show proof of the relationship. One employee filed a retaliation complaint with the county against Telles on May 9, records show.
Both Lee-Kennett and Telles, 45, an attorney, strongly denied having any kind of improper relationship but acknowledged that they have become friends. Telles said he has relied on Lee-Kennett’s support while making office improvements resisted by employees from the previous administration. Both are married.
Telles blames “a handful of old-timers” for exaggerating the extent of the relationship and falsely claiming that he has been mistreating them. He said they have filed complaints against him with the county in the past that were not substantiated, and he questioned the timing of the latest accusations as he seeks a second term in office.
“They are unhappy with the way the office has been taken out of their control,” Telles said. “All my new employees are super-happy and everyone’s productive and doing well. We’ve almost doubled the productivity in the office.”
The office tension was felt during a recent visit, as employees loyal to Telles explained there are two factions — one group of mostly new workers hired by Telles and the other group with ties to former Public Administrator John Cahill, who retired in January 2019 after 12 years.
Cahill, who endorsed Telles in 2018, is now backing Reid and voicing concerns about the well-being of the workers.
The office has eight-full time employees, three part-time support staffers, and roughly 15 part-time investigators who spend most of their days in the field. When someone dies and there are no immediate family members to deal with the estate, the office takes possession of the property and investigators attempt to locate relatives so the property can be turned over to them.
Emotional stress claims
Members of the warring office factions say they have suffered emotional stress, which in some cases has impaired their physical health.
Assistant Public Administrator Reid includes herself among those affected by the upheaval.
Reid, who has worked at the office for 15 years, said she jumped into the race knowing she faces an uphill primary battle with Telles on June 14. Her office is right next to his in the building at 515 Shadow Lane.
“I came to this decision not very easily because it affects my life dramatically,” Reid said. “But I want to do whatever I can to let the voters know that this is not the right man to be in charge of any department.”
“We’re always on guard, and we’re always under stress. All of the people in this office deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, and the people we serve deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.”
Holdover staffers said they secretly videotaped Telles and Lee-Kennett after work several times slipping into the back seat of her Nissan Rogue earlier this year in the shadows of a high-rise mall parking garage.
The staffers said they recorded the clandestine meetings to offer proof to county officials of the office-dividing relationship. The Review-Journal has obtained and viewed videos of the meetings.
“This is unacceptable, disgusting behavior for a public servant,” estate coordinator Aleisha Goodwin said in the confidential retaliation complaint.
“Physical contact with a subordinate in a public place and letting that subordinate use favoritism she is getting from these inappropriate meetings to secure power and privileges above others in the office is affecting most of the staff in an extremely negative manner.”
Telles responded that Lee-Kennett, who also worked under Cahill, is simply one of the people he “could lean on” while he has tried to change the office atmosphere. He said he caught Reid spying on him in the past, an allegation she denied.
Both Telles and Lee-Kennett acknowledged driving separately to the parking structure at the Las Vegas North Premium Outlets mall several times earlier this year and entering the back seat of her car. They said they just talked about the problems in the office and only hugged each other.
‘Inappropriate relationship’ denied
“I think it’s horrible that they recorded this, and they’re trying to destroy my life and my marriage, when I’m actually infinitely in love with my wife,” Telles said. “I was just trying to get things off my chest with somebody who understands, and now it’s being framed as though I’m cheating on my wife.”
Lee-Kennett added, “I have not had an inappropriate relationship with him. I would not be friends with a man who thinks he’s going to have an inappropriate relationship with me.”
When asked why the duo didn’t go to lunch, or somewhere else less secretive, to privately discuss work, Lee-Kennett said they can’t do that without someone in the office “making assumptions” about them.
She said she suggested going into the back seat of the car because she wanted to make sure Telles would listen to her concerns face to face. Telles said the meeting location, which is across the street from the Clark County Government Center on South Grand Central Parkway, probably was chosen out of “paranoia” because of the discord in the office.
Goodwin declined to comment about the claims of bullying and favoritism. But in her 19-page complaint filed with the Clark County Office of Diversity, she provided details of Telles’ relationship with Lee-Kennett, the videotaping and his alleged micromanagement of the full-time workers.
“The county has failed to protect employees from a mentally and emotionally abusive situation that has continued now for two years-plus, and the mental and physical health ramifications have been felt by most of the full-time employees in this department of only eight full-time employees,” Goodwin wrote.
Goodwin, who’s been with the office about five years, also alleges in the complaint that Telles is discriminating against her because she is Mormon and has retaliated against her since she filed a discrimination complaint with the county in 2020. Telles denies those allegations.
According to her new complaint, staffers first saw Telles and Lee-Kennett getting close to each other in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. He moved into a cubicle next to hers. Then they began taking walks and having lunch together. Lee-Kennett also was observed having numerous closed-door meetings with Telles, where they were heard giggling. No other employees were allowed inside his office, which only has windows with a view outside the building, the complaint says.
“Lee-Kennett has since acted with assumed authority, power and privileges since the two began their personal relationship,” Goodwin wrote in her complaint. “Their behavior has very negatively affected most (of the) others in our department.”
A county spokesman declined to comment on the complaint, saying it was a personnel matter, and Deputy County Manager Jeff Wells, who oversees the public administrator’s office, was not made available for an interview. Because Telles is an elected official, the county has no authority to discipline him, but it does monitor how employees are treated.
Health of employees questioned
Former boss Cahill said he is worried about the impact the alleged bullying is having on employee health and their dealings with the public.
“These employees talk daily with people who have lost a loved one in their families,” he said. “It’s an emotional, stressful job, and to add a hostile working atmosphere to it is unacceptable.”
Cahill was also critical of the county’s failure to stop the alleged abuse.
“They’re being harassed and the county doesn’t seem to care,” he said. “And I just think that’s nonsense. These employees are still county employees who have the rights of county employees. They’re not his private employees.”
Some holdover staffers interviewed by the Review-Journal cried while sharing details of their troubled work environment. Some asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation.
According to the workers: Telles has a temper and demeans holdover employees. He assigns them unnecessary work, has set unrealistic performance goals, won’t respond to questions they have about their changing duties and tries to dig up dirt on them. He also prohibits them from using cellphones at work and discourages them from socializing and gossiping in the office.
Anyone who questions his authority is chastised, the workers said.
The employees contend they are constantly worried that they won’t properly follow his sometimes-confusing directives and could be reprimanded, or verbally abused. One worker said she eats a bag lunch every day in her car because she doesn’t want to be seen socializing with staffers who aren’t among Telles’ favorites.
Janelle Lea, a part-time investigator, said the office environment is one of the worst she has ever seen. Lea has her own live event company and has spent years putting on entertainment events on the Strip.
“He literally works to create division in the office,” she said. “He’s so vindictive and so horrible.
“Everybody looks like they’re in a CYA situation all the time. People are depressed, they’re physically ill. One staffer told me, ‘I’d rather have a colonoscopy every day than come here and deal with him.’”
Janie Osuzik, who worked as an executive assistant for four public administrators for over 30 years, said she retired in April because she got frustrated with the hostile environment.
“You always had to be on guard, and it made the office uncomfortable because you knew there were certain people who would run to (Telles) on everything, even with lies, and he would accept it as true,” she said. “He would storm into my office and accuse me of things and never take the time to investigate anything.”
She said she once got so stressed that she had to take leave to deal with migraines.
“Those of us who were not in his favor felt that we weren’t appreciated, even after all of those years of working in the office,” she said. “It was a miserable place to work.”
Reid said she has dealt with headaches, stomachaches, and depression under what she called constant browbeating by Telles.
“When you beat people up, there’s only so much energy and services they can provide,” she said. “You spend so much time combating these challenges and accusations and reprimands, it knocks you in the gut. It’s like ‘here we go again, another lie,’ and you have to try to protect yourself.”
Reid is also convinced that the relationship between Telles and Lee-Kennett is responsible for the office conflict and has contributed to Telles’ efforts to strip her of much of her administrative duties.
“His relationship with her is harmful to the operations of the office,” Reid said. “She has become more and more powerful and noticeable. If she didn’t like something, boom, she’d be marching into his office and there would be some change.”
Telles disputes the claims of hostility from Reid and the other veteran employees.
“These allegations that I’ve chained people to the wall, or something, are bogus,” he said. “They make it sound as though everybody is miserable in this office. I’ve done my best to try to be as nice and friendly this whole time.
“For whatever reason they just seem to want things to go back to the way they were, serving the interests of a few. Before I got there, this office was in a horrible, horrible state.”
Among the changes Telles said he has made are closing estate cases faster and cutting back on large amounts of tax-funded overtime employees were getting under Cahill.
He provided a document that showed one veteran employee received more than $140,000 in overtime between 2017 and 2018. That was on top of the employee’s combined $150,000 regular salary for those years. The employee’s overtime dropped to roughly $13,500 in 2020 under Telles, according to the document.
Lee-Kennett, who sits in a cubicle similar to other estate coordinators and employees, said the disgruntled staffers are responsible for creating the drama.
“Rob is walking on eggshells because of all of them. We all are,” she said. “There’s no accountability on their part.”
Nichole Lofton, an estate coordinator for the past year, said the old guard acts like “a little gang and has tried to isolate her. Lofton said she has suffered from migraines from stress.
“They told me from the beginning to pick a side,” she said, adding that Telles does everything he can to help her succeed while the other group wants her to fail.
Ariana Payne, another Telles loyalist who works as a full-time office assistant, said she has seen the increased production of the office. “The office is running a lot smoother,” she said. “We’re closing a lot of cases.”
But she said she’s also seen a “definite divide. There’s talk of them versus us and it shouldn’t be that way. We have a duty to do.”
Aleisha Goodwin provides details in her retaliation complaint of what employees claim they saw when they observed Telles and Lee-Kennett at the Premium Outlets parking structure between February and March.
“We were then able to take photos and video from afar,” Goodwin writes. “We also were able to secure several instances where they meet up in a parking garage, driving separately in their individual vehicles and staying from 1½ to 2½ hours on each visit.”
In one video, the footage shows Telles and Lee-Kennett in the back seat of her Nissan Rogue. The video appears to show two heads through the tinted back window joining together before the couple leaves the back seat. Telles leaves first, walking away without looking back. Lee-Kennett exits the car seconds later and gets in the front seat. Neither person acknowledges the other outside the car.
“We’re being put through all of this because he’s having a private thing,” one employee said. “I don’t think he should be allowed to run a county department. He’s mismanaged so many things. This is a horrible abuse of public trust.”
Contact Jeff German at email@example.com or 702-380-4564. Follow @JGermanRJ on Twitter.