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Embattled county official losing re-election bid, posts angry letter

Updated June 19, 2022 - 9:10 am

The re-election of embattled Clark County Public Administrator Robert Telles is in jeopardy after a lackluster showing in his primary battle with two Democratic challengers, including his top assistant.

Telles’ lagging numbers follow a Review-Journal investigation last month that uncovered an office in turmoil and claims of bullying, retaliation and an “inappropriate relationship” between Telles and a staffer.

The latest Democratic primary results show longtime Assistant Public Administrator Rita Reid with a 1,169-vote lead over unknown candidate Caroline Escobar. Telles, who was endorsed by the influential Culinary Union and other labor organizations, is in third place, behind Reid by 2,077 votes. Final results won’t be known until next week.

Escobar, 35, who said she is a real estate agent and former paralegal, acknowledged that she spent no money in the race and did no campaigning. Her Nevada financial disclosure statement lists no sources of income and no campaign donations. She said if she wins the primary, she will run aggressively against the Republican candidate in the general election.

Public administrator workers who previously spoke out about the alleged hostile work environment said within the past week that they still fear for their jobs because of a letter Telles posted on his campaign website ahead of the primary. They said they have reported their concerns to county human resources.

The letter attacked the Review-Journal and its reporting and claimed the allegations against Telles were false. It also leveled what the employees allege was a threat to retaliate against them for stepping forward.

Former Public Administrator John Cahill, who preceded Telles in office from 2007 to 2019, said the letter is another effort to intimidate the workers.

“The employees were afraid of him before, and now, if he’s lost the race, he’s coming back at them with nothing more to lose,” said Cahill, who has endorsed Reid.

Telles: ‘They’ve won’

Telles declined to comment, other than to say in a text message, “It’s fine. At this point, they’ve won. Do what you would like.” He offered no further explanation.

Later, he posted tweets lashing out at a reporter.

Telles previously has denied the allegations of office abuse and blamed the unrest on “a handful of old-timers” left over from Cahill’s tenure.

That was a major theme of his campaign letter, titled “Addressing the False Claims Against Me.”

“After my opponent from the office (Reid) announced her candidacy, her supporters in the office began to ramp up interference with our operations,” Telles wrote. “After the article, this included harassing other employees in the office. Tragically, these other employees have suffered mental and physical effects.”

Telles said Reid was “counting on a win so she can shield her supporters from being disciplined for their actions against the other employees the past couple of months.”

Reid called that statement a lie and an indication that Telles is still trying to divide the office.

“How can people work together or learn to appreciate the strengths of one another, or even start to know one another, when they are intentionally divided by the boss?” she asked. “People under this much stress every single day are not at their best when serving others. Rob’s lies will not return common human decency to this office.”

County managers have taken the workplace allegations against Telles seriously enough to hire former longtime Coroner Michael Murphy to try to quell the upheaval. The county has no authority to take action against Telles, but it can monitor how his publicly paid employees are being treated.

County spokesman Dan Kulin declined to comment on the latest turmoil, calling it a personnel matter.

History of scandal

The public administrator’s office, which oversees the estates of those who died, has eight full-time employees and 15 part-time investigators. It has been stung by scandal periodically over the past 40 years. One administrator in the 1970s was convicted of fraud for attempting to overcharge a dead man’s estate for storage.

Controversy followed the lengthy tenure of Jared Shafer, who ran the office between 1979 and 2003. That included the 1983 FBI arrests of an estate manager and an investigator charged with stealing from the estates of dead people.

For years, the office oversaw the much-criticized private guardianship system until the county spun off those duties into an appointed public guardian’s office in 1999.

Shafer’s tenure was marred by allegations of poor record-keeping and a failure to properly track estate possessions. He also was accused of paying neighbors and other friends for services performed for the estates he supervised. But he was never charged with any wrongdoing.

Cahill’s three terms were relatively quiet, but he recalled how difficult it was to get the county to pay attention to the office and provide the resources he needed.

“Historically, the office has kind of been neglected by the county and that has left it open for problems and criticism,” he said. “It’s always been short-staffed and begging for help.”

The discord under Telles has kept county human resources busy. Within the past week, one employee referred to the threatening campaign letter in a discrimination complaint filed with the Clark County Office of Diversity.

“This has amplified my fear that my job is in jeopardy, that he will do everything in his power to fire me,” wrote Senior Estate Coordinator Noraine Pagdanganan.

She said Telles’ false claim that she and other whistleblowers are interfering with office operations is offensive and causing her “anxiety, apprehension and undue stress.”

Human Resources alerted

Estate coordinator Aleisha Goodwin forwarded a copy of Telles’ letter to human resources and the Office of Diversity and voiced her concerns about the alleged threats.

She rebutted his latest claims in emails, also calling them false.

“We work very hard despite the ongoing problems in this office and constant harassment from Telles,” Goodwin told human resources.

In a May 9 retaliation complaint, Goodwin revealed the relationship between Telles and another estate coordinator, Roberta Lee-Kennett. Goodwin alleged the relationship was responsible for the hostility in the public administrator’s office. Telles was secretly videotaped by employees meeting in the back seat of Lee-Kennett’s car.

Former employees have alleged that the relationship between Telles and Lee-Kennett allowed the favored staffer to act in some cases as an office supervisor beyond her assigned duties.

Both Telles and Lee-Kennett strongly denied having any kind of improper association. But they acknowledged the clandestine meetings at a parking garage several times after work earlier this year. They said they only hugged each other.

Cahill said he found it interesting that Telles made no mention of the relationship in the online letter attacking the accuracy of the Review-Journal’s reporting.

“He’s trying to shift attention away from what he was doing, his unethical behavior with a staff member,” he said. “He made an office pet out of one of the staffers, and she in turn thought she had power over her peers. And that created a really hostile work environment.”

Contact Jeff German at jgerman@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4564. Follow @JGermanRJ on Twitter. German is a member of the Review-Journal’s investigative team, focusing on reporting that holds leaders and agencies accountable and exposes wrongdoing.

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