Updated May 26, 2022 - 2:56 pm
In a rare move, top Clark County managers have hired a former coroner to tackle friction in the public administrator’s office after multiple claims of bullying and favoritism.
Michael Murphy was brought in to ease the turmoil following a Review-Journal story revealing hostile workplace complaints against Public Administrator Robert Telles. Co-workers accused Telles of carrying on an “inappropriate relationship” with a staffer, including secretly videotaping Telles in the backseat of the staffer’s car.
Telles, who is running for reelection, has denied the allegations and blamed the upheaval on “a handful of old-timers.”
The growing tension led to a public fight on Facebook between Telles and his predecessor, former Public Administrator John Cahill, and spurred investigations by human resources after the story was published on May 15.
The county is paying Murphy as a consultant to help ensure that the office, which oversees the estates of people who have died, properly serves the public amid the employee unrest. County officials would not explain his exact duties.
Telles said in a statement that he was pleased to have Murphy “join my team as my temporary assistant director” and welcomed his “independent observations” of the office.
“His assistance will allow me to focus on serving the community and continuing our success,” Telles said. “The false accusations of individuals who put self-interest over service are a distraction, and I will not let that deter the fulfillment of my commitment to the community.”
Telles said he expected Murphy will find that “the source of any difficulties in this office is not as has been relayed to you.”
Murphy was introduced to the public administrator’s employees by Assistant County Manager Jeff Wells at an “all-hands” meeting Wednesday morning.
Clark County spokesman Dan Kulin offered little insight into Murphy’s hiring.
“We continue to be unable to comment on personnel matters, if any,” Kulin said in a statement. “However, we can confirm that Michael Murphy has been brought in to work with the public administrator’s office.”
Because Telles is an elected official, county officials have no authority to discipline him, but they can monitor how the county-paid employees are treated.
The county would not allow Murphy and Wells to be interviewed.
Murphy, who ran the coroner’s office between 2003 and 2015, was last hired under a county contract in December 2020 to serve as acting coroner for several months after former Coroner John Fudenberg retired. The coroner’s office under Fudenberg was plagued with problems: sexual harassment claims, autopsy delays and lax oversight.
Resolving office troubles
Cahill hailed the development as a sign the county is serious about resolving the office troubles.
“They’re acknowledging the problem, and they’ve come up with a solution that is unique and promising,” Cahill said. “And I think the employees will be encouraged that there’ll be some changes.”
Cahill, who retired in 2019, has endorsed the No. 2 person in the office, Assistant Public Administrator Rita Reid, in the June 14 Democratic primary.
Reid called Murphy’s hiring a “powerful action” on the part of county management.
“This is the first such intervention I know of,” she said in a statement. “It’s quite creative and received with optimism. After the RJ investigation, the disrespectful treatment of county employees assigned to our department cannot be ignored.
“A hostile work environment can never give good services to families in Clark County. This is a first step, but I have some confidence the oversight will give each staff member a chance to be heard. I feel hopeful for the first time in over three years.”
Employees alleged that Telles’ relationship with estate coordinator Roberta Lee-Kennett fueled the office hostility. They said they videotaped the two getting into the back seat of her car at a darkened parking garage after work.
‘What were you thinking?’
Telles, a lawyer, and Cahill engaged in a war of words on Cahill’s Facebook page after the story was published, blaming each other for the problems within the tax-funded office.
Cahill pressed Telles about his relationship with Lee-Kennett.
“You engaged a subordinate female in a relationship that included clandestine contacts after hours, off county grounds, and, embarrassingly, in the back seat of a vehicle shrouded in the shadows of a public parking structure,” Cahill wrote. “And you were so careless as to get caught. Families are now involved. What were you thinking? It’s 2022.”
Some of the workers, and even one of their spouses, also became embroiled in the Facebook battle, as both Telles and the families posted comments threatening legal action.
And there was more fallout.
Estate coordinator Aleisha Goodwin, who alleged in a May 9 complaint that the relationship was responsible for the disorder within the office, reported several days later that she felt unsafe there. Since she filed the complaint, Goodwin has been interviewed by officials from two different units of the county human resources department on three occasions.
In one of her emails to human resources, she said she was “clocking out and leaving for the rest of the day” after an employee loyal to Telles went on a tirade in her area of the office. She said the staffer was “cursing and slamming drawers” and making comments she felt were directed at her.
Goodwin told human resources in another email that she believed Telles was retaliating against her because of the complaint and the subsequent news story. That complaint was for retaliation after a previous grievance she had filed against Telles nearly two years ago, alleging discrimination over her Mormon religion.
Goodwin wrote that Telles is not giving her proper direction to handle her changing duties, and she believes she is “being set up for failure.”
Current and former employees interviewed by the Review-Journal 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. That harmed the office’s ability to deal with the public in overseeing the estates, they alleged.
‘Improper relationship’ denied
Both Telles and Lee-Kennett 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 leftover from Cahill’s administration.
The two also acknowledged going into the back seat of her Nissan Rogue at the Las Vegas North Premium Outlets mall several times after work earlier this year to discuss the office, but said they only hugged each other.
Cahill lectured Telles on Facebook about the perils of carrying on the relationship with Lee-Kennett.
“You just don’t get it,” he wrote. “What you did to one of your female staff is really unforgivable. You picked a favorite and used her to enforce or reinforce your policies with no regard (for) how she or other staff would respond to a subordinate acting like she was a boss. That was a manipulation that backfired.
“You should not need anybody to explain that choosing actions that included engaging with a subordinate in the back seat of a parked car for one, two, or more hours on multiple occasions is inappropriate, improper, inexcusable behavior that has created a liability for the county and for you personally and professionally.”
Telles responded: “John, you are just as liable as these people for creating the environment that entitled these people to surveil me the last two years, inside and outside of the office.
“Anyone can think what they want about the fact that I was in that car with Roberta. The fact is you empowered these people to harass me so much that I felt the only place I could talk to Roberta about the frustrations we are going through was there.”
Contact Jeff German at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.