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After some contentious back and forth, the Malibu City Council decided via Zoom to pursue investigations into claims of wrongdoing and harassment, one leveled by a former mayor, the other by City Manager Reva Feldman.
Discussions during the Monday meeting got heated at times, with council member Karen Farrer at one point directing city IT staff to mute other members to allow her to speak.
By 3-1 vote, with Bruce Silverstein, an attorney, recusing himself, the council decided to allow the city’s human resources staff to find an independent investigator to determine whether document requests and other actions by Silverstein, who was elected in November 2020, amounted to harassment against Feldman.
A lawyer letter on Feldman’s behalf says she “is extremely distressed” over recent events and suffers “sleepless
nights and stressful days” because of it.
Feldman has offered to leave the city in early May if she’s paid the nearly $400,000 remaining on her contract.
The investigation into the matter was put on the agenda by Mayor Mikke Pierson and Farrer.
Council member Steve Uhring questioned Pierson on what happens if the inquiry determines there was harassment.
“I don’t know,” Pierson said. “Maybe the voters will want to recall that person.”
Uhring shot back: “Ah, so now we’re coming up with a program that says let’s figure out how we recall Bruce.”
“You’re pushing me in that direction,” Pierson replied.
The best that anyone can offer, however, is an opinion on whether anyone was harassed, Uhring said.
Uhring again pressed the mayor on whether recall is the ultimate goal.
“I hope not,” said Pierson. “That would be horrible.”
Soon after, Farrer weighed in.
“I don’t agree with Steve’s line of thinking,” she said. “I won’t call it logic. We are putting the city at risk by not investigating this.”
When Uhring cut in, Farrer asked to have the other council members muted while she spoke.
“I’m concerned about a search in the future for an interim city manager,” she said. “I’m concerned about a future search for a new city manager. I don’t see us in a strong position interviewing with something like this hanging over our heads.”
Farrer made a motion to hand city HR staff the job of finding an outside party to handle the investigation. She was joined by Pierson and Paul Grisanti in voting yes.
Uhring said no.
That vote followed another contentious discussion over commencing an investigation into allegations lodged against the city last year by outgoing council member and onetime mayor Jefferson Wagner. He filed an affidavit that included allegations of bribery and a politically motivated raid on his home three years ago.
Pierson has pledged that the city is prepared to take any legal action necessary in response to the allegations of possible criminal activity.
Monday’s action involved choosing a committee to interview outside lawyers to conduct the investigation.
During public comment, Malibu resident Mark Baute, an attorney, said Silverstein should not be tasked with interviewing law firms for the job because Silverstein helped draft the Wagner affidavit — a potential conflict of interest. And because Silverstein and Uhring “are pals,” Baute continued, Uhring should also recuse himself.
But Lynn Norton told the council that Baute has an agenda, adding there’s no Silverstein-Uhring connection.
“I don’t like hearing people talk who have agendas,” Norton said.
When it came time for the council to discuss the matter, Silverstein said he had no conflict of interest.
“I did assist Jefferson with his affidavit,” he said. “He asked me to help him put (the affidavit) into the form that would be legally appropriate.”
Wagner sent it back with edits, Silverstein continued, and ultimately Wagner signed the document.
Farrer said she was surprised Silverstein didn’t step aside on the matter.
“You are completely conflicted in this,” she said.
Silverstein asked acting city attorney John Cotti for his opinion. While Cotti said Silverstein has no financial gain in the matter, “There could be a bias based on statements you have made.”
Cotti said the real test is whether any potential conflict would prevent Silverstein from making the best recommendation based on the credentials of the law firms interested in the job. That is something Silverstein would have to decide.
“I don’t believe that I have a bias toward what ultimately is determined here,” said Silverstein, noting all he would be doing is asking questions and recommending to the rest of the council which firm should be used.
Uhring made a motion that Silverstein and Grisanti work on the council’s behalf.
But Grisanti said Silverstein does have a conflict of interest and he urged Cotti to do the interviews.
“Paul, working together with me might actually give you the first opportunity to see that I’m not so bad and I know what I’m talking about,” said Silverstein.
Grisanti wasn’t moved.
“I’d love to work with you on something I actually know something about,” he said. “You could pick a homeless guy off the street and I’d be a little more useful than him.”
Uhring didn’t let up.
“This is not brain surgery,” he said. “We need somebody who knows how to ask the right questions. Bruce should be on that subcommittee … We owe the residents the best we can give them.”
Pierson then let loose on Silverstein.
“I don’t know that’s a lawyer that’s been brought up on federal racketeering charges and sanctions in the past. That to me feels like a slippery slope.”
Silverstein took Pierson head-on.
“I have not been brought up on federal racketeering charges. That is a false statement of fact.”
“That’s what I read,” said Pierson.
Silverstein and his onetime law firm in Wilmington, Del., were sued for fraud in 2014 over a bogus bounty of sunken treasure.
But a federal judge ultimately ruled against sanctions for bad-faith litigation, saying the moving party — a group of investors — failed to establish by clear and convincing evidence that Silverstein knew of “corrupt criminal conspiracy,” according to Delaware Online.
Nor was it proven that Silverstein “acted in bad faith in the case or was willfully blind to a fraud involving the fabricated discovery of thousands of emeralds on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico,” the judge ruled.
With Grisanti out, Uhring urged the council to appoint Silverstein and Cotti, saying, “That does give us the most skilled people to interview the law firm.”
Silverstein seconded the motion, but the council decided a second member was needed.
Farrer said she would do it — and all four council members agreed.