The Clark County assistant manager, who failed to end two years of turmoil in the public administrator’s office before the murder of a Review-Journal reporter, was in charge of three other departments where issues of harassment, corruption or serious misconduct have been exposed by the news agency.
High-profile investigations by the Review-Journal revealed county oversight failures and wide-ranging problems at the coroner’s office, public defender’s office, and constable’s office in Henderson, in addition to the administrator’s office. public – all since 2018. Jeff Wells, 73, was responsible for each of these offices at the time of writing the report.
Interviews and documents show that as of mid-2020, Wells and other county officials were aware of verbal and written complaints filed against Public Administrator Robert Telles, an elected official. Ten days after investigative journalist Jeff German’s first article about the turmoil was published in May 2022, Wells hired a former coroner as a consultant to resolve friction within the public administrator’s office.
German was found stabbed to death on September 3 outside his home; Telles was arrested on September 7 and later charged with German’s murder. Prosecutors say Telles killed German because of his reporting, which revealed allegations of bullying, a hostile work environment and an inappropriate relationship between Telles and a co-worker.
The county refused repeated requests to make elected and appointed officials available for interviews and refused to provide communications between employees of the public administrator’s office, German public records asked in mid-July.
On Tuesday, Wells and several commissioners fled through the back of county commission chambers when the Review-Journal attempted to question them after a board meeting. County Executive Yolanda King, who is retiring in November and was not at the county building on Tuesday, declined to comment through a spokesperson.
The county, which only issued statements through a spokesperson, also delayed releasing German’s autopsy, saying the investigation was not complete.
“Is there accountability in Clark County government?” Review-Journal editor Glenn Cook asked. “When county officials keep public records secret and refuse to answer questions about obvious issues, taxpayers are absolutely right to think the answer is a resounding ‘no’. What are they hiding?”
Employees did not feel safe
In 2020 and 2021, employees of the Office of the Public Administrator reported telling county human resources staff that they did not feel safe in their work environment.
Employees said county officials told them nothing could be done because Telles was an elected official. Telles, a Democrat, was elected in 2018 and began working as a public administrator on January 9, 2019. He lost the June Democratic primary following the German’s reporting, making him a lame duck , and employees said his anger had been festering for months.
“It was a very divisive and dysfunctional environment,” said Rita Reid, a longtime office supervisor who beat Telles in the June primary and will face realtor Caroline Escobar in November. “We felt like we weren’t being heard.”
Reid replied “I’d rather not say” when asked if she had discussed the situation directly with Wells. But she said that instead of addressing Telles’ behavior, county human resources staff asked her “how close she was to retirement.”
“Their reaction to the articles was much more definitive and dramatic than what (has happened) all the years before,” she said in an interview last week.
Shortly after Telles’ arrest, Clark County said it was “considering its options under the law” regarding Telles’ status as a public administrator. The district attorney’s office filed a lawsuit Tuesday asking a judge to remove Telles from office.
Reid said last week that had the county acted sooner, department employees would not have contacted German about issues at the office.
“If we hadn’t brought this to Jeff, he would still be alive today,” she said.
years of trouble
Wells is one of the highest paid employees in the Clark County government. His annual salary has increased by more than $100,000 in a decade and he received $325,000 in salary and benefits last year, according to Transparent Nevada and county data.
The problems in Telles’ office marked at least the fourth time that Wells had failed to remedy or uncover serious problems in a department he oversaw.
In 2018, employees accused public defender Phil Kohn of sexual harassment. They told the law firm investigating Kohn that he “felt untouchable because of his close relationship with his deputy county manager.” This director was Wells. The county said allegations that Wells was protecting Kohn were unfounded, but King moved the public defender’s office out of Wells’ oversight and under Deputy County Executive Kevin Schiller days before the findings were released on sexual harassment, according to an email to employees.
That same year, Wells was unaware that Henderson agent Earl Mitchell had stolen tens of thousands of county dollars for gambling and personal travel. When the Review-Journal revealed the theft, Wells defended Mitchell’s actions until Mitchell was charged with five felonies. Mitchell, an elected official, pleaded guilty to a felony and paid back more than $80,000 he stole.
In 2017 and 2018, Clark County Coroner John Fudenberg gave $5,000 an hour county speeches while touting a fake master’s degree and failing to address autopsy delays and sexual harassment. in the office, according to a 2021 Review-Journal survey.
Wells approved of Fudenberg’s 2020 pay raises, bonuses and, possibly, early retirement and severance pay. had not recorded, which the Review-Journal documented after Fudenberg’s retirement.
Fudenberg received his biggest percentage raise in 2018, along with bonuses totaling more than $11,500, records show. When a coroner’s credentialing issue was brought to Wells’ attention, the county gave Fudenberg a 2% pay raise that year, plus a $4,000 bonus for his lobbying work. of the Carson City Legislature.
In October 2021, Wells told the Review-Journal that he was unaware of Fudenberg’s speeches, his work as an expert witness, or Fudenberg’s outside compensation from the International Association of Coroners and Physicians. coroners until the Review-Journal provides documents.
Wells received a $13,000 pay raise the year after issues with Kohn and Mitchell surfaced, Transparent Nevada shows.
Lack of transparency
After German’s death, county officials declined to respond to multiple requests for records German had submitted, as well as subsequent requests from other Review-Journal reporters, saying the records could impact the Telles criminal case.
Review-Journal’s chief legal officer, Benjamin Zensen Lipman, said the county violated Nevada public records law.
“It concerns us that the county continues to prevent the public from seeing these public records,” he said. “Even assuming that some records in the police investigation files can be kept secret for a period of time, the files that other government entities have that were created separately from the investigation cannot be hidden from view. public simply because law enforcement might want to examine them, as well.”
The county, led by Fudenberg and Wells, spent four years fighting the Review-Journal’s demand for juvenile autopsies. County taxpayers had to pay $167,000 in legal fees for the newspaper in 2021 after the Nevada Supreme Court ordered the county to release the filings. The fight also cost taxpayers more than $80,000 for an outside attorney hired by the county.
Clark County commissioners, elected to set policy and ensure the best employees do their jobs, declined to respond to repeated requests for comment this week.
County spokesman Erik Pappa, who makes about $209,000 in salary and benefits for providing information to the public, appeared to brief Wells and county commissioners on Tuesday when the Review-Journal attended a meeting of the county council for comment.
They all escaped through a rear exit, and none of the commissioners returned calls seeking comment or came out to speak when the Review-Journal stopped at their desks.
As reporters waited in the lobby of the commissioners’ office on Tuesday, a marijuana dispensary lobbyist dropped by to meet with commissioner Justin Jones. Jones, reached later by telephone, said he was not “interested in commenting” and directed the Review-Journal to Pappa. When the newspaper informed him that he had been voted in by the voters to make sure the county was running smoothly, he hung up.
Commissioner William McCurdy II said he had no time to speak and requested an email on the subject. He never responded to the email.
Last year, County Commissioners Jim Gibson, Tick Segerblom and Ross Miller said the county should investigate Fudenberg’s warrant, but the county has taken no public action more than a year after the articles were published. . These three, along with commissioners Michael Naft and Marilyn Kirkpatrick, did not return calls or text messages left on their cellphones.
Contact Arthur Kane at [email protected] and follow @ArthurMKane on Twitter. Kane is a member of the Review-Journal’s investigative team, focusing on reports that hold executives and agencies accountable and expose wrongdoing.