Ex-Milpitas City Manager Tom Williams not only billed taxpayers for his personal legal fees, he also tried covering his tracks by intimidating witnesses and lying to investigators.
That’s according a trove of documents the city released this week to comply with a court order in a lawsuit filed by the nonprofit First Amendment Coalition. Last year, the embattled city manager sued to prevent Milpitas from complying with California Public Records Act requests from this newspaper and the Milpitas Post. But Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Sunil Kulkarni said the public has a right to know about Williams’ wrongdoing and how the city responded to it.
Among hundreds of pages of transcripts, emails, invoices and personnel records handed over to reporters on Thursday is a 95-page report by ARI Investigations, which sustained four misconduct claims against Williams. According to the Aug. 16 report, the city manager misused the city credit card, conducted extensive personal business on city computers with a city email address, violated a stay-away order from the City Council and tried to obtain a purchase order to pay his private attorney.
San Jose Inside exposed Williams’ misappropriation of public money months before the ARI report. Records obtained by this news outlet in early 2017 showed that he charged $7,000 to his city credit card to foot the retainer fee for Ad Astra Law Group to sue his own employers and Mayor Rich Tran for alleged age discrimination and harassment. At the time, we also reported on that $30,000 purchase order, which Williams justified by saying he initially pursued litigation against Tran on behalf of several city employees.
We’ll dig into the claims against Tran in another story based on a separate batch of newly available documents. Meanwhile, however, the just-released records about Williams substantiate San Jose Inside’s reporting while offering new details about the lengths he went to in an effort to justify alleged ethical lapses.
On March 17 last year, Williams met with Claire Cochran of Ad Astra Law Group, purportedly to seek legal advice on behalf of the city. He said he sought out the law firm because he worried that having the city’s lead counsel, Chris Diaz, look into claims against Tran would present a conflict because the attorney answers to the City Council.
Yet ARI investigator Michael Allison said Williams signed a contract at that meeting that clearly indicated Ad Astra would represent his personal interests. In an interview with Allison, Williams claimed he misunderstood the limited scope of the contract because he never read it. He also claimed to have not read a cease-and-desist letter threatening to sue the city for $1 million unless Tran stopped criticizing him.
Even Cochran disputed her client’s apparently feigned ignorance.
“There is no universe in which I would send a letter like that without you reviewing it first,” the said during their meeting with Allison, according to the ARI report.
Emails and video reviewed by the investigator also cast doubt on Williams’ assertion.
At a public April 4, 2017, City Council meeting where Tran brought up concerns about Williams’ job performance, the city manager told him to bring it up with, “my attorney.” The city manager told Allison that he was just “popping off,” or “bluffing,” but from March 15 to April 27 last year, Williams exchanged 23 emails with Cochran discussing strategy and his hopes of suing the city for as much as $9.6 million in damages.
Perhaps more concerning is how investigators say the city manager tried to pay for the legal help through deception and intimidation.
To cover Ad Astra’s retainer fee, Williams asked the city’s finance department to up the single-purchase limit on his city-issued credit card from $5,000 to $7,000. That raised some red flags for the finance folks, but the request went through.
The expense violated city policy in a number of ways. For one, Williams provided no justification for raising the charge limit. He also failed to provide supporting documents detailing the reason for the purchase. And he broke city policy, which prohibits employees from paying for service contracts with credit cards.
On April 27, 2017, two weeks after Williams sent his $1 million demand to the council, he submitted a $30,000 purchase order to cover additional legal fees incurred by Ad Astra. Included with the purchase order was his contract, which he partially redacted to obscure the fact that he hired the firm to pursue own case. Williams said he blacked out parts of the contract because he worried that the finance department would leak it to reporters.
But interim finance director Jane Corpus realized that the expense was personal and refused to cut the check. Investigators say the purchasing office didn’t connect the dots between the $30,000 purchase order and the $7,000 credit charge until San Jose Inside published a leaked copy of Williams’ $1 million demand letter a couple weeks later.
In an interview with investigators, a witness—whose name is redacted in the ARI report—describes the realization. “[The] article, San Jose Inside, came out Friday morning, right?” the witness stated. “So in that article there’s a letter from his personal attorney saying cease and desist. So now, it’s the same law firm. So it’s like, ‘Oh, gosh.’”
“Right,” Allison replied. “So you were then aware that it was in fact his private attorney?”
“Correct,” the witness affirmed, noting that the department initially gave Williams the benefit of the doubt because he had a history of failing to provide supporting documents for expenses. “And then it’s like, ‘OK, that’s the credit card statement, too.”
Meanwhile, on May 2, the city attorney emailed Williams to tell him that the expense went against policy. In his reply, Williams said that he personally covered the cost, which was demonstrably untrue. The next week, auditors began looking into the charge and Williams finally issued a memo saying he’d pay back the $7,000, which he did.
But Williams was still trying to cover his tracks, according to the investigative report.
On May 15, 2017, days after San Jose Inside’s reporting prompted the city to take a second look at that $7,000 charge, Williams marched into the finance department in violation of a directive from the council to prevent him from retaliating. According to four witnesses, Williams placed his hands on a purchasing manager’s shoulders and aggressively ordered him to send an email to clarify that the city’s credit card policy had been revised sometime in 2014.
Observers recall Williams as angry, “pale, mouth agape and wide-eyed,” per the ARI report. The description of the encounter is consistent with past behaviors. While Williams consistently received high marks for his performance in Milpitas and other public agencies where he worked over the course of his 30-year career, records show he had difficulties controlling his temper and treating subordinates with respect.
In Milpitas, he repeatedly clashed with employees and department heads, which resulted in extraordinarily high turnover and numerous lawsuits alleging discrimination, retaliation and harassment by the city manager.
Williams—who has has consistently and adamantly denied wrongdoing—resigned a month after Allison submitted his report to the city. The former Milpitas official has since been hired as interim city manager for Millbrae.