Sun-Star Special Report

Merced County Supervisor tries to intervene on behalf of aide stopped by police

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 31, 2014 

When Merced police stopped a woman driving a vehicle at a high rate of speed last May, they didn’t realize she was an assistant to a longtime Merced County supervisor.

But the sergeant who made the traffic stop soon learned of that relationship when the woman called her boss, District 1 Supervisor John Pedrozo, and asked him to intervene. Pedrozo wanted to know what was going on with his employee but was told by the officer that she was an adult, and he couldn’t divulge that information.

Pedrozo then told the officer he would call Merced police Chief Norm Andrade to find out what happened. The traffic stop revealed the woman had an outstanding bench warrant and was driving on a suspended license, all stemming from a previous DUI arrest.

Pedrozo would subsequently write a letter on county letterhead to a Merced County Superior Court judge in support of his assistant, calling her a safe driver and someone who needs to drive for work. Her DUI penalties – fines and fees – were converted to 195 hours of community service.

A Merced Sun-Star investigation of court records, police reports and county documents revealed that the assistant, Brenda Liza Valenzuela-Porras, signed out a county vehicle on multiple occasions while her driver’s license was suspended for the DUI conviction. There is no record of who actually drove the vehicle on those occasions, and she denies driving a county vehicle with a suspended license.

Merced County Superior Court Judge Carol Ash issued a bench warrant for Valenzuela-Porras’ arrest on Oct. 11, 2013, after she failed to show up for court and provide proof of her community service hours.

In the days leading to publication of the Sun-Star’s story, Valenzuela-Porras went to court after multiple missed appearances to have the warrant removed on Dec. 11, 2013. Valenzuela-Porras claims she didn’t know a warrant was issued in October 2013 until she was tipped off last month by a “person” she refused to identify.

A spotty driving record

Fourteen months after Valenzuela-Porras, 29, began working for Pedrozo, she ran into legal troubles. On March 14, 2012, she was arrested by Merced police for driving under the influence, reckless driving and driving on a suspended license.

That night, she was stopped around 1:45 a.m. for driving 80 mph on G Street and Bear Creek Drive. Her blood-alcohol level was 0.11 and 0.10 based on two breath tests, according to a police report. A driver is considered over the legal limit with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent or higher, under California law.

Valenzuela-Porras told the officer she was driving erratically because she was “going to pee her pants.”

“I could smell an odor of alcohol … she had watery, glassed over eyes and they appeared to be bloodshot,” the arresting officer reported. Pedrozo’s assistant admitted to drinking two glasses of vodka and cranberry juice at a restaurant that evening, according to the report, and was taken to John Latorraca Correctional Facility.

Valenzuela-Porras on Jan. 8, 2013, pleaded no contest to DUI and driving on a suspended license. She was sentenced to two days in jail and nearly $3,000 in fines.

She was required to begin her jail sentence Feb. 11, 2013, in connection with the DUI arrest, but records show she didn’t show up at the jail. As a result, the court issued a warrant for her arrest on March 6, 2013, according to court documents.

When Valenzuela-Porras was stopped again by Merced police on May 18 – the night she made the call to Pedrozo – she was cited for having the outstanding warrant, driving on a suspended license, having no proof of insurance and expired registration.

During that incident, Valenzuela-Porras called Pedrozo on her cellphone and handed it to Sgt. Jay Struble as he wrote her citation.

“When I got on the phone with the individual on the other end, he asked me what was going on,” the sergeant wrote in his report. “I explained to him that I was not going to discuss this matter with him because Valenzuela is an adult.”

The response on the other end of the phone was, “Fine, I’ll call Chief Norm Andrade,” according to the police report. Struble, who said he recognized Valenzuela-Porras’ car because it had been impounded three times before, cited Valenzuela-Porras for four violations.

Pedrozo called police chief, sent letter to judge

Pedrozo acknowledged he received a call from his assistant on May 18, after she was pulled over by Struble. The supervisor told the Sun-Star he also called Andrade that evening to find out why his assistant – who he said is like a daughter to him – was pulled over.

“I get a call from (Valenzuela-Porras) crying, saying ‘I don’t know why I got pulled over,’ ” Pedrozo said. “The way I put it to Chief Andrade is I know there are two sides to every story. I just want to know why Brenda was pulled over.”

Andrade confirmed receiving the call from Pedrozo that night, but stood by his sergeant’s decision to not discuss the details of Valenzuela-Porras’ case with the county supervisor. “Pedrozo said the person who worked for him was pulled over and he said the officer would not give him information,” Andrade recalled. “And I said yes, that’s correct. I told him he is not entitled to any information, and the officer was correct in not giving any information.

“My officer handled it appropriately and, in fact, I would say he went a little above and beyond talking to the gentleman on the phone,” Andrade continued. “He didn’t have to do that.”

In a recent Sun-Star interview, Valenzuela-Porras explained calling her boss during the May 18 traffic stop to “let him know the situation” because her “job was on the line.” She said she didn’t know a warrant had been issued for her arrest.

“I could lose my job if my car was getting impounded,” Valenzuela-Porras said, explaining the phone call. “I in no way want to lose my job whatsoever.”

The call to Andrade would not be the last time Pedrozo tried to lend his assistant a hand. Although Pedrozo knew of Valenzuela-Porras’ May 18 run-in with Merced police, he wrote a letter on county letterhead to a judge in June 2013 calling his assistant a “safe driver” and asking the judge to forgive her civil penalties.

“I believe Brenda is a safe driver and she has never had any incident of any kind while driving the county vehicle or her own while working,” Pedrozo wrote in the June 17 letter. “Her job requires a large amount of driving therefore having a valid Driver’s License is a necessity due to her assigned duties.”

Pedrozo defended writing the letter, saying it was to verify how important it is for Valenzuela-Porras to keep her license. “That was the only reason I wrote the letter – because she needs to drive for work,” Pedrozo said. “I question her choices, but I’m not going to question her ability to be a safe driver when she’s at work. I can’t make that judgment call.”

Valenzuela-Porras confirmed asking her boss to write the letter of support, saying it was at the request of her attorney.

When asked if she believed she was a “safe driver” – the words written by her boss – she hesitated for a moment before answering. “I am a safe driver besides suspensions on my license,” Valenzuela-Porras said.

County could have faced legal, financial risks

A closer look at Valenzuela-Porras’ driving record indicates her license has been suspended eight times since April 2010, most recently from Jan. 19, 2013, to July 2, 2013, according to DMV records.

County driving records obtained by the Sun-Star show Valenzuela-Porras checked out a county vehicle at least five times while on a suspended license – once in May 2011 and four times in January 2012.

Merced County Counsel James Fincher said Valenzuela-Porras would have put the county at risk if she drove a county vehicle while having a suspended license. He said the county would’ve been held financially liable if she had been in an accident.

“Would there have been legal repercussions? The answer is yes,” Fincher said, noting a jury would need to decide who was at fault. “Would we be more likely to lose the case? The answer is probably. We are the ones who are going to pay if she was in a county car.”

According to Merced County’s vehicle policy, employees who drive a county vehicle or utilize their personal vehicle on county business must maintain a valid driver’s license and provide a copy to the county before beginning driving duties.

The policy is also clear about reporting changes to an employee’s driving status, such as a suspended license. The policy states “employees must inform their department by the next workday whenever their driving status changes (license suspension, revocation, expiration or other change in status).”

However, county officials confirmed they did not run a DMV background check on Valenzuela-Porras at the time of her hiring in January 2011. She had three points on her driving record at the time, according to DMV records.

Valenzuela-Porras’ official job title is “extra help student intern,” and she earns $13 an hour. Her job duties consist of scheduling meetings for Pedrozo, conducting town hall meetings and handling comments from his constituents. Valenzuela-Porras’ career in Merced County began January 2010 in the Public Defender’s Office where she worked as an extra help office assistant.

Merced County Human Resources Director Marci Barrera said the county reviews employee driving records only for positions where driving is a major component of the job, such as public works employees or delivery drivers. “In this case, it’s generally not a part of the job,” Barrera said.

Valenzuela-Porras:

DMV never sent letters

Valenzuela-Porras denied driving the county car on a suspended license, but could not recall the dates of her most recent suspension when asked by the Sun-Star.

“When your license is suspended you’re supposed to get a letter in the mail notifying you that your license is suspended, and I don’t receive those letters at all,” Valenzuela-Porras said. “I was not aware that my license was suspended and when I did find out, the first thing I did was tell my boss.”

Valenzuela-Porras claims her license was not actually suspended during the May 18 run-in with Merced police and blamed the DMV for not updating her driving record.

“It wasn’t suspended and I had all the paperwork to prove it – everything, all my receipts,” Valenzuela-Porras said. “Because the DMV, I guess, was backed up and not everything had been inputted or updated yet, my car was being impounded – that was going to be more money I didn’t have at the time.”

But DMV records obtained by the Sun-Star show Valenzuela-Porras hadn’t submitted documents to the department to terminate her suspension until May 22, 2013, four days after she was pulled over for driving on a suspended license.

The DMV updated Valenzuela-Porras’ driving record two days later on May 24, 2013, DMV spokeswoman Jan Mendoza confirmed. Her suspension was lifted on July 2, 2013, after she paid reinstatement fees, Mendoza added.

Valenzuela-Porras also claimed the officer was “so rude” during the May 18 incident and refused to explain why she was being pulled over. She said she was targeted by the officer, who recognized her, and “snatched” her phone from her.

Struble told the Sun-Star the claims made by Valenzuela-Porras are false. “The only time I touched her phone was when she handed it to me and said, here, my boss wants to talk to you,” Struble said. “And if I didn’t disclose to her (why she was pulled over), why did she tell me she was speeding because she had to go pee?”

Struble said he didn’t recognize Valenzuela-Porras or her vehicle until after she began to “name drop” by telling him who she works for. “She said her boss was Mr. Pedrozo and she rents her house from Detective (Paul) Johnson, who works at the Merced Police Department,” Struble said. “She likes to name drop to get out of trouble because she works for Mr. Pedrozo.”

Expert says Pedrozo acted unethically, used his position

When loyalty becomes more important than legality, rules and policies, then you have an example of unethical behavior, said April Hejka-Ekins, professor emeritus in the political science and public administration department of California State University, Stanislaus.

Hejka-Ekins said it appears Pedrozo used his position as an elected official to exert undue influence over the outcome of the law by writing a letter on county letterhead and intervening with a police traffic stop.

“He’s not helping her by protecting her, and he’s violating his office by personally getting involved in the situation rather than allowing the law to be carried out,” Hejka-Ekins said. “So what happens is he’s protecting her even though she’s violating the law and he’s using his office to do it.”

Hejka-Ekins said Pedrozo should not have allowed his loyalty to his assistant cloud his responsibility as a public official.

“It’s not just like a citizen trying to protect their kid, because you take an oath when you’re in public office to uphold the law,” she said. “The law should supersede your sense of loyalty to your family, friends or workers.”

Enabling Valenzuela-Porras’ behavior is not just inappropriate, but also could lead to more serious consequences, she added.

“She’s using her relationship with him on the basis of favoritism to get special treatment for violating the law and obviously that’s not ethical,” Hejka-Ekins said. “But the other problem is the likelihood that something serious could happen. What’s going to stop her from doing what she’s doing until something disastrous happens?”

Pedrozo maintains he didn’t do anything unethical and was simply trying to help his assistant through some tough times.

“It’s a mistake – she made a mistake,” Pedrozo said. “My goal is to help people. I have a single mother with two kids that has an extra-help job that made a mistake.”

“Everyone makes mistakes”

Although Valenzuela-Porras pleaded no contest to the DUI charge on Jan. 8, 2013, the case isn’t resolved.

Merced County Superior Court Judge John Kirihara recalled her bench warrant on Dec. 11, 2013, and scheduled another hearing on Jan. 15. Valenzuela-Porras was required to show completion of her 195 community service hours on that day, according to court documents.

She has 1801/2 hours left. She has completed 141/2 hours, court documents show.

Valenzuela-Porras showed the judge on Jan. 15 a volunteer agreement to complete her hours at Yosemite Church, according to documents. She faces new charges from the May 18 incident, and her next court appearance is scheduled for March 5.

Valenzuela-Porras said she hasn’t received any type of disciplinary action from the county and said she doesn’t believe she deserves to be penalized.

“Everyone makes a mistake, but I have gone above and beyond to fix everything because of my DUI,” Valenzuela-Porras said, noting she missed court hearings because of family emergencies. “My job is what pays the bills and puts a roof over our heads, and I would not do anything to jeopardize that at all.”

The mother of two said she regrets drinking and driving that night and has since apologized to Pedrozo.

“I’ve apologized for my actions because my personal life has been focused on now and it’s because I work for him,” she said.

“I can’t change my past. I can’t change those suspensions; if not, I would in a heartbeat. I really would. Honest to God. But I have no control over that, but I do have control over my future.”

Pedrozo said he continues to stand by his assistant, saying she’s a good employee.

“I’m not cutting ties, because she’s a good employee,” he said. “My goal is to help someone that’s working and trying to make a living for herself and her family. I know she is a good employee when she works for me.”

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar. com.

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