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County oversight failures didn’t start with murder suspect Robert Telles

Updated September 26, 2022 - 4:53 pm

Clark County’s deputy manager, who failed to stop two years of turmoil in the public administrator’s office before the slaying of a Review-Journal reporter, was in charge of three other departments where harassment, corruption or serious misconduct issues were exposed by the news organization.

High-profile investigations by the Review-Journal revealed county oversight failures and wide-ranging problems at the coroner’s office, the public defender’s office and the Henderson constable’s office, in addition to the public administrator’s office — all since 2018. Jeff Wells, 73, was responsible for each of those offices at the time of the reporting.

Interviews and documents show that starting in mid-2020, Wells and other county officials were aware of verbal and written complaints made against Public Administrator Robert Telles, an elected official. Ten days after investigative reporter Jeff German’s first story on the turmoil was published in May 2022, Wells hired a former coroner as a consultant to address friction in the public administrator’s office.

German was found stabbed to death Sept. 3 outside his home; Telles was arrested Sept. 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 has refused repeated requests to make elected and appointed officials available for interviews and has refused to provide communications between employees in the public administrator’s office, public records German requested back in mid-July.

On Tuesday, Wells and several commissioners fled through the back of County Commission chambers when the Review-Journal tried to interview them after a board meeting. County Manager Yolanda King, who is retiring in November and wasn’t at the county building Tuesday, declined comment through a spokesman.

The county, which offered only statements through a spokesman, also has delayed the release of German’s autopsy, saying the investigation is not complete.

“Is there any accountability in Clark County government?” Review-Journal Executive Editor Glenn Cook asked. “When county officials keep public records secret and decline to answer questions about obvious problems, taxpayers are well within reason to think the answer is a resounding ‘No.’ What are they hiding?”

Employees didn’t feel safe

In 2020 and 2021, employees of the public administrator’s office said they told county human resources personnel they didn’t feel safe in their work environment.

The employees said they were told by county officials that nothing could be done because Telles was an elected official. Telles, a Democrat, was elected in 2018 and started work as the public administrator on Jan. 9, 2019. He lost the June Democratic primary following German’s reporting, making him a lame duck, and employees said his anger festered for months.

“It was a very divisive and dysfunctional environment,” said Rita Reid, a longtime supervisor in the office who beat Telles in the June primary and will face two other candidates in November’s election. “We felt we weren’t being heard.”

Reid said “I’d rather not say” when asked whether she 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 after the articles was much more definitive and dramatic than certainly what (happened in) all the years that led up to it,” she said in an interview last week.

Shortly after Telles’ arrest, Clark County said it was “reviewing its options under the law” regarding Telles’ status as public administrator. The district attorney’s office filed a complaint Tuesday asking a judge to remove Telles from office.

Reid said last week that if the county had taken action sooner, department employees wouldn’t have contacted German about problems in the office.

“If we hadn’t brought this to Jeff, he’d still be alive today,” she said.

Years of problems

Wells is one of Clark County government’s highest-paid employees. His annual salary has increased over a decade by more than $100,000, and he received $325,000 in pay and benefits last year, according to Transparent Nevada and county data.

The problems in Telles’ office marked at least the fourth time Wells had failed to remedy or discover serious issues in a department he supervised.

In 2018, employees accused Public Defender Phil Kohn of sexual harassment. They told the law firm investigating Kohn that he “feels he is untouchable because of his close relationship with his supervising assistant county manager.” That manager was Wells. The county said allegations that Wells protected Kohn were not substantiated, but King moved the public defender’s office out of Wells’ supervision and under Deputy County Manager Kevin Schiller days before the sexual harassment findings were released, according to an email to employees.

That same year, Wells was unaware that Henderson Constable Earl Mitchell stole tens of thousands of county dollars to gamble and take personal trips. When the Review-Journal revealed the theft, Wells defended Mitchell’s actions until Mitchell was indicted on five felonies. Mitchell, an elected official, pleaded guilty to a gross misdemeanor and paid back more than $80,000 he stole.

In 2017 and 2018, then-Clark County Coroner John Fudenberg was giving $5,000 speeches on county time while touting a fake master’s degree and failing to address autopsy delays and sexual harassment in the office, a 2021 Review-Journal investigation found.

Wells signed off on Fudenberg’s pay increases, bonuses and, eventually, early retirement and severance in 2020. Wells was not aware Fudenberg cashed out vacation he apparently used but didn’t log, which the Review-Journal documented after Fudenberg’s retirement.

Fudenberg received his largest percentage raise in 2018, plus bonuses totaling more than $11,500, records show. When a coroner accreditation issue came to Wells’ attention, the county gave Fudenberg a 2 percent pay increase that year, plus a $4,000 bonus for his work lobbying the Legislature in Carson City.

In October 2021, Wells told the Review-Journal he wasn’t aware of Fudenberg’s speeches, his work as an expert witness or Fudenberg’s outside pay from the International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners until the Review-Journal provided documentation.

Wells received a $13,000 pay increase the year after the problems with Kohn and Mitchell surfaced, Transparent Nevada shows.

Lack of transparency

After German’s death, county officials refused to fulfill multiple records requests that German had submitted, as well as subsequent requests by other Review-Journal reporters, saying the records could impact Telles’ criminal case.

Review-Journal Chief Legal Officer Benjamin Zensen Lipman said the county is violating the Nevada Public Records Act.

“It concerns us that the county continues to prevent the public from seeing these public records,” he said. “Even assuming some records in police investigative files can be kept secret for a period of time, records that other governmental entities have and that were created separately from the investigation cannot be withheld from the public simply because law enforcement might want to review them, as well.”

The county, led by Fudenberg and Wells, spent four years fighting the Review-Journal’s request for juvenile autopsies. County taxpayers had to pay $167,000 on the newspaper’s legal costs in 2021 after the Nevada Supreme Court ordered the county to release the records. The fight also cost taxpayers more than $80,000 for outside counsel hired by the county.

Clark County commissioners, elected to set policy and make sure top staff are doing their jobs, refused to respond to repeated requests for comment this week.

County spokesman Erik Pappa, who is paid about $209,000 in salary and benefits to provide information to the public, appeared to notify Wells and county commissioners Tuesday when the Review-Journal attended a county board meeting to obtain comment.

They all escaped out a back exit, and none of the commissioners returned calls seeking comment or came out to talk when the Review-Journal stopped by their offices.

As reporters waited in the commissioners’ office lobby Tuesday, a marijuana dispensary lobbyist walked through to meet with Commissioner Justin Jones. Jones, reached later by phone, said he wasn’t “interested in commenting” and directed the Review-Journal to Pappa. When the newspaper informed him that he was elected by voters to make sure the county ran correctly, he hung up.

Commissioner William McCurdy II said he didn’t have time to talk and asked for an email on the topic. He never responded to the email.

Last year, County Commissioners Jim Gibson, Tick Segerblom and Ross Miller said the county should investigate Fudenberg’s tenure, but the county has not taken any public action more than a year after the stories ran. Those three, and Commissioners Michael Naft and Marilyn Kirkpatrick, did not return calls or texts left on their cellphones.

A previous version of the story misidentified a candidate running against Rita Reid for public administrator in November’s election.

Contact Arthur Kane at akane@reviewjournal.com and follow @ArthurMKane on Twitter. Kane is a member of the Review-Journal’s investigative team, focusing on reporting that holds leaders and agencies accountable and exposes wrongdoing.

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