PALM SPRINGS – This community of more than 47,000 people is an international tourist destination that garners worldwide headlines. But Mayor Robert Moon’s recent alleged acts of eavesdropping and videotaping have given the city — and City Hall — headlines they can ill-afford and a black eye. His shenanigans have become the butt of local jokes and his surreptitious moves have been dubbed Spygate.
Moon, elected to a four-year term as mayor in November 2015, claims that City Hall has no security so he took it upon himself without asking – or telling anyone – that he was going to use a motion-detection camera and an intercom. The camera, he claims, was to help him detect who was coming into his office during his absence. He claims the intercom was for easier communication with the City Council’s administrative assistant due to logistics.
Many have cried foul, arguing that his explanations for spygate simply do not add up. First, if he was that concerned about security, why didn’t he ask the City Manager? Second, why didn’t he put it on the agenda for a full discussion of the City Council? That is what good leaders do. Why all the sneaking around and how long did it go on before someone finally got wise and reported it? If he was that concerned about the absence of security, why was he not concerned about all of City Hall and everyone’s office – not just his own.
All of these are just some of the questions that have surfaced in the wake of the revelations. Some are even questioning his fitness for office.
Moon told Uken Report that he was “investigated” by the Palm Springs Police Department, an outside attorney and the Riverside County District Attorney. He also claims he was cleared of any wrongdoing. There was never a true and formal forensic investigation. A longtime City Hall employee said there was not a formal “investigation” because Palm Springs Police don’t have jurisdiction over the executive branch of government.
The one thing that does seem to bear out is that an outside special counsel, Colantuono, Highsmith & Whatley out of Grass Valley, was hired at $350 per hour to look at – and compile a report – regarding Moon’s use of an intercom and videotaping equipment, according to a public records request. You can view the bills and charges here. Some of the information has been redacted, most likely a brief memo noting what work had been completed.
City Attorney Edward Z. Kotkin prepared a memorandum related to this matter, and has advised that it is exempt from public disclosure since all of the communication it contains is subject to attorney-client privilege, according to Palm Springs City Clerk Anthony J. Mejia. Attorney-client privilege can only be waived by a majority of City Council.
Some City Councilmembers seem poised to do just that as part of their pledge to be transparent. Geoff Kors and Christy Holstege serve on the ad hoc employment subcommittee and have requested that a discussion item be placed on the July 11 City Council meeting relating to surveillance equipment that Moon placed in his office and the office of an employee.
“The subcommittee will be requesting that an independent investigation be undertaken to ascertain and report on the facts so that Council can take any necessary steps to protect the city and ensure the public has accurate information about what occurred,” Kors and Holstege said in a joint statement.
Critics contend that Moon’s bizarre and absurd behavior isn’t just the cost of needing to hire an outside counsel to study spygate. His shenanigans strain the credibility of City Hall, has employees looking over their shoulder wondering if they are being videotaped or if the mayor is eavesdropping on them. His antics have created an immeasurable sense of distrust between the mayor and both colleagues and employees.
One woman who vowed to help Moon succeed after his election victory said she can no longer sit idly by and keep quiet. That woman is former Palm Springs City Councilmember Ginny Foat, who served on the City Council for 14 years. She and Moon both ran for mayor in 2014.
In 14 years of public service, Foat said she have never witnessed such peculiar behavior, noting that she has never publicly criticized the mayor until now.
“I’ve given too many years to the city to want somebody to fail,” Foat told Uken Report in a telephone interview. “If you let one person fail, the city fails. We saw that in what happened with Steve (Pougnet). What Steve is accused of and the scandal around that, nearly destroyed the city. It was so heartbreaking. Many of us shed a lot of tears over that.”
Former Mayor Pougnet is was accused of accepting bribes from a local developer and a businessman. He has pleaded not guilty.
While working with Moon on the City Council, Foat said she helped him, coached him, answered questions about public hearings and more.
“In the last two years, I have seen, and maybe I just was blind to it, but he has become, I don’t know, self-consumed,” Foat said.
Is his self-absorption and reported paranoia what led to Spygate?
The defining moment for Foat came during an event at the Palm Springs Air Museum in February. No longer on the City Council, she attended an event as a guest of one of the Air Museum’s board members. As introductions were made, someone made a mistake in announcing Moon. He was introduced as a Lt. Commander instead of Commander.
“(Moon’s) partner came over yelling at the top of his lungs at the host of this VIP table at which Harold Matzner and many other people were sitting at, and said, ‘How dare you insult my husband,’ and went on and on about how he should apologize to him, he was a commander, not a lieutenant commander, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” Foat recalled.
The host of the table was so upset. He didn’t even know who this man was that was yelling at him, Foat recalled. Then, five minutes later, the mayor came over.
“That was a turning point for me, a really bad turning point, “ Foat said, adding that he, too, was fuming. “Finally, I stood up, and I said, ‘Stop this. This is totally inappropriate in public.’ I found out later that he had stood up at his table and yelled, ‘I’m a commander, not a lieutenant commander.’ After he came over, he went back and got his husband, and they stormed out of the event.”
His abrupt exit occurred before the military awards were awarded that evening, Foat said.
“All the people who had fought in World War II and the Korean War were there waiting for that part, and he stormed out before them, turned his back on them, and all because of the fact that he wasn’t introduced as commander instead of lieutenant commander. That was the turning point for me. I could no longer keep myself quiet. I just watched as he turned into what I considered an egomaniac. It’s all about him, and there’s never anyone else.”
She’s not keeping quiet about Spygate either. Foat said councilmembers used to go in the administrative assistant’s office and would often laugh and joke. She wonders if he was eavesdropping all the while.
“To think now that sitting in his office, he was listening to all of that and he was taping things just further cements in my mind the fact that this is not a man that should be in this office,” Foat said. “This is the first time that I have really spoken out, because I feel like what’s happening is so bad for the city. We’re again having someone in the mayor’s position that is changing the way people look at our city.”
Moon’s alleged story about spygate and why he had the video camera, akin to a nanny cam, doesn’t hold water, Foat said. After City Council meetings she would often be in her City Hall office longer than others because she wouldn’t get there as often as she wanted to during the week. Oftentimes, she was the last to leave and noticed something peculiar.
Every other member of the City Council locked their doors. Moon did not. He always left it open with a small nightlight in his office. If he was so concerned about his valuable art and private papers, why would he do that, Foat pondered. If he was so worried about who was coming and out, using his Keurig and moving chairs, there was a simple solution.
“Close your f***ing door,” Foat said laughing at the absurdity of his faux dilemma.
And, she said, if you look at it from another perspective, Moon was only worried about his material possessions and papers during Spygate, not the larger picture of City Hall. There have been break-ins at City Hall and vending machines robbed, Foat said. Moon was not concerned about that his colleagues’ offices which also house valuable document and items, only his little corner of the universe.
“It all goes back to his ego,” Foat said.