PALM SPRINGS –It remains to be seen whether Mayor Robert Moon is guilty of criminal wrongdoing in surreptitiously placing a video camera and intercom in City Hall, but he is guilty of violating the people’s trust — one of the most sacred bonds a successful political leader must have with his people.
Those people include residents, colleagues, City Hall employees, and professionals who do business with the mayor.
Moon, elected to a four-year term as mayor in November 2015 on the premise of transparency, is also guilty of lying further straining the bonds of trust. He mislead the public on what he really did, accused innocent people — his City Council colleagues no less — of plotting against him and creating a hostile work environment, and alleged he was cleared of any wrongdoing, which is patently false.
The whole sordid drama thrusts Palm Springs, an international tourist destination, into a negative light, making it a bad punch line.
In a blistering rebuke of the mayor’s sneaky antics, Lisa Middleton said, “When that camera was installed, whatever the motivation was, it was a statement of a lack of trust in the people who occupy the hallways of City Hall. Not just any hallway, but the hallway where the city manager and the City Council offices are, the hallway that can only be accessed with a key card. It was a statement of a lack of trust in those individuals.”
Middleton, her voice strong, firm and even-keeled, came to the defense of the female custodian who has served City Hall offices for more than 20 years, saying, “I trust her completely.”
Elected in November 2017, Middleton said she was certain if Moon had asked to install the camera and intercom he would surely have been told no. The law is incredibly clear in the state of California that recording individuals without their permission is not permitted, Middleton said.
“For anyone of my generation who live through 1974, the existence of recording devices, however well-intentioned they may be, in a public building, is something that was clearly made known to us that one should never do again, and one should only do with a warrant, and with absolute clear reasons for why one should do it.”
In that same steady, firm tone, Middleton held court, never raising her voice.
“I’m extremely concerned that members of the staff at our City Hall were made to feel uncomfortable in carrying out the performance of their duties,” Middleton said. “They have an extremely difficult job in responding to a very demanding public, a public that we admire. One of the things that they have a right to is that we who are elected political officials keep our disputes among ourselves, and do not extend those disputes to the staff who has to serve each and every one of us equally, regardless of their opinion personally, whether or not we should or should not have been elected, whether or not we are following the right course on any public policy. It is incumbent on us to go the extra mile to ensure our staff is under no political pressure.”
Middleton continued without missing a beat. No one spoke; no one tried to interrupt her.
“The offices that we occupy belong to the public,” Middleton said. “They are the people’s office. They are not our office. We get to call them our office. We get to personalize them with our belongings, but they belong to the people. And on the day our service ends, that office will be turned over to someone else and it will happen in an instant. So, mistakes were made here. I want to believe that those mistakes were well-intentioned. An apology is due. An apology is due to the people who serve our city, and an apology is due to the people of our city.”
Moon said when he discovered on June 19 that the city manager and city attorney were looking into the devices, he made a brief explanation at the July 20 City Council meeting.
“I said if anyone was made uncomfortable that I was sorry, and I had to remove those devices right away.”
Moon, short on contrition, also said that if someone had told him they were uncomfortable, he would have immediately removed the devices.
“But instead of taking that route, it appears that for some reason, which I can’t answer, you’ve decided to make this into a criminal case,” Moon said. “There was no intention there at any time to do anything wrong. It was just a convenience item. So, if you’re going to charge me with state crimes, I guess you can move ahead. I don’t know. It’s up to you.”
His sneaky antics, dubbed Spygate, have upended City Hall where employees are left to wonder what he heard or what he saw and who they can trust. How long were the devices planted in offices before they were discovered? Are there more to be discovered? What prompted him to do it? Was he after someone? What was his motive?
An official, forensic, independent investigation will commence in the near future that should shed light on many of the questions.
But in the meantime, the mayor may have irretrievably broken relationships with members of the City Council and others by his outlandish speculation and accusations, which were reportedly fueled by his paranoia.
Former City Councilmember Ginny Foat has called him “unfit” for public office.
As Wednesday’s City Council meeting unfolded, it sometimes took on the aura of a made-for-television courtroom drama.
When Uken Report first interviewed Moon, he said he was investigated by the city attorney, the Palm Springs Police Department, an outside lawyer and the Riverside County District Attorney’s office and cleared of any wrongdoing. None of that is true. None of it.
Geoff Kors, a graduate of Stanford Law School, wasted little time getting to the heart of the falsehoods.
Kors: “Just to clarify, (City Attorney Edward Z.) Mr. Kotkin, you didn’t investigate this matter, correct?”
Kotkin: “No, I did not.”
Kors: “OK. The outside council didn’t investigate this matter, correct?”
Kotkin: “No, he did not.”
Kors: “The police chief did not investigate this matter, correct?”
Kotkin: “No, he did not.”
Kors: “And, the DA did not investigate this matter. They reviewed a referral letter.”
Kotkin: “The DA reviewed a memorandum that I transmitted to him through the police chief. I want to be clear. The memo was not to the DA. My memo was to (Palm Springs Police) Chief Bryan Reyes. The chief made a unilateral independent decision to transmit this to the District Attorney’s office. … The DA declined to investigate.
Kors: “What was the response, though, from the DA on this?”
Kotkin: “That the DA declined to investigate and said it was better handled on a civil administrative level.”
Kors: “I just want to be clear that … none of these people did investigation.”
How long was the surveillance equipment in the respective offices? How long was it active? Are there records? Does the company that provides the equipment know how often someone watches a livestream because a livestream is available 24/7 on this camera? How often did an alert go to the mayor that there was motion in his office so he could begin to livestream it?
Those are all questions Kors wants answered. It’s not just a 5-, 10- or 60-second video, as the mayor has claimed, Kors said.
“It’s a live stream,” Kors said. “This is not a typical surveillance camera you see at restaurants that show videos and you see if someone is stealing. They have a microphone. Conversations can be listened into. How long did that go on? How often? When? Was it activated every time someone walked down the hallway?
There are things like that that I think an investigator would want to know, and I think we’re entitled to that information because we don’t have it.”
The mayor’s lies about being investigated and cleared of any wrongdoing did not stop there.
In the same interview with Uken Report, Moon said the trumped up charges are designed as retribution for him not being as progressive as the balance of the City Council.
That is a lie.
The investigation was allegedly trigged by complaints from Councilmembers Lisa Middleton and Geoff Kors, Moon claimed.
That, too, is a lie. Multiple staff members complained.
Moon said he installed the devices because there is no security system in City Hall.
One more lie.
So much of this issue centers on trust. Trust between the mayor and city staff, trust between the mayor and the public, trust between the mayor and his colleagues and trust between the mayor and the media.
How can the public be sure be sure he has been less than honest? Because Councilmember Christy Holstege, also a graduate of Stanford Law School, who serves on the ad hoc employment subcommittee with Kors, delivered a four-page detailed account of how the entire issue surfaced. Kors and Middleton had nothing to do with it.
Moon also told Uken Report that the complaints coincided with his refusal to sign a proclamation for the March for Our Lives Day rally in Palm Springs. That also is not true.
“I’m physically pained looking at the faces of the city staff,” Holstege said before confidently reading the committee report. “… We were all elected to bring the highest level of transparency and ethics to the city. … I think the public deserves to know the facts. … I’m just here to give the facts and the law.”
So, she began. Following is a portion of Kors’ and Holstege’s startling report verbatim.
- On April 5th, the City Council employment practices ad hoc subcommittee learned from staff members that Mayor Moon had a motion activated camera in his office near the doorway that may have allowed him to see, hear and record conversations in his office and in the hallway outside his office.
- The Mayor’s office is located right at the entrance of the City Council offices, frequently used by councilmembers and staff, so there are Brown Act and other related concerns potentially involved.
- We immediately reported the camera to the city attorney, as we had probable cause to believe an ongoing crime was potentially occurring at City Hall in the Mayor’s office, and that every person who was present in his office for meetings or in the hallway could potentially have legal claims against the Mayor and possibly the city.
- On that same day, the city attorney and our employment practices ad hoc subcommittee walked by to check the claims of staff and we all saw a small, white, square camera on the top of a bookshelf located near the doorway. The camera pointed toward the inside of the Mayor’s office, the doorway, and appeared as though it may be able to capture the hallway too. Given the type of camera, it is possible the camera could still record or overhear conversations outside of his office and in the hallway.
- We researched this type of camera online, a Blink home camera, and it looked to be a motion-activated, cloud-based camera that can be accessed in live feeds, dropped in on at any time, and recorded electronically by a smart-phone or any computer. This camera not only livestreams and records video, it also livestreams and records audio.
- This camera was physically present during private meetings, private ad hoc subcommittee meetings, private conversations between councilmembers, and while staff was present in the office.
- Upon reporting the camera to the city attorney, we learned that multiple staff members had complained about the camera in Mayor Moon’s office.
- We also learned that employees in the facilities department had previously expressed that they did not want to work in Mayor Moon’s office due to the camera.
- We also learned from city staff that Mayor Moon had the ability to watch what was occurring remotely in a live feed on his cellular phone, remotely at any time, and that the camera was on during the day when Mayor Moon was in his office at meetings. It is possible that anyone with that log in information from any location could also “drop in” in on a live feed of the camera.
- A staff member also reported that she believed Mayor Moon had the ability to listen in to conversations including those in her office and that Mayor Moon had also installed an intercom between his and her offices and she believed it was left on so he could hear her conversations and the conversations of others. She reported an instance in which the Mayor knew what was happening in her office while he was not present at City Hall.
“This is not a political issue and it is not a personal attack,” Holstege said. “This is formal action that we have been forced to take due to a member of this council installing a camera at City Hall without notifying or obtaining the permission of the City Council.”
Holstege, never raising her voice, continued to read aloud the report with great confidence knowing it was based on facts and the law.
Uken Report exclusively obtained Kors’ and Holstege’s committee report. You may read the entire report here.
At one point, Middleton was considered to serve as the liaison between the City Council and the independent investigator. Moon refused to accept that choice.He clearly did not trust her to be objective.
“Investigate all you want. However, I do have a concern about any member of this council being a part of this who would influence, have the opportunity to influence, anyone who is doing an independent investigation,” Moon said. “There appears to be some members of this council who are not particularly fond of me. I think for them to have influence upon whoever is doing investigation is inappropriate. You can investigate away, but I do not agree to having any member of this council be in a position of any type of influence over anybody doing a, quote, independent and prompt investigation.”
With the support of a 5-0 vote, David Freedman, a Palm Springs resident and member of the Ethics, Transparency and Government Reform Task Force, will select an independent investigator, work with city staff on financial parameters and provide any reports from the investigator to city leaders. In effort to retain and-or regain the public’s trust, the report will be made public.
“Investigate away and have fun,” Moon said sardonically.
- 450x550_lisa-middleton: Lisa Middleton
- Christy Holstege: Christy Holstege