By Steven Tavares.
In a stunning move, the San Leandro City Council voted Monday evening to reinstate City Manager Chris Zapata after an independent investigator’s report repeatedly questioned the veracity of the claims made against him by Rose Padilla Johnson, a well-known local non-profit leader, who accused Zapata of sexual misconduct.
“Ms. Padilla Johnson’s credibility is questionable and more suspect when compared to that of Mr. Zapata,” concluded Danville-based Attorney Karen Kramer, the independent investigator hired by the city last January to probe Johnson’s allegations. The city placed Zapata on paid administrative leave, also in January.
The five-month investigation largely refuted Johnson’s claims and vindicated Zapata, who had denied the accusations, and somewhat repeatedly so in a 23-page letter he made public just prior to being publicly accused by Johnson.
“Ms. Padilla Johnson made many inaccurate statements during her interviews as part of this investigation,” the report concluded. Kramer was particularly concerned with a July 5, 2016 council meeting that Johnson told the investigator featured all seven council members asking her questions about issues regarding the then-proposed dispensary when in fact, video from the hearing revealed none.
“Another inaccurate statement made by Ms. Padilla Johnson was her assertion during her interview that the last CD Mr. Zapata gave her included a song with lyrics that say “fuck you” or “fuck me,’” wrote the investigator. “Upon listening to all of the CDs Ms. Padilla Johnson provided, none of the songs include such lyrics.” The report, though, later describes some of the music as “sexually suggestive.”
An allegation by Johnson that Zapata called Johnson a “black widow,” is not true, wrote the investigator. In fact, it was Councilmember Ed Hernandez who used the phrase. Johnson’s husband, former Alameda County Fire Chief Bill McCammon, passed away in 2014. Hernandez was the lone no vote against reinstating Zapata Monday evening.
The city did not release Kramer’s entire report Monday night, only a 10-page summary of the findings. The full report will be released no later than July 31, said city officials.
Meanwhile, the rumored existence of text messages from Johnson to Zapata that would undermine the veracity of her allegations, in fact, exists. During the interview with the investigator, Johnson said she did not have any contact with Zapata between meeting him at a Foster’s Freeze in San Leandro in October 2016 and January 2017 when she delivered a check to Zapata to remedy the Davis Street Family Resource Center’s $1.5 million debt to the city. “This is not accurate,” according to the report, “as indicated by the text messages she sent Mr. Zapata on November 2, 2016 and November 15, 2016, when she asked Mr. Zapata to talk to her via phone and to meet with her “to get a plan.” In addition, Zapata provide electronic calendar entries detailing meetings in November 2016 with Johnson.
The investigator was also flummoxed by Johnson’s assertion that she “begged” Zapata to procure an extension of the Oct. 31, 2016 deadline for repayment when she had publicly said the payment would be made on time. According to the investigator, the first time the city become aware that Johnson would not be repaying the city was 3:40 p.m. on the deadline date. Johnson left a voice mail, according to the report, saying, “Um, I just wanted to let you know that, uh, you did not get the check for $1,500,000 today, um, and it’s not going to come in today because the two strategies that I’m feverishly working on, neither were able to be concluded by today.”
One of the more salacious allegations Johnson made in her official complaint to the city last November was the assertion that Zapata told her that she “holds the key” to resolving the ongoing debt repayment. Johnson said the sexually suggestive phrase was used by Zapata while in her car during a meeting at the Foster’s Freeze parking lot. Based on the findings and timeline, the investigator wrote that is more likely that Zapata uttered the phrase during a separate meeting in his office. Zapata told the investigator the phrase was a reference that Johnson needed to procure the fourth vote (majority vote) from Mayor Pauline Russo Cutter for yet another loan extension.
Kramer also wrote it “did not seem plausible” that Zapata was seeking a romantic relationship with Johnson based on the evidence. In some media reports, Johnson alleged that Zapata made suggestive remarks, like, “If you were not married, I would really go for someone like you.”
The investigator, nonetheless, was skeptical of the claims. “Even if he made all of the comments she attributed to him, including complimenting her appearance and clothing, and telling her that if she was not married, he would be interested in someone like her, these comments were allegedly made in approximately 2013, three years before the “you have/hold the key” comment,” Kramer wrote.
Kramer also questioned why Johnson would continue meeting privately with Zapata if in fact the allegations over the years were true. The report reveals an additional allegation made by Johnson that Zapata “spilled ice cream on his genital area and rubbed his genital area while in her vehicle parked at Fosters Freeze,” wrote Kramer. “Mr. Zapata denied spilling ice cream on himself while in Ms. Padilla Johnson’s vehicle, let alone rubbing his genital area while in her car. She was unable to provide the exact date this incident occurred, but maintained that she was offended by it. It is unclear why Ms. Padilla Johnson would continue to engage in one-on-one meetings with Mr. Zapata in her vehicle if he behaved so inappropriately.”
Monday night’s announcement ends an uncommon seven months of turmoil at San Leandro City Hall. A timeline for when Zapata returns to his office is not yet known, but a period of uncertainty is likely to remain.
Zapata’s wide-ranging, somewhat salacious, tell-all 23-page letter upset some elected officials in San Leandro, but also others elsewhere in the East Bay. How Zapata will be able to interact with the Davis Street Family Resource Center in the future is also unclear. Davis Street, before this controversy and a somewhat related issue with the medical cannabis dispensary associated with Johnson and the non-profit, had for decades been beloved by residents, and city officials, alike. How that relationship is repaired is now in question.