Mayor Brigette Peterson again stands accused of violating the Town’s code of ethics – this time for allegedly lying to the outside attorney investigating five prior grievances against her.
Attorney Frank Cassidy eventually found no wrong-doing and recommended no action against Peterson, which the Council agreed with. Cassidy did, however, fault Peterson on her poor judgment.
“I felt that what was said to an investigator it didn’t add up to me,” resident and businessman Jim Torgeson told Town Council Feb. 22.
Though he said that “this weighs on me greatly” because he didn’t think Peterson is a bad person, Torgeson said, “I was compelled to do this.”
Peterson did not respond to Gilbert Sun News about the latest complaint and was forbidden by law from addressing Torgeson’s address to Council.
Torgeson, who was one of the four people who filed the five complaints last year, claims in his Feb. 19 complaint that the mayor committed a “blatant ethical breach” when she told Cassidy she corresponded with a developer for information about a proposed apartment project on a Sunday instead of waiting until Monday because she typically didn’t bothered staff on the weekend.
Two of the ethics complaints last year accused Peterson of showing preferential treatment to developer Howard Morrison by feeding him information she received from opponents of his plan to seek increased density for an apartment complex he was proposing.
Peterson in her emails to Morrison also identified the resident she considered the “most aggressive” to the proposal and informed him of a neighborhood petition and the residents’ intent to hire an attorney.
Morrison co-chaired Peterson’s mayoral election campaign in 2020 and was one of her largest donors.
“It’s a failure of respect for the community,” Torgeson told Council last week. “It’s a failure to uphold the duties of the office.”
In his report Cassidy stated, “Mayor Peterson does not typically contact Town staff members on weekends. So the mayor reached out to Howard Morrison to determine the procedure posture of the proposal.”
However, under questioning from Councilman Laurin Hendrix at the October meeting, Cassidy admitted he didn’t look at any weekend emails, phone logs and communication of any sort to verify if Peterson was being truthful.
Torgeson said he can prove Peterson lied and backed his latest claim with emails, text messages and phone call records he obtained from a public records request showing Peterson regularly communicated with staff during weekends and holidays.
“The problem I’m having is defending her position,” Torgeson said. “She didn’t tell the truth. It’s not a small error. You have hundreds and hundreds of examples of calls, texts and emails on the weekends.
“The cover story is always worse than the crime. Thirty times on a weekend is not something that would be considered insignificant.”
Torgeson said he filed the records request last year and “it was conveniently overlooked and misapplied for months.”
“It is still incomplete since I asked for all communication to staff since she became mayor,” he said.
What the town produced so far showed Peterson communicated with staffers like Town Clerk Chaveli Herrera, Parks and Recreation Manager Robert Carmona, Town Attorney Chris Payne, Police Chief Michael Soelberg and Town Manager Patrick Banger during weekends, which are Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays for Gilbert employees.
Peterson’s communications included conversations regarding officer Rico Aranda, who was severely injured in a police incident last April.
In others, she told a council aide that “Lisa’s Rum Cakes made me a special, limited edition cake!” and in another told her mayoral aide, “Sorry to bother you on Sunday. Would you be available for in person 1:1 on Tuesday? I’ve invited my Shadow the Mayor winner to the PMGAA meeting and then back to town hall.
“We will go out to lunch too. Would you like to join us all day or just for the 1:1? Sorry just looping you in! Thought of it late Thursday and worked on it Friday a little! Still not use to having an aide.”
Noting that Peterson had also contacted the Development Services director on a weekend, Torgeson said that was the person she should have asked about the project and not the developer.
At the council meeting, Torgeson proceeded to call out the staff who have received communications from the mayor during their off time and individual council members for failing to challenge Peterson on her claim.
He was asked to stop publicly singling out people.
“As evidenced by the hundreds of communications with staff on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays in these files, it is obvious she absolutely communicates with staff on weekends and holidays,” said Torgeson, who plans to run for Council this year. “It is a crime to lie to an investigator acting on behalf of a legislative body. It is a crime to lie to the body itself.”
He said Peterson “lied to her peers on the dais while they considered reprimanding her.”
Torgeson’s complaint again accuses Peterson of lying when she said a proposed amendment allowing the mayor to limit public comments came about because of a concern by Hendrix.
His previous complaint went after Peterson for not identifying herself as the sponsor for the amendment, which was during a time she was facing public criticism over her leadership.
Cassidy in his investigation said although it was clear Peterson was behind the failed amendment, she didn’t break any state law or Gilbert rules by having the town attorney listed instead as the sponsor.
“She even lied about the genesis of her attempt to limit public communications by citizens in an attempt to throw Councilmember Hendrix under the bus, falsely claiming it was his idea,” Torgeson said. “Finally, she lied to the residents of Morrison Ranch as well as all of Gilbert’s residents. It appears it is just easier to lie than to explain the truth.”
Torgeson, who also has sued the Town for taking down his signs opposing a bond that passed in November, said residents deserve a public accounting of Peterson’s actions during a regularly scheduled public meeting.
“Legislative bodies have historically had the power to police their own members and calling for her resignation is appropriate for misleading the citizens and her own peers during a formal process,” he said in his complaint. “This cannot be swept under the rug as ‘poor judgment.’ Lying is unethical and undermines the basic moral code by which civilized society governs itself.”
Residents Maureen Hoppf and Andrew Adams also spoke on the issue.
“This forgive-and-forget mentality isn’t working for the citizens,” Hoppf said. “The action of the mayor to ask for forgiveness later is not working.
“She has continuously lied even while under investigation for ethics violations and everything gets swept under the rug. Why? What are you all afraid of or who are you all afraid of?”
Hoppf asked the council members to do their due diligence.
“We the people voted you all in,” she said. “The continuous blatant lies by the mayor need to stop. I’m asking each of you to stand up and stop the nefarious behavior being conducted right under your noses.
“I’m requesting for a public hearing into the deceitfulness and ongoing unethical practices going on within our own government,” Hoppf continued. “Each of you is accountable for all actions taken. When can we begin to trust all of you? It’s time to clean house and replace each one of you if you can not stand up, investigate and request the resignation of the mayor. It’s time to put community and the citizens first.”
Adams, who also is a small-business owner, said he became concerned with Peterson’s behavior after learning about the latest alleged ethics violation.
“With the amount of taxpayer money on the line, the last thing I believe we need is a mayor who is dishonest even if certain actions seem mundane,” Adams said. “It limits the confidence that she is acting in good faith in other areas with regards to this position.
“The people of Gilbert deserve a Council where its members stand up and hold each other accountable for their actions. So I’m asking that this ethics complaint be taken seriously and the people of Gilbert get the respect they deserve.”
Town spokeswoman Jennifer Harrison said Torgeson’s latest complaint was still under review by Payne’s Office.
“Once the review of the complaint and attachments are complete, the Attorneys’ Office will either request an independent investigation or prepare a recommendation for the Town Council,” she said in an email.
Gilbert last year paid $22,080 to investigate the five allegations of ethics violations against Peterson.