Jun. 10—The city of Arvin has accused Mayor Olivia Trujillo of possibly committing unemployment insurance fraud. Meanwhile, Trujillo is firing back by claiming the accusations are an act of political retaliation in response to her efforts to cut costs at City Hall.
In a letter to the Employment Development Department dated May 20, former City Manager Richard Breckenridge says Trujillo may have committed fraud by submitting an unemployment claim against the city of Arvin.
But Trujillo says the unemployment claim she filed in spring of last year stemmed from her inability to work as a door-to-door kitchenware saleswoman, an occupation she said she could no longer perform due to the pandemic.
"The truth is, I've never committed any type of fraud," she said. "As a matter of fact, it was the pandemic unemployment assistance program because of my medical condition. I wasn't able to work like I usually do."
Trujillo said she has been battling cancer since 2010, and was recently diagnosed with a resurgence. She said her doctor told her not to continue with her job as an independent saleswoman, and she contracted COVID-19 in July, which caused her to be in quarantine for the entire month.
"To me it's defamation of character," she said of the accusation. "I wasn't notified from our city attorney that was getting paid to protect the council and the city. He could have called me instead of throwing the ball to the city manager, who didn't notify me at all about this. I just feel that this was just retaliation."
Trujillo was first elected to the Arvin City Council in 2018, where she received a $300 per month stipend. In December, she was sworn in as mayor, receiving a $900 per month stipend. In total, she says she received over $3,000 in unemployment benefits, the last payment of which she received in March.
She claims her and the council's recent efforts to cut costs led to a split between her and some city staff.
It is unclear when and how the city became aware of Trujillo's unemployment claim. On Thursday, Interim City Manager Jeff Jones did not respond to requests for comment. Interim City Attorney Nathan Hodges likewise did not return a request for comment. Breckenridge could not be reached for comment.
In documents provided to the city through a public records act request, EDD first sent a "notice of amount due" to the city related to Trujillo's claim in August 2020, claiming the city owed $940.97. EDD sent two follow-up notices in November and May, adding $1,190.96 in charges.
The city first protested the charges in a letter dated May 6.
The city's May 20 letter suggests Trujillo used wages from her City Council and mayor stipend on her unemployment claim. The letter says the unemployment claim merits further investigation by EDD.
"Ms Trujillo has never been an employee of the city and during her term as a City Councilperson or Mayor has never been 'unemployed,'" the letter states. "The provision of unemployment insurance benefits to a local elected official is specifically forbidden by state law."
The state unemployment department would not comment on the matter. In an email to The Californian, a spokesperson said confidentiality laws prevented the department from commenting on any potential letter or accusation.
Arvin City Hall has gone through turmoil recently. In late May, former City Manager Breckenridge resigned. Former City Attorney Shannon Chaffin's contract with the city was terminated on April 27.
When asked about the termination, Chaffin responded by saying it had been a pleasure working with the community.
The council itself has also experienced a resignation within the year. Former Councilwoman Jazmin Robles resigned in April. She said at the time she wanted to focus on her job as a teacher.
Thus far, Trujillo says she has not heard from EDD and she does not expect to suffer politically from the accusation.
"The people elected me to serve. They know me. I've been in Arvin for over 53 years. I've been honest and transparent. I've done nothing else but bring resources to Arvin," she said. "We're going to be OK now that these people are gone. We're going to replace them with respectful people. It's not going to affect me politically in any way shape or form."
You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.