Rick Chavez, Fresno County’s suspended probation chief, will return to his job months after he was placed on administrative leave for an investigation.
Chavez, who gained support from two county administrators, the district attorney and behavioral health director in recent weeks, was retained as probation chief in a 25-18 vote by Fresno County Superior Court judges on Friday.
“He will be back to work Monday,” said Chavez’s lawyer, Barry Bennett. “We’re very pleased.”
Bennett said: “The judges saw there was so little to this, and after they read everything a majority of judges said maybe they got it wrong.”
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Chavez was placed on paid administrative leave in April by Fresno County Presiding Judge Kimberly Gaab. An investigation was started soon after, triggered by an anonymous letter.
In June, the judges issued an investigative report from the law firm that represents them. The report said Chavez developed improper weapons and dress code policies, had potential conflicts of interest in the Probation Department, failed to quickly hire additional juvenile corrections officers, falsified a report to the state and ceded day-to-day duties to his deputy so he could focus on state issues.
In late August, the judges added more allegations, saying they were specifically upset with Chavez’s tardiness in starting a pretrial release program for Fresno County Jail inmates.
Judge Jonathan Conklin, presiding judge before Gaab and, like Gaab a former federal prosecutor, said he wanted the program modeled after one in the federal court system. Chavez also was criticized for inadequately staffing the county’s drug court.
He will be back to work Monday.
Barry Bennett, Rick Chavez’s lawyer
When Chavez was placed on administrative leave, Gaab didn’t notify Fresno County supervisors or its top administrators that there were problems with Chavez.
The probation chief can be dismissed with a majority vote of judges, and such notification doesn’t need to occur, but county taxpayers fund the Probation Department and the county, not the Superior Court, pays Chavez’s $139,020 annual salary.
“The county is pleased the court carefully considered their decision,” Fresno County Counsel Dan Cederborg said. “Now, we will need to work together to assure the Probation Department and its employees can move forward in their service to the court and the public.”
Chavez was replaced on an interim basis by Michael Elliott. He also sought the probation chief position in 2013 when Chavez was named to the post.
Chavez has the support of Jean Rousseau, the county administrative officer, and John Navarrette, who retired as county administrative officer last October. Both said they were not advised of problems with Chavez and filed declarations with Chavez’s lawyer, Barry Bennett, to that effect.
Rousseau said Friday that he was pleased with the judges’ vote.
“This is not only good news for the county of Fresno and our Probation Department, but in particular, for Rick (Chavez) and his family,” Rousseau said. “I look forward to helping him address the problems in the Probation Department that were a result of this five-month protracted process.”
Declarations obtained by The Bee earlier this month were filed in response to the judges’ contentions that they had taken progressive disciplinary action against Chavez before placing him on administrative leave. In those declarations, county officials who interacted with Chavez said they had no knowledge of the judges’ dissatisfaction with him. They said Chavez seemed pressured about programs they were working on together.
District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp and Dawan Utecht, the county’s behavioral health director, said Chavez asked them regularly about pretrial release and drug court programs. They were unaware he was being told by judges to get those programs moving.
In a legal declaration, Smittcamp said the county’s pretrial release, which eventually got underway, was difficult to model after the federal system because the county has a significantly higher number of inmates.
Justice has been served. I hope we can put this unfortunate situation behind us and begin restoring the morale in our probation department.
Debbie Poochigian, Fresno County supervisor
Smittcamp said Friday she was glad to learn that Chavez was retained.
“I am very much looking forward to working with Chief Chavez again,” she said. “Our working relationship has always been positive, and I am confident the whole criminal justice system will move past this issue and continue to productively serve the citizens of Fresno County.”
Utecht said in her declaration that she didn’t understand why Chavez seemed “paranoid” about the drug court because there were fewer people going there after Proposition 47 passed. She said she thought he was doing all he could to provide funding for a new drug court.
Even with fewer clients in the drug court, Utecht said, her department continued to contribute the same amount to pay for probation officer positions.
Chavez said Friday he was looking forward to returning to work, “uniting the office and moving us forward.”
He said he appreciated the support of county supervisors, the county’s administration and the judges who voted to support him.
“The Board of Supervisors has been with me … and County Administrative Officer Rousseau has been nothing but gracious with me, as well as the department heads of the county,” he said. “I am thankful to the judges who supported me during this trying time and their willingness to step up and do the right thing.”
Chavez called his department the best in the state, and he wants to start fresh.
“I look forward to moving us beyond this,” he said. “I don’t hold any ill will toward anyone.”
Chavez said he received support from Fresno County leaders and encouragement from fellow chief probation officers across the state.
He also thanked his wife, Nancy, and their two sons.
“It’s been tough on my family,” he said. “They’ve endured a lot more than I had to, especially my sons who are constantly on social media. They were behind me 100 percent.”
I look forward to moving us beyond this. I don’t hold any ill will toward anyone.
Rick Chavez, Fresno County probation chief
Chavez’s administrative leave triggered a county effort to change the county charter that is on the November ballot. If approved, the probation chief would be under the supervision of Fresno County in consultation with the judges.
“This experience surely exemplifies why the county charter must be updated by the voters in November,” Supervisor Andreas Borgeas said. “Without separating the powers of the county and the judiciary, we are deprived of proper management and accountability.”
Fresno County Board of Supervisors Chairman Buddy Mendes said Friday he was “happy for Rick that he’s been vindicated.”
Supervisor Debbie Poochigian also was encouraged by the news.
“Justice has been served,” she said. “I hope we can put this unfortunate situation behind us and begin restoring the morale in our probation department.”
Gaab and the court’s lawyer, Joe Wiley, could not be reached for comment Friday.
On Friday afternoon, Gaab sent a brief letter to Chavez and his lawyer, Bennett, confirming the judges’ vote.
“The Judges of the Fresno County Superior Court, County of Fresno, have voted to retain you as the Fresno County Chief Probation Officer,” she wrote. “Accordingly, effective Monday morning, September 19, 2016, at 8 a.m., you will no longer be on administrative leave and are directed to return to your full duties as Fresno County Chief Probation Officer.”