Fresno County supervisors agreed to pay Probation Chief Rick Chavez $100,000 to avoid liability in a potential lawsuit.
Because of the payment, Chavez will waive claims against Fresno County for any role it played during his administrative leave in cooperating with the Fresno County Superior Court’s investigation of him.
Chavez, 59, a 32-year probation employee, was placed on administrative leave with pay in April. He returned to his job Monday after Fresno County Superior Court judges voted Friday to retain him.
He was placed on leave by Fresno County Superior Court Presiding Judge Kimberly Gaab pending an investigation triggered by an anonymous letter.
County officials cooperated for the first two months of the Superior Court’s investigation. But in June, when supervisors sensed that the investigation was lagging and morale was deteriorating in the probation department, they told county employees they no longer had to cooperate with the investigation.
The judges can hire and fire the probation chief under state law, but the county oversees probation department operations and costs and pays the chief’s salary. Supervisors have placed a measure on November’s ballot to give the county hiring and firing power over the probation chief’s position in consultation with Fresno County Superior Court judges.
While Chavez was on administrative leave, the county paid him about $60,000. The county also hired its own law firm to interview probation department employees to ensure there was no retaliation occurring. County Counsel Dan Cederborg said he expects the county’s cost for the law firm’s interviews and investigation to be about $30,000.
The benefit that the county gets is that we don’t remain exposed to any liability.
Dan Cederborg, Fresno County counsel
Between Chavez’s salary, the costs for the law firm and the settlement, the county has paid about $190,000. Those amounts don’t include costs to the county’s personnel department, county counsel, administration and other offices that participated in the process. Cederborg said the county doesn’t tally those costs, which became part of the routine work day.
And, even though Chavez has returned to work, it doesn’t mean legal action is out of the question.
By agreeing to the settlement, the county is avoiding getting hit later with an even larger penalty from a civil suit, officials said.
“The benefit that the county gets is that we don’t remain exposed to any liability,” said Dan Cederborg, Fresno County counsel.
“We basically paid his legal fees,” said Fresno County Board Chairman Buddy Mendes, referring to the $100,000 settlement.
Meanwhile, The Bee is seeking an accounting of all costs paid by the Fresno County Superior Court in its investigation of Chavez.
A lawsuit filed on behalf of a Lassen County probation chief after she was fired by a judge nearly 20 years ago caught the attention of Fresno County officials and may have led to votes by Fresno County judges to retain Chavez.
Kathryn Ann Dieter was fired by a Lassen County judge only a few days after he took over as presiding judge. The judge, along with two county employees, were deemed personally liable for the firing. A jury eventually ruled in favor of Dieter in a wrongful termination case, saying she deserved $3 million for damages and emotional distress and $466,159 for wrongful termination.
Dieter, now 74, told The Bee that she had no warning after the new judge arrived that she would lose her job.
“He called me into his office at 11 a.m. and told me to be gone by noon,” she said. “He didn’t give a reason.”
Dieter, whose family were pioneers in the Susanville area, said she lived with a stigma of being fired until the jury’s decision in her favor.
“When he fired me, I just went blank for a couple months,” she said. “This is a small community and, of course, it was all over the paper.”
Dieter ran a small office, and it was her responsibility to write probation reports, she said.
An analysis filed in U.S. District Court said that the judge, Stephen D. Bradbury, would have had immunity if he had fired Dieter for “good cause,” but the jury found that was not the case.
I hope the county never forgets it.
Kathryn Dieter, former Lassen County probation chief
“I hope the county never forgets it,” Dieter said.
Barry Bennett, Chavez’s lawyer, said that many Fresno County judges were aware of the Lassen County case, but he is unsure whether it had any effect on the judges’ votes.
During their investigation, the judges said Chavez was slow to start a pretrial release program for inmates modeled after a program in the federal court system and wasn’t working hard enough to develop a new county drug court after Proposition 47 was approved, which reduced many felony and misdemeanor counts and reduced the number of people going to drug court.
But Chavez was supported by District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp and Dawan Utecht, county Behavioral Health director, who said Chavez was working diligently to address both issues.
Judge Jonathan Conklin contended that he was monitoring Chavez’s progress on both programs, but county administrators John Navarrette, who retired in October, and his replacement, Jean Rousseau, said they were never alerted to any discipline threatened against Chavez by the judges.
Those allegations were in addition to a list outlined by the judges’ investigator of improper weapons policy and dress code, an alleged falsified report and a ceding of power by Chavez to his deputy so he could focus on state issues.
The judges also were concerned about the slowness in hiring juvenile corrections officers, issues with employees working second jobs and conflicts of interest involving other employees.