The Fresno County Probation Department is the focus of a sexual-discrimination investigation that targets the administrator who took over last year from embattled chief Rick Chavez.
The county Board of Supervisors earlier approved paying $25,000 to investigate sexual-discrimination charges made against Michael Elliott. The third in command in the probation department, Elliott became chief after Chavez was placed on administrative leave for five months beginning in April 2016.
This week the supervisors added $25,000 to investigate allegations made by Elliott. He filed an internal complaint against Chavez and Rosalinda Acosta, who is second-highest ranking. Elliott earlier this year charged that Acosta and Chavez retaliated against him, according to internal county documents obtained by The Bee.
Chavez was placed on administrative leave last year by the Fresno County Superior Court judges’ executive committee over concerns about his management of the department. Chavez’s leave ended in September when a majority of county judges voted to reinstate him.
Fresno County Counsel Dan Cederborg said the law firm was hired to keep county probation investigators and the county counsel’s office from conducting the investigation and to preserve objectivity. The complaints, he said, are personnel matters and he wouldn’t comment.
Liebert, Cassidy Whitmore will investigate the charges and determine whether the discrimination complaint filed by three probation employees last fall – Acosta, Vicki Passmore, and Melissa Madsen-Downing – have merit.
Normally, what would happen in an investigation is that management would handle it but that’s not really possible given the atmosphere over there.
Dan Cederborg, Fresno County counsel
All three women were named in the investigation by the Fresno County Superior Court judges last year. Acosta is assistant chief probation officer. Passmore and Madsen-Downing are probation services managers.
In their complaint, filed in September, they said Elliott discriminated against them because they are women and he intended to replace them with “lesser qualified” men. They also said Elliott allowed or didn’t discourage use of “derogatory terms” to describe women employees, such as “bitches.”
Elliott’s January letter to the county said he was a victim of retaliation, harassment and a hostile work environment. Elliott said he “was wrongly accused of behavior that either never occurred, or was misrepresented solely to depict me in a bad light.”
His letter was written after Chavez announced reassigning his top assistants in early January. Elliott said he has been subject to harassment for more than two years.
Because of the competing claims, Fresno County officials don’t want to be accused of taking sides.
“Normally, what would happen in an investigation is that (department) management would handle it, but that’s not really possible given the atmosphere over there,” Cederborg said.
Barry Bennett, who represents the three women and was Chavez’s lawyer after he was suspended, said the county could have investigated, but was more concerned about getting into the middle of the probation office’s political battles.
“I understand they don’t want to take sides in an internal dispute, but they also have a duty to enforce the law and I don’t think they’ve done that,” he said.
The latest fallout adds to a $365,000 tab picked up by taxpayers last year during the Chavez investigation, which placed county officials and the judges’ executive committee on opposite sides because supervisors said the Chavez investigation didn’t turn up wrongdoing.
The investigation by the judges’ executive committee cost $177,013. Fresno County, which continued paying Chavez while he was on leave, paid for its own investigation, and also paid Chavez $100,000 to avoid legal liability, a total of about $188,000.