Fresno County Superior Court’s presiding judge said county officials are lying and impeding the probe into Probation Chief Rick Chavez, who was placed on administrative leave in April by the court.
In an email to her fellow judges Friday afternoon, Judge Kimberly Gaab said that the county’s “false statements” are affecting the way the “press perceives this investigation.”
The one-page email obtained by The Bee said that neither Gaab nor anyone in the Superior Court system ever indicated the investigation would take as little as five to 10 days.
“Contrary to the statements of the County Administrative Officer (Jean Rousseau) to the Board of Supervisors, neither I nor anyone from the court advised that the investigation would be concluded in five to 10 days,” Gaab wrote in the email. “Nor did we disclose the nature of any information about the allegations against Mr. Chavez.”
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According to a letter to Chavez from the judges’ investigator, the allegations against Chavez include misconduct and performance issues.
In a conference call with two other judges on April 13, Gaab said, “the court could not give the county a time estimate for the length of time of their investigation.”
An initial one-week delay occurred at the request of a lawyer representing Chavez, she added.
Rousseau said he spoke with Gaab early in the investigation and was told the investigation wouldn’t take long.
He told supervisors last month that Gaab said it would be two weeks. On Tuesday, he said he doesn’t recall an exact time frame, only that “I was led to believe it would be a very short time period so the administrative leave would be reasonable.”
Neither I nor anyone from the court advised that the investigation would be concluded in five to 10 days.
Kimberly Gaab, Fresno County Superior Court presiding judge
County Counsel Dan Cederborg said he also was told by the Superior Court’s lawyer, Joseph Wiley, that the investigation wouldn’t take long.
“He told us to hold off for 10 days to two weeks ‘so we can get done what we need to get done,’ ” Cederborg said.
Cederborg said he didn’t think the investigation could be done that quickly because of its complexity.
The investigation was underway for two months before county supervisors gave probation employees the option of whether to be interviewed by the judges’ investigative team. In April, supervisors and county officials had told employees they must cooperate with the judges’ probe.
Supervisors and county officials say the investigation has led to sagging morale and divisiveness among probation employees.
The court’s investigator interviewed more than 20 employees about Chavez, some for several hours and some for more than a day, Gaab told fellow judges in the email.
When supervisors gave employees the option of not participating in interviews, the investigation was impeded, she wrote.
The supervisors’ action came after probation officers, including Rosalinda Acosta-Mabrey, Chavez’s second-in-command, received Peace Officer Bill of Rights notices from the judges’ investigator. The notices are required if an officer’s actions could be part of the investigation.
Cederborg said that once employees began getting the notices, they became concerned they were targets of the investigation even though the judges can’t discipline them. Any employee disciplinary issues must be heard by the county’s Civil Service Commission, he said.
We waited two months for this. It was difficult for us to watch from the sidelines.
Jean Rousseau, Fresno County administrative officer
Three days after the supervisors’ decision, the judges’ investigator released a list of 10 allegations against Chavez, which came out before he had been interviewed by the investigator. His interview, originally scheduled for last month, is supposed to occur this week.
In her email, Gaab said Acosta-Mabrey was going to be asked questions that could lead to discipline against her and that she had a right to be represented by a lawyer. Gaab pointed out that only the county could discipline Acosta-Mabrey.
Only the probation chief is under the court’s jurisdiction. All other employees and operations of the probation department are under the county. The county also pays Chavez’s $139,020 annual salary.
Cederborg said the court’s interest in making Acosta-Mabrey an investigative target, even though it has no disciplinary power over her position, strayed from the court’s original plan to focus on Chavez.
The county’s action not to require employees to be interviewed cost the court’s investigator an opportunity to interview Acosta-Mabrey, a potentially pivotal person in the investigation.
“Everybody was told they weren’t targets, and then they got notices (to appear),” Cederborg said. “It was the opposite of what we told employees when we told them nobody else was the target of the investigation.”
Cederborg said he received copies of the notices, and he didn’t want it to seem that he approved the interviews, which is why the county told employees they could opt out.
Rousseau said that after his initial conversation with Gaab early in the investigation, he called her back the following day to ask if the judges were looking at performance issues or if Chavez did something wrong.
Since Chavez had 32 years in the department, he said, the judges should have asked for his resignation if the problem was performance-related.
County officials didn’t learn about the allegations until the June 17 letter outlining them was released.
“We waited two months for this,” Rousseau said. “It was difficult for us to watch from the sidelines.”
In a brief statement, Wiley said Tuesday that the email was a confidential communication between the presiding judge and the Superior Court judges.
“As such it would not be prudent for me to comment on it,” Wiley said. “This is a confidential personnel investigation and is not a matter for public debate.”
Fresno County Superior Court spokeswoman Sherry Spears said the court “will not comment on or debate information provided by the public regarding a confidential personnel matter.”
This is a confidential personnel investigation and is not a matter for public debate.
Joseph Wiley, lawyer representing Fresno County Superior Court
Three allegations against Chavez involved several employees over matters that were addressed by Chavez’s predecessor, Linda Penner, said his lawyer, Barry Bennett. Two allegations involved portions of a consultant’s report on use of force that were revised by Chavez or ignored. Bennett said there is no requirement for recommendations to be incorporated into department policy.
Two allegations concerned internal policies about a more lax dress code for officers when they weren’t in the field and allowing officers to store their weapons while they work. In a separate allegation, Chavez was allegedly overheard saying he was going to deal more with state issues and less with day-to-day probation department issues. Bennett said state issues were demanding more attention from Chavez, but his statement was misinterpreted because he wasn’t planning to leave major decisions to others.
Chavez also was criticized for his inability to hire juvenile corrections officers quickly enough to meet turnover rates. Bennett said the county’s low salaries and reduced benefits in recent years have made hiring difficult.
The final allegation involved Chavez’s use of expletives in referring to the Superior Court and other public officials, which he denies, Bennett said.