An executive committee of Fresno County Superior Court judges told Rick Chavez this month they want him removed as probation chief, accusing him of being dishonest, exercising poor judgment and exhibiting bad leadership.
The judges also say Chavez is disrespectful to them because he uses profanity in front of subordinates when he gets frustrated with the judicial bench and politicians such as Sheriff Margaret Mims and former District Attorney Elizabeth Egan.
And a nightclub owned and operated by Probation Department employees that the judges say is erotic-themed has led to a violation of department policy.
Club Legends on Maroa Avenue in Fresno is owned by probation officer Ray Martinez. Assistant Chief Rosalinda Acosta works at Club Legends, even though she supervises Martinez. At the nightclub, Martinez is Acosta’s boss.
But Chavez and his lawyer, Barry Bennett, contend the allegations against him are phony and are designed to smear Chavez’s reputation so the judges can fire him.
Whereas Chavez’s $139,020 salary is paid by Fresno County, his employment is under the judges’ control.
In his first interview since being put on paid leave in April, Chavez pulled no punches, giving The Bee confidential documents regarding his potential termination and saying the judges are acting on insufficient evidence supplied by an anonymous department employee.
In a nutshell, Chavez said he hasn’t gotten a fair shake from the judges.
Before he could address the allegations, Chavez said, the judges asked him to resign immediately. In exchange, Chavez said the judges promised not to reveal the allegations to the public so he would be able to enjoy his six-figure pension without suspicion hanging over his head.
But after mulling over the offer for a week, Chavez declined, telling the judges that he did nothing wrong.
Defending his honor
“They go off an anonymous letter and accused me of willful misconduct and didn’t even have the courtesy to talk to me about it,” said Chavez, who is 59.
“They have treated me like a doormat and besmirched my name and reputation,” he said. “After 32 years of public service, I don’t have to put up with this. I have a right to prove I am innocent.”
The public fight between the judges and Chavez is rare because it involves a confidential personnel matter. More importantly, judges typically do things such as carve out rulings and make judgments behind closed doors before revealing them in an open courtroom.
I want to go back so bad and put the department on the right track and heal these wounds and heal these divisions.
Probation Chief Rick Chavez who is on paid leave
Chavez, however, says he has nothing to hide and is willing to fight publicly to keep his job, even if it means puncturing the sanctity of the judicial bench and calling the judges out for being unfair to him.
He was named probation chief on Aug. 5, 2013, overseeing a department that has more than 600 employees and a $75 million budget. Chavez said he had 30 letters of recommendations, including from Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer, Mims and Egan.
He said he waited to speak out because he didn’t want to interfere with the judges’ investigation of him. But once the investigation was completed in late July, he said he discovered the investigator relied on information from department employees who dislike him for policy changes he made.
Chavez said he cooperated with the investigation, giving two tape-recorded interviews that lasted more than 10 hours. But the investigator either left out evidence that exonerated him or minimized its importance, he said.
“It was a one-sided report that was outcome-driven,” Chavez said. “The judges wanted a certain outcome and that’s what the report gave them. I am very disappointed in the whole process so far.”
Chavez said he is not upset with all 43 judges on the Superior Court bench – just the ones on the executive committee who voted unanimously to recommend his termination: Presiding Judge Kimberly Gaab and Judges Alan Simpson, Jonathan Conklin, Gary Hoff, Kimberly Nystrom-Geist, Mark Snauffer, D. Tyler Tharpe and Arlan Harrell.
Without naming names, Chavez said some of the judges are out to get him. The others are being misled by his critics on the bench and by the faulty investigative report, he said.
Through the court spokesperson, the judges referred questions to their lawyer, Joseph Wiley of the Bay Area law firm of Wiley Price & Radulovich. In a telephone interview, Wiley said the eight judges unanimously stand together in their intent to fire Chavez. “The allegations are not phony,” he said, noting that Chavez has until Aug. 15 to appeal.
In fact, Wiley said, Chavez’s misdeeds are clearly spelled out in an Aug. 2 letter to Chavez that serves as a notice of intent to fire him, a confidential document that eight judges signed. Chavez gave the letter to The Bee on condition that it not be reproduced online.
The allegations are not phony.
Attorney Joseph Wiley, who represents the judges
The judges based their findings on an investigation by Masa Shiohira, who also works at Wiley Price & Radulovich. Shiohira says in his July 25 report (which Chavez also gave to The Bee) that the judges hired him on April 7 and that he interviewed 25 people, including Chavez, from April 21 to July 8 and reviewed nearly three dozen documents.
Department workers own, operate Club Legends
Rankling the judges is what they call an erotic-themed nightclub called Club Legends on Maroa Avenue in Fresno that is owned by probation officer Ray Martinez. The letter says Chavez approved Assistant Chief Rosalinda Acosta working at Club Legends, even though she supervises Martinez. At the nightclub, Martinez is Acosta’s boss.
The letter accuses Chavez of being dishonest, saying he told an investigator that he learned of Martinez’s ownership of the club in April this year after he was placed on administrative leave. But the report says Chavez knew of the club as early as September 2015.
“County policy precludes any outside employment that creates a conflict of interest with an employee’s duties as a county employee,” the letter says. “There are no exceptions.”
Chavez said he was only joking when he told the investigator that he learned about Martinez’s club in April. He also said Martinez started the club around 2009 under former probation chief Linda Penner and operated another nightclub before that without any criticism within the department or from the judges.
“It is not against department policy,” Chavez said.
Regarding Acosta’s role at the club, Chavez said he told her it was OK with him as long as there were no complaints. He said the anonymous letter was the first time someone complained about the club. Regardless of the complaint, Chavez said: “What employees do in their off time is up to them.”
Chavez’s hiring practices criticized
Chavez also is accused of failing to address staffing vacancies at the Juvenile Justice Center south of Fresno and failing to inform his bosses about it. This has led to “a severe erosion of morale among Probation Department employees,” the letter says.
Chavez said he had a plan in place to hire more juvenile correctional officers. He said the number of vacancies grew because the county allocated 20 new positions. He also said it is difficult to hire good juvenile correction officers, because after a few years they transfer or get promoted to better jobs. Chavez said he provided documents to the investigator to support his position, but he said his information didn’t make the final report.
“They make it sound like there’s a crisis out there, but there isn’t,” he said.
Chavez also is accused of poor judgment for hiring Probation Services Manager Melissa Madsen to handle personnel matters. “You assigned Ms. Madsen to handle department-wide personnel matters even though her husband, his brother and his sister-in-law all work for the department, which created a conflict of interest and posed a high risk of chilling employees from bringing forth complaints and/or concerns … concerning Ms. Madsen’s family members,” the letter says.
Chavez said it upsets him that Madsen has been dragged into the investigation because she does a good job. He also said probation employees know their rights. “They are smart people and highly educated,” he said. “There’s no chilling effect, because if they want to file a complaint, they will.”
If a complaint were to involve one of Madsen’s relatives, she would have no say in the complaint’s outcome, Chavez said.
The other allegations are just as absurd, he said, including one that says he directed grant writer Kay Hickman to falsify documents on behalf of the probation department to get state money.
Chavez admitted that he does curse but only during meetings with his executive staff. He said he doesn’t recall cursing about judges, Mims or Egan in front of subordinates.
The letter also accuses Chavez of handing off his daily duties to Acosta and failing to inform the presiding judge. In the letter, the judges contend Chavez said he did not need to get the court’s permission to make the change but intended to inform Gaab as a “courtesy.”
Chavez bristled at the allegation: “I’m the chief and Rosalinda is the assistant chief.”
He said he promoted Acosta in January because he needed help running the department. He said Acosta handles the mundane day-to-day duties, such as fielding complaints and making sure probation officers meet their appointments. Chavez said he handles “big-picture” issues such as where probation officers should be allocated, overseeing the budget and initiating new programs.
“I have never given up my duties. She has her job, and I have mine,” he said.
When he was hired, Chavez said, he and then-Presiding Judge Gary Hoff had an understanding. Chavez said Hoff told him that he could run the department without interference but wanted to be kept informed if something serious happened. Chavez said he thought that process continued to be acceptable when Conklin took over for Hoff and then Gaab took over for Conklin.
“Then out of the blue I get hit with this anonymous complaint,” he said.
Board of Supervisors at odds with judges
County supervisors have said they oppose Chavez’s administrative leave status, saying his absence has hurt morale because of animosity between employee factions within the department – those who support Chavez and those who support Mike Elliott, who is currently interim probation chief. Elliott has close ties with at least three judges, including Gaab, Conklin and Judge Hilary Chittick.
Because the judges have kept the Board of Supervisors out of the loop on why they are taking action against Chavez, the supervisors in June voted to put a charter amendment on November’s ballot seeking county jurisdiction over the probation chief’s position. The board also voted to hire a law firm to investigate the allegations against Chavez.
“Our investigation found nothing wrong with Rick or how he runs the department,” Board Chairman Buddy Mendes said Friday.
Since Chavez was put on paid leave, Mendes said, supervisors have asked the judges to meet with them, but they have refused. Instead, the judges have deferred the supervisors’ questions to Wiley.
Our investigation found nothing wrong with Rick or how he runs the department.
Board of Supervisors chairman Buddy Mendes
“I thought it odd that the judges ‘lawyered up,’ ” Mendes said.
Supervisors plan to talk about Chavez’s fight with the judges in closed session at Tuesday’s board meeting, Mendes said.
This is not the first time supervisors have tangled with the judges.
Four years ago, the judges decided to close seven satellite courthouses and consolidate services in downtown Fresno, a move that supervisors and other critics said severely impacted poor and rural county residents.
At a public forum in July 2012, Supervisor Debbie Poochigian criticized Hoff, who was presiding judge at the time. “This is so contrary to access to justice that everyone talks about,” Poochigian said. “The Board of Supervisors makes decisions in public. You did it behind closed doors.”
But Hoff said the bench was limited by a state budget that doesn’t allow for as wide a net of public services as it once did. “We cannot operate those branch courts anymore,” he said. “They’re not cost-effective.”
In his interview with The Bee, Chavez said he was grateful for the support he’s gotten from the supervisors. His attorney, Bennett, maintains that the eight judges have rushed to judgment. After being put on administrative leave, Chavez’s name disappeared from the Probation Department’s letterhead and the county’s website, the lawyer said. But after Bennett complained, he said, Chavez’s name reappeared.
Chavez: Made enemies while running department
While Bennett and Chavez declined to name his enemies in the department, Chavez said he identified them to the investigator and talked about their motives. But his concerns never made the report, Chavez said.
One of his concerns, Chavez said, was that after he became chief, he learned that some department employees had side jobs of giving gun safety lessons. These employees would take paid leave from the county and then be paid by an outside employer under county contract to teach gun safety to probation employees.
“Rick put a stop to this because he believed they were double-dipping,” Bennett said.
Another thing that angered Chavez’s critics was that he picked Acosta over Elliott for assistant chief, especially since Gaab, Conklin and Chittick had endorsed Elliott for the job, Bennett said.
In his three years as chief, Chavez said, he has done many things to improve the department and help the community, including reintroducing probation officers to Fresno’s elementary schools to work with at-risk kids at no extra cost to taxpayers. He also was project coordinator for the Juvenile Justice Center when it was completed in 2006.
But he also made policy changes that the judges took issue with, including implementing a new dress code that allows probation employees to dress in office clothing instead of the standard probation uniform and tactical gear. Chavez also was criticized for allowing probation officers to store their weapons while working in the office. The judges’ letter says the storing of weapons is a violation of department policy and a safety issue. The new dress standard also impacts the safety of officers, the letter says.
But Chavez said he never heard complaints about the storage of guns and the new dress code until it was mentioned in the anonymous letter.
He said the reason he made the changes is because wearing a gun around the waist can become irksome when sitting at a desk to write a report. He also said people on probation and their families who come to the probation office can be intimidated by an officer with a gun when it is the job of the probation department to help these people.
He changed the dress code for the same reason, to put people at ease when they meet their probation officer, Chavez said, noting that officers who go out into the field already know to wear their uniform, gun, bullet-proof vest and tactical gear.
“I am dealing with a culture that is hard to change,” Chavez said. “I want to go back so bad and put the department on the right track and heal these wounds and heal these divisions.”