Fresno County’s embattled and suspended probation chief gained additional support last week in court declarations filed by the district attorney and county behavioral health director.
Rick Chavez, who has been on administrative leave nearly five months after being suspended by Fresno County Presiding Judge Kimberly Gaab, also has the support of Jean Rousseau, the county administrative officer, and John Navarrette, who retired as county administrative officer last October.
The controversy may be nearing its conclusion.
On Wednesday afternoon, Gaab emailed a confidential memo to fellow judges canceling a Thursday meeting to discuss Chavez’s dismissal because she felt the process was tainted by leaks from Chavez’s lawyer, Barry Bennett, and stories in The Fresno Bee that highlighted what she described as “attorney-client communication.”
Declarations obtained by The Bee were filed a week ago 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.
Judge Jonathan Conklin, who preceded Gaab as presiding judge, contends that he was monitoring Chavez’s progress on two programs he wanted Chavez to get underway. But Navarrette and Rousseau said they were never alerted to any concerns about Chavez.
This month, the judges said they were specifically upset with Chavez’s tardiness in starting a pretrial release program for Fresno County Jail inmates. Conklin 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.
The updated allegations were in addition to a list that also includes improper weapons policy and dress code, potential conflicts of interest in the probation department, failure to quickly hire additional juvenile corrections officers, a state report that allegedly was falsified, and a ceding of day-to-day duties to his deputy so he could focus on state issues.
I was very surprised to hear that some judges were upset with Chief Chavez’s work toward funding and staffing the pretrial and drug court programs.
Lisa Smittcamp, Fresno County district attorney
In her declaration, Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcap said Chavez asked her about the federal pretrial program and ways to integrate it into the county’s system.
“I knew the federal program involved a far smaller volume of arrestees and had a much smaller number of persons than Fresno County would have to process,” she said.
Smittcamp said that Proposition 47, approved in 2014, had forced drug court changes since many crimes were reclassified from felonies to misdemeanors, and there was little incentive to go to court to stay out of jail.
Smittcamp said Chavez collaborated with her office and the Fresno County public defender to get funding for the new drug court.
“I was very surprised to hear that some judges were upset with Chief Chavez’s work toward funding and staffing the pretrial and drug court programs, and the speed with which those programs came to fruition,” Smittcamp said.
Smittcamp added: “From the standpoint of the district attorney’s office, the cooperation of Chief Chavez, despite obstacles raised by budget constraints, assisted greatly in the creation of both courts.”
In September 2015, Chavez was concerned about the drug court’s staffing, said Dawan Utecht, Fresno County’s behavioral health department director. She said her department was ready to assist with staff at Chavez’s request.
“I assured Chief Chavez that the court had not made me aware of any staffing concerns (for) the new drug court,” she said.
Utecht said she reassured Chavez that her department would provide additional funding and resources based on any increases in the numbers of participants.
“I was confused as to why the court kept informing Chief Chavez of its concerns regarding the staffing of probation officers for the new drug court, and I even told Chief Chavez that I thought he was being ‘paranoid’ because it was clear to me he was doing all he could to implement the new drug court.”
Even with fewer clients in the drug court after passage of Proposition 47, Utecht said, her department continued to contribute the same amount to pay for probation officer positions.
Chavez was placed on administrative leave with pay in April. He has been a county employee for 32 years and earns $139,020 per year. Chavez was replaced by Michael Elliott, who competed with him for the post in 2013.
Under state law and the Fresno County Charter, the judges can dismiss the probation chief in consultation with the county Board of Supervisors. The county funds the department, including the chief’s position, and oversees the department’s operations.
County officials said they weren’t aware of any issues related to Chavez after the judges identified problems outlined in an investigation that was sparked by an anonymous letter. Supervisors say the charges are insufficient for dismissal.
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.
A vote by all the Superior Court judges to determine Chavez’s fate is expected soon.
On Wednesday afternoon, Gaab emailed a confidential memo to the judges telling them she was concerned by leaks to Chavez, his lawyer and The Fresno Bee.
In the email obtained by The Bee, she canceled a Thursday meeting where judges were expected to discuss the situation.
She said the judges will vote on Chavez’s dismissal in the next week. It will take a majority of 43 Fresno County Superior Court judges to dismiss Chavez.
Gaab told judges that information leaked about the Chavez matter was “attorney-client communication.”
This has been a protracted process and a decision needs to be made.
Kimberly Gaab, Fresno County presiding judge
“Based on the history of disclosure of confidential information,” she said in canceling the meeting, “I have no mechanism to guarantee a frank, open and confidential discussion among the judges.”
She said she had no guarantees that leaks wouldn’t continue.
“Unfortunately, I would expect that everything said in the judges’ meeting, confidential or not, will be disclosed to Mr. Chavez, his attorney and The Fresno Bee in a manner that is distorted, edited and misrepresented,” Gaab said. “Under these circumstances, any meaningful, candid discussion cannot occur.”
Gaab suggested that there has been some disagreement among judges and alleged that Chavez’s lawyer, Barry Bennett, has a source inside the court leaking information.
“This has been a protracted process and a decision needs to be made,” she said.
Disorder in the court
The “protracted process” has angered county officials who oppose Chavez’s administrative leave and created morale issues in the probation department during his absence.
The process also points to discord among judges, some who may oppose dismissing Chavez because they don’t think a case has been made against him.
Bennett said the process has put on display a “court leadership that appears to be so disorganized.”
He said the Thursday meeting canceled by Gaab would have been an opportunity to discuss the situation, but she chose instead to cut off debate.
They will see there is no substance to the charges against Rick Chavez and certainly not enough to warrant his removal.
Barry Bennett, probation Chief Rick Chavez’s lawyer
“Hopefully, the extra time will give the judges an opportunity to read the investigation and read the response,” Bennett said. “If they do read it, they will see there is no substance to the charges against Rick Chavez and certainly not enough to warrant his removal.”
Fresno County Board of Supervisors Chairman Buddy Mendes said it appears the judges pushing for Chavez’s ouster “don’t even want to be transparent among themselves.”
He said it’s become apparent that the judges have shown they are incapable of leading a personnel investigation.
“This is a glaring example of why we need to change the charter,” Mendes said. “It sounds like the train to railroad Rick Chavez is building up steam.”