Maria Chavez and Nicole Garner sit down with Advocates of Lake County staff in December 2017. Chavez, Garner and Chelsa Parsons are set to receive a $875,000 settlement from Lake County Government.

Lake County Government will pay former Lake County Sheriff’s Office dispatchers Nicole Garner, Chelsa Parsons and Maria Chavez $875,000 to settle the women’s civil lawsuit. The settlement comes over two years after the dispatchers first accused former Undersheriff Fernando Mendoza of sexually harassing them.

The lawsuit contends that Mendoza, as well as former Sheriff Rod Fenske, routinely exposed Garner, Parsons and Chavez to sexual comments, jokes, texts and touching. The women also say they faced retaliation from members of Fenske’s administration after going public with their stories.

All three of the dispatchers resigned from LCSO during 2017 and 2018; each identified harassment and retaliation as their reasons for leaving. Garner and Chavez were rehired by Sheriff Amy Reyes in 2019 and Chavez still works for the office.

Mendoza, on the other hand, was fired shortly after the women brought their allegations to the media. A few weeks later, the former undersheriff was arrested. Mendoza is now serving a 15-month prison sentence for attempted incest and invasion of privacy for sexual gratification in regard to his former stepdaughter.

Garner, Parsons and Chavez filed suit against Lake County a week after Mendoza’s conviction. Law firm Rathod Mohamedbhai requested unspecified damages on behalf of the dispatchers, citing unlawful sex discrimination, retaliation and violations of their rights to free speech and equal protection.

About six months into the lawsuit, Rathod Mohamebhai discovered that someone had removed all Fenske-related findings from a 2017 internal investigation into the sexual harassment allegations. The tampered report was the only copy provided to the Board of County Commissioners in 2017, the lawsuit says.

The untampered report was recovered by Rathod Mohamebhai’s subpoenas last summer alongside 800-some pages of documents and 14 audio recordings that were previously withheld from the plaintiffs.

According to internal investigator Karen Sprole’s original report, witnesses said Fenske exposed them to stories about his sexual experiences while serving overseas in the Vietnam War, his sexual encounters with his wife and his use of Viagra. Others reported that Fenske called them pet names like “little girl” and gave unwanted massages.

“I find by a preponderance of the evidence that Sheriff Fenske has made inappropriate comments regarding sex,” Sprole wrote in the original report.

According to court documents, Sprole’s Fenske-related findings were successfully concealed from the BOCC and the public and Fenske finished out his term as sheriff.

“It is outside the bounds of acceptable behavior that the results of an allegedly neutral, tax-payer funded investigation into sexual harassment at LCSO were tampered with so as to conceal some of the findings from other public officials and, ultimately, from the public,” Rathod Mohamedbhai attorney Iris Halpern told the Herald. “It should not have taken a federal lawsuit, third-party subpoenas and multiple written and oral arguments in court, to reveal this information.”

The dispatchers’ settlement is covered by Lake County’s liability insurance; the $875,000 sum will not come from the county’s general fund.

“We are relieved that we can come to a resolution on the matter and move forward,” Commissioner Kayla Marcella said of the settlement. The BOCC does not know how the lawsuit will impact the county’s insurance premiums at this time.

Marcella also thanked Sheriff Amy Reyes for maintaining a zero-tolerance policy for workplace harassment.

“My philosophy is that administrators have to model compliance with policies and procedures in order to have organizational-wise compliance,” Reyes told the Herald.

The settlement closes the door on Garner’s, Parsons’ and Chavez’s legal battle, a fight they say was not only about money but accountability and justice.

“What makes me feel like this was all worth it was the changes our allegations brought to LCSO,” Parsons said. “I am happy that the case catapulted sexual harassment into the spotlight and brought much needed attention to the issue.”

“This case taught me that it is okay to advocate for yourself,” Garner added. “You never know who you might be helping by using your voice.”

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