It was my first day on the job as a reporter for the Herald Democrat when I received a tip about Fernando Mendoza. I didn’t know who the undersheriff was; I barely knew how to answer my office phone.
“Mendoza is being investigated for sexual harassment,” an anonymous voice said before hanging up.
I never knew Mendoza as a working professional. To me, he is a bent-over shadow in the courtroom, a subject of my reporting, a representation of power turned rotten.
But I did know Rod Fenske. I worked with him on-and-off for the last year of his tenure as sheriff — a year he should not have held public office.
After the Mendoza scandal broke in 2017, LCSO hired an independent legal service to complete an internal investigation into the dispatchers’ sexual harassment allegations.
In the months that followed, Fenske’s administration turned down several Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act requests made by the Herald Democrat, and others, for a copy of the investigator’s report. Fenske told us the report’s disclosure would be “contrary to the public interest.” Our hands were tied.
One federal lawsuit, two subpoenas and 26 months later, it is now clear that someone tampered with the report. Each reference to Fenske’s conduct was removed from the version of the report that originally landed in the hands of the Board of County Commissioners in 2017 and the dispatchers’ legal team in 2019.
The original report incriminated not only Mendoza but Fenske himself. Witnesses interviewed during the investigation reported that the sheriff exposed certain female LCSO employees to inappropriate stories, name-calling and touch.
So now, I ask, was it “contrary to the public interest” to withhold the internal investigation from our community? Or was it simply contrary to Fenske’s interest? Was it right, just, or fair, for Fenske to finish out his term as sheriff on our taxpayer dollars?
No one can know what would have occurred if the Herald Democrat or the Board of County Commissioners had received the complete report in 2017, but a recall or a resignation seems likely.
Last week, the dispatchers reached a $875,000 settlement with Lake County Government. Though Lake County’s liability insurance will cover the cost of the settlement, no one is sure how the lawsuit will affect insurance premiums in years to come.
I hope the settlement allows Nicole Garner, Chelsa Parsons and Maria Chavez to close the door on a tough chapter of their lives. I also hope Lake County Government can move forward with clear human resource policies and a strong system of checks and balances.
Throughout 2018, I heard from various people that Fenske could not have been complicit in the sexual harassment, or even the jail billing malfeasance that cost local inmates over $16,000, because he was never at work.
Absence is not an excuse for an elected official. And now, we know Fenske’s alleged wrongdoings extended beyond his apathy.
It looks like the former sheriff got lucky. Or perhaps he made his own luck.