Richard St. Marie, a candidate for Merced County treasurer-tax collector, was named in a civil lawsuit by a former Fresno County manager who claimed a “biased” internal investigation two years ago led to his termination.
The investigation was conducted by St. Marie, who is challenging Merced County Treasurer-Tax Collector Karen Adams in the June primary election. St. Marie has worked as director of administrative services for the Merced County Sheriff’s Department for 5 1/2 years.
Before his work at the Sheriff’s Department, St. Marie worked for eight years as chief of security for Fresno County’s Department of General Services.
According to court documents filed in Fresno Superior Court, St. Marie was selected in 2012 by Fresno County Administrative Officer John Navarrette to conduct an outside investigation into Fresno County’s labor relations manager, John Pinheiro.
Pinheiro’s attorney said Tuesday that St. Marie was dismissed from the case last year, but he could be renamed in the lawsuit because of his work on the internal investigation of his client.
St. Marie’s investigation, which began in May 2012, looked into allegations of sexual harassment and workplace violence by Pinheiro, according to court documents. St. Marie was not paid by Fresno County for his work on the case, which took about 40 hours.
After the investigation was complete, Pinheiro’s civil complaint says he was terminated for allegedly lying about having an affair with a county employee and about the number of personal cellphones he carried while at work. The complaint also says Pinheiro failed to disclose his part-time job at Club One Casino and may have revealed confidential personnel information.
The court documents claim Pinheiro was targeted by Navarrette and Beth Bandy, Fresno County’s director of personnel services, after he tried to “warn them of their illegal conduct” in trying to break the local chapter of the Service Employees International Union.
He also was alleged to have warned Fresno County officials against assisting the correctional officers in modifying their bargaining unit, breaking away from the SEIU, and becoming independent or joining with the Fresno Deputy Sheriff’s Association.
Russell Ryan, Pinheiro’s Fresno-based attorney, said Navarrette and Bandy had already decided to terminate his client and selected St. Marie because he was “the best guy to make sure that predetermined decision happened.”
“From what I understand, Navarrette literally just contacted his buddy St. Marie by telephone. This was very much outside of the norm,” Ryan said. “From what I understand, he (St. Marie) used to socialize and be drinking buddies with John Navarrette, and that’s why he was called in to do the investigation.”
Ryan also claimed St. Marie yelled at witnesses during questioning and misled them by saying he had certain documents that he didn’t have. Ryan said St. Marie also leaked information about the confidential investigation to outside sources before it was complete.
The court documents claim Pinheiro’s personal and professional reputations were significantly damaged, as well as relationships with his wife and other family members.
Michael Woods, Navarrette’s attorney, denied his client selected St. Marie to conduct the investigation based on a personal relationship.
“Mr. Navarrette denied they were ‘drinking buddies.’ He said they were at one social function together and it was work-related,” Woods said. “St. Marie was selected because he was experienced in conducting investigations, was no longer employed by Fresno County and could provide an objective perspective.”
Woods added that Fresno County’s civil service commission on April 15, 2013, reviewed Pinheiro’s appeal of his termination and upheld it, finding that the county had just cause to terminate his employment.
In an interview with the Sun-Star, St. Marie said he was named in the lawsuit because Pinheiro became disgruntled after losing his job. “I was pulled into it because the report I had submitted wasn’t favorable to this employee, and he lost his job as a result of it,” St. Marie said.
St. Marie denied yelling at witnesses or misleading them during the investigation.
“It’s common to tell people you have documents, and everything I referred to in the interview I had,” St. Marie said. “There’s also a civil code out there that says you can’t sue the investigator; otherwise, no one would do these investigations. So his lawsuit against me was completely groundless.”
The Merced County Public Employees Union Local 1, which represents more than 300 clerical workers, announced its endorsement of St. Marie earlier this month. A union representative said Tuesday that the union is standing by its endorsement.
Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.