Claims of favoritism, potential retaliation and workplace safety concerns, all against the backdrop of a perceived relationship between the public defender and a Merced County supervisor’s daughter.
Those were the themes of an independent investigation launched by Merced County after receiving complaints about Eric Dumars, the county’s public defender. The 134-page report, obtained Friday by the Merced Sun-Star through a public records request, paints a contentious picture of a staff divided by both support and animosity toward Dumars.
Dumars’ Fresno-based attorney, Barry Bennett, called the report a “bunch of gossip” and an opportunity for attorneys in the Public Defender’s Office to advance their own careers at his client’s expense. Bennett said Dumars couldn’t comment about the report Friday because of the agreement with the county that led to his resignation.
Dumars, 41, submitted an official resignation letter to the Board of Supervisors this week. Earlier this month, he wrote an email to his staff announcing the decision, which came after county supervisors discussed his potential dismissal in closed-door meetings.
The internal investigation was launched by the county after a late September suicide attempt by Dumars, which resulted in his extended leave of absence. The investigation stemmed from a written complaint by an employee of the Public Defender’s Office in October. The complaint outlined favoritism in the office, erratic and threatening behavior by Dumars and was consistent with two prior complaints, according to the report.
Merced County hired Susan Hatmaker, a Fresno-based attorney, to investigate the claims. Hatmaker could not be reached for comment Friday.
After interviewing Dumars and 12 of his employees, Hatmaker’s report backed up claims of favoritism because of Dumars’ “perceived relationship” with Ellie Souders, the daughter of District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey.
Souders, 32, voluntarily resigned her position as an “extra help deputy public defender” on Jan. 3, according to county Management Analyst Mike North. She was originally hired in March 2011, then laid off and rehired on Aug. 3, 2011.
The report said most interviewees believed Dumars and Souders were “in an intimate relationship” based on conduct observed by them. They were often described as a “couple” and “inseparable,” and Souders was seen inside Dumars’ office for hours on a daily basis – sometimes after 7 p.m. with the door closed, according to the report.
On another occasion, the two were spotted returning to the office 20 minutes after they had both left separately, the report said. Dumars also invited Souders to a training course designed for supervisors, though she was an “extra help” public defender.
The investigation recounted observations by employees, but the investigator also stated none of the interviewees had information that could “definitively support” a sexual relationship between Dumars and Souders. They were never observed “kissing, touching each other” in an intimate manner.
Bennett said claims of a relationship are based on speculation and rumor. He said a number of attorneys, not just Souders, spent time “behind closed doors” discussing cases with Dumars.
“It may be because of her mom’s position that people thought he was trying to help her,” Bennett said. “It made people jealous because she was capable at her job – it was almost like her undoing.”
In a written statement to the Sun-Star, Souders said the allegations about her relationship with Dumars are based on exaggerations and blatant lies. “First, I would like to address the most disturbing of the allegations, namely that there is witness to Mr. Dumars and myself alone in his office after hours with his door shut,” Souders said in the statement. “This is a lie, a complete falsehood spun from whole cloth.
“I have worked late, along with many of the attorneys at the Public Defender’s Office, and on occasion Mr. Dumars would also work late,” she continued. “But he and I have never engaged in any inappropriate behavior. I take my job very seriously and would never treat my workplace with such disrespect.”
Kelsey also responded Thursday to the investigation involving her daughter, saying the author reached “faulty conclusions” by relying on complainants who had not been sworn to tell the truth.
“Apparently, lying to the investigator is an acceptable standard if the end result meets the intended objective,” Kelsey said in a written statement. “I view the fact that this biased investigation has led to the resignation of a capable and dedicated public servant as a disgrace. “
“It is a failure of the county administrative leadership, by the CEO and county counsel, who treated the investigative process not as a search for the truth, but as a means to eliminate an outspoken advocate for his department,” she continued.
Concerns about workplace safety
The investigation also detailed other alleged behavior by Dumars, like beating a file box with a softball bat in his office, punching a filing cabinet and engaging in “screaming episodes.” He allegedly called a subordinate a “f------” in a text message, but said it was done in the “spirit of friendship.”
Bennett said several witnesses saw the softball bat incident and said it was a joke. “It’s hard to credit that people feared for their physical safety,” he said. “I really find that hard to believe because he’s not a violent person. He’s the last person in the world who’d want to get into a fight with someone.”
Bennett said the investigation was one-sided and didn’t include interviews with all employees of the Public Defender’s Office and appeared to favor those who spoke negatively about Dumars. He said the report also didn’t include a dozen letters of support from past and present employees.
“It looked to me that they made up their minds what direction the investigation would go and hired someone who would take it that way,” Bennett said. “It just seemed like anyone that supported Eric weren’t interviewed in the same depth.”
Dumars has been public defender since March 25, 2013, county documents show, and served as acting public defender since December 2011. He was hired Aug. 1, 2005, as a deputy public defender II.
He left office on administrative leave after the attempted suicide on Sept. 28. Dumars apparently visited the office at least once after his leave, but was told by County Executive Officer Jim Brownthat he was not allowed to do so.
The complaints about Dumars came after his leave of absence, Bennett said.
The investigation by Hatmaker doesn’t detail Dumars’ medical history, but Bennett said his client was seen by an independent doctor selected by the county and was deemed fit to return to work.
On Friday, the Sun-Star also obtained a copy of a letter Dumars sent to the Board of Supervisors on Jan. 10, explaining his illness and asking for his job back.
“I am not a perfect person and have made many mistakes. However, the complaints are false. The timing was incredible. The investigation was poorly done,” Dumars said in the letter. “I firmly believe that if restored to my position I can put it back on track. I am well, and my decision-making is no longer clouded by the acute attack I suffered in September. I am undergoing a course of treatment that could potentially last a lifetime.”
Even though Dumars submitted his voluntary resignation to the board, he will remain on paid administrative leave for a couple more months as part of his agreement with the county, officials said.