After a Merced County sheriff’s deputy declined to collect fingerprints to trace a letter disparaging of Merced College administrators, the college hired a private investigator to do so, according to documents obtained by the Sun-Star through a public records request.
An invoice released to the Sun-Star, and posted at the bottom of this story, shows Cen Cal Investigations, a Merced-based private investigation firm, conducted a “latent fingerprint” search on March 31. The search took place weeks after the college asked campus police to collect fingerprints from nine copies of an anonymous letter on Feb. 1 that was addressed to members of the Merced College Board of Trustees.
Merced County sheriff’s Sgt. Vince Gallagher, who was the campus’ police chief until the end of June, told the Sun-Star the request came from Susan Walsh, who was appointed the college’s acting president on Feb. 1.
The letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Sun-Star, demanded that the board of trustees reinstate President Ron Taylor, who had been placed on leave without explanation. The letter was signed by “Concerned students.”
Gallagher said he spent about 10 days investigating and declined to conduct a fingerprint examination because he determined that no crime had been committed. He also told the Sun-Star that administrators said they would pursue hiring a private investigator.
College administrators, according to Gallagher, wanted to determine whether any faculty members were behind the anonymous letter.
The letter is part of an ongoing investigation.
Merced College spokesman Robin Shepard
College spokesman Robin Shepard said the college previously denied Gallagher’s allegations.
The disagreement between the sheriff’s office and the college was at the heart of a blow-up over control of the officer named to oversee the campus security team, which led college administrators to sever their 16-year relationship with the agency as of June 30. Campus security currently is being overseen by the Merced police department under a temporary contract.
The news of an invoice confirming that a private investigator collected fingerprints for the college is “absolutely horrifying,” according to Megan Igo, the vice president of the Merced College Faculty Association.
“I have never heard of this anywhere else ever except in bad TV shows,” she said.
The college may be overstepping its boundaries and onto the faculty members’ right to privacy, she said.
Shepard confirmed Monday the investigation involved the letter. Citing personnel issues, Shepard said he could not further discuss the investigation.
“The letter is part of an ongoing investigation,” Shepard said.
Walsh has declined numerous requests to speak to the Sun-Star.
The invoice, obtained by the Sun-Star’s public records request, says the investigator was paid $150 for three hours of work. Shepard said fingerprinting is not a routine part of campus investigations, but that this case included special circumstances.
The results of the investigation were not immediately available, but the Sun-Star on Monday submitted a request for those public documents.
It’s very sad that while faculty are out on the front lines helping our students succeed that the Merced College administration is using taxpayers’ money to treat us like criminals.
Patrick Mitchell, president of the Merced College Faculty Association
Union President Patrick Mitchell said he was also dismayed by the investigation.
“It’s very sad that while faculty are out on the front lines helping our students succeed that the Merced College administration is using taxpayers’ money to treat us like criminals,” he said.
Walsh was appointed acting president of the community college after Taylor announced he planned to retire at the end of the school year but then, on Jan. 27, was placed on paid administrative leave.
The conflict over the college’s request for a fingerprint search was one of at least two where Walsh butted heads with Gallagher after she was given the president’s role.
On another occasion, Gallagher said he refused to arrest Trustee Cindy Lashbrook, who was thought to be recording a closed session meeting. Lashbrook has denied that she was recording.
Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke said that, in June, Walsh notified him that the college wanted to remove Gallagher from the campus chief’s position. It was then that Warnke amended the contract with the college, giving the sheriff’s office sole-decision making power over the campus chief.