The only Stanislaus County department among 27 that opts out of conventional sexual harassment training has been contending with three lawsuits brought by a total of six female employees.
The other 26 county departments, uniformly educated on combating sexual harassment, face one lawsuit brought by one woman claiming gender and disability bias.
Sheriff Adam Christianson defended his department's internal program, which meets a 5-year-old state law requiring sexual harassment training for supervisors every two years.
Without admitting wrongdoing, county supervisors two weeks ago agreed to pay three female sheriff's records clerks a combined $545,000 to settle a lawsuit days before its trial date; one plaintiff previously quit the case. The county also spent about $310,000 on legal fees, plus more dealing with two other sexual harassment lawsuits brought by former female employees of the department.
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"The sheriff's office is the only department who refuses to have county training," Board of Supervisors Chairman Jim DeMartini said, acknowledging internal instruction in that department. "And they're the only one who seems to have a problem with this issue. Maybe we ought to look at the policy. Maybe their training isn't worth a damn."
Christianson said his department folds sexual harassment training into other instruction specific to officers, eliminating the overtime needed if the same employees had to attend county training separately.
"It's a big benefit to the taxpayers," said Christianson, elected in 2006. "Supervisor DeMartini is not well-informed on why we do what we do."
Former Sheriff Les Weidman began the internal training when Gov. Schwarz-enegger signed Assembly Bill 1825 into law in 2004, Christianson and other county officials said.
Jody Hayes, a county deputy executive officer, said he reviewed the Sheriff's Department training curricula. "Most components are very, very similar" to training offered to the rest of the county, Hayes said. "It certainly meets all the legal criteria."
DeMartini: 'Not working'
But DeMartini, pointing to the department's legal troubles with female workers, said its internal training apparently "is not working good."
"Especially after spending 900,000 bucks on this lawsuit, and we've got a couple more coming down the road," DeMartini continued. He wondered whether Christianson is given latitude because he is an elected official, but noted that the county's five other elected department heads participate in conventional training.
"It's good. I've been through it a couple of times myself," DeMartini said. "But one department says no. It might be OK if they were not having problems. But the one that insists on internal training is continually having expensive problems that the taxpayers pay for."
DeMartini said he complained last week to Chief Executive Officer Rick Robinson. Asked how he will respond, Robinson said, "Other than to say it has been the CEO's belief that the training has met the guidelines established for Stanislaus County employees, I don't quite know what else to say about that."
Christianson said he also takes exception to DeMartini "mouthing off" that the sheriff never approached supervisors to push for a trial instead of settling the lawsuit, as Christianson said he did in an Oct. 29 Bee story. Christianson said Monday that he made it "crystal clear" to Robinson and to a county attorney that he wanted to speak to supervisors in closed session but was refused.
"That's as good as telling the Board of Supervisors," the sheriff said.
"I hope to ask the supervisor why it is he publicly makes these comments without the courtesy of a phone call to me," Christianson continued. "I don't know what his problem is. He has all my direct phone numbers. If he wants factual information, all he has to do is make a phone call."
DeMartini backed Christianson's rival, former Assistant Sheriff Mark Puthuff, in Christianson's 2006 election.
Dropped from two cases
The sheriff initially was named in the recently settled lawsuit, but a judge released him in early October.
Another judge likewise dismissed Christianson from parts of a second case, but the sheriff still must defend accusations that his department tried to cover up complaints brought by former employee Valine Sarmas, the judge ruled. Sarmas accuses Sgt. Pedro Beltran of kissing and groping her and showing her a video on his cell phone of him having sex with another department employee.
In a third case, records department employee Lydia Lopez says she was subjected to physical and verbal sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation by Bill Pooley, who is police chief in Riverbank, a city contracting with the county for law enforcement. That trial is expected to begin Jan. 26.
"You can't tell me for a second that training alone is going to prevent anybody from filing those types of complaints. It's not," the sheriff said Monday in a phone call from Virginia, where he was attending a two-day conference paid for by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
Christianson faces a re-election challenge in June from Turlock police Capt. Rob Jackson, who worked nearly 20 years for the Sheriff's Department until two years ago.
The only other active sexual bias lawsuit facing the county was brought by a department of environmental resources employee, said County Counsel John Doering. He acknowledged the seeming concentration of legal action by women against the Sheriff's Department but warned against reading too much into it.
"These things come in waves," Doering said. That Christianson's administration has had to defend multiple lawsuits "this year doesn't mean he's going to be on top of the pile next year. At any given point in time, it could be true or it could be not true."
Representatives for San Joaquin and Merced counties said their respective Sheriff's Departments face one case each of gender discrimination. Neither involves sexual harassment, they said.
The city of Modesto has defended high-profile sexual bias cases in years past but faces none at the moment, City Attorney Susana Wood said.
Human Resources Deputy Director Barbara Santos said the city's instructors customize sexual harassment training for police and fire personnel to accommodate their work schedules and that no department has ever requested to go it alone.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2390.