Political intrigue has crept into a court case already rife with sexual harassment and retaliation claims aimed at some Stanislaus County authorities.
Potential witnesses include Sheriff Adam Christianson as well as the two men who have led Modesto over the past decade from the mayor's office.
A Jan. 26 trial date comes during Christianson's re-election campaign, while his department confronts a series of legal claims from current and former female employees.
The upcoming case is brought by former records clerk Lydia Lopez, a single mother whose family wound up homeless for a time after she rejected a superior's advances, she says.
Bill Pooley, since promoted by the Sheriff's Department to lead its operations in Riverbank as the city's police chief, denies having forced Lopez to grope his crotch on Christmas Eve 2004, whispering lewd comments or rearranging toys on Lopez's desk to simulate oral sex in 2006.
An investigation into Lopez's accusations by Modesto police internal affairs officers cleared Pooley in August 2007, documents reveal.
Lopez was a model employee before she complained, she says in court documents, but afterward was suspended, demoted and banished to a graveyard shift and then to a satellite office 35 miles away before she was forced to quit in 2007. She sued in December 2007.
She charges that her complaints led her supervisors to scrutinize her timecards, leading to her demotion.
Her lawyer alleges that other employees who are favored by the sheriff got a pass for doing the same thing — doctoring their timecards. Lopez's attorney contends that group includes Modesto Mayor Jim Ridenour, K9 officers and an official who investigated Lopez.
County: No complaint for 2½ years
The county's attorneys contend that Lopez "overdramatizes" the groping incident, saying her hand did not touch Pooley's genitals and that she was not "scared or threatened." She never informed her superiors that she suffered from depression, a basis for one of her claims — disability discrimination — and "was neither terminated nor forced to resign," a document reads.
Also, "Pooley had no role in any employment decisions related to (Lopez)," a required element for retaliation, said San Francisco attorney Morin Jacob, representing the county, in a court document. Lopez did not complain until after receiving job discipline — 2½ years after the alleged groping incident, Jacob wrote.
"We are mounting a rigorous defense against the claims," she said in a phone interview.
Christianson refused to speak about anything related to Lopez's lawsuit. "It's not appropriate for me to comment," the sheriff said.
The case may provide former Mayor Carmen Sabatino another venue to attack Ridenour, a reserve sheriff's deputy, on allegations of timecard misuse, potentially resurrecting an issue investigated and dismissed by the city and county as well as the civil grand jury.
County attorneys deposed Sabatino last week, while Lopez's attorney plans to call Ridenour to testify at trial, the attorney said.
Sabatino served a single term before losing to Ridenour in 2003. The former mayor in August 2008 publicly accused his successor of receiving deputy pay while tending to mayoral tasks at the same time, according to his political calendars.
Other reviews of Ridenour's timecards and mayoral calendars concluded that he did not attend the political and personal events on his calendar that took place during his work hours.
Sheriff scoffs at Sabatino
Christianson and Ridenour appear together smiling in a photograph on a Web site dedicated to the sheriff's June re-election bid. Soon after Sabatino launched his accusation, Christianson characterized it as "a whole lot of to-do about nothing."
"I don't think that demonstrates fair-mindedness and equal treatment," said Pleasanton attorney Jeffery Hubins, representing Lopez. "I believe there is a different standard and I'd like an explanation for it."
Ridenour did not return several calls for comment over the past week.
Hubins canceled Ridenour's deposition because, he said, "I'm just going to call this guy at trial and let the jury hear it." He called the mayor's potential contribution "hugely important" to Lopez's case.
Hubins said the county's outside counsel deposed Sabatino on Dec. 28, although Jacob refused to confirm it. "I'm not at liberty to speak about it," she said.
What about fishing trip?
Some time after Lopez's discipline, "several members" of the sheriff's K9 unit went fishing instead of attending scheduled training paid by Christianson's office, Hubins said. The sheriff later directed them to "change their timecards and retroactively take vacation time for the fishing trip," a document says.
Hubins said another of Christianson's favored employees — Area Command Chief Mike Radford — has been promoted even though he allegedly falsified timecards at a training session in the past.
Lopez and her family were evicted from their apartment after she quit in late 2007 and "bounced from one person's house to another almost nightly, trucking her two small children and all the family's possessions in a small car," according to her lawsuit. She found a seasonal job with a trucking company in June 2008, then worked a wine distribution job that ended in November, Hubins wrote.
Lopez offered to settle for $200,000 shortly after filing the lawsuit in December 2007, but now demands $395,000, plus $350,000 for attorney costs, and will ask for more than $1 million at trial, her lawyer said.
The firms employing Hubins and the county squared off recently in a discrimination lawsuit brought by four female employees of the Sheriff's Department, although one dropped out. Remaining plaintiffs Jackie Bernal, Charmaine Morad-Daniel and Marlena Younan settled just before trial in late October for a combined $545,000, without the county admitting wrongdoing.
In November, Board of Supervisors Chairman Jim DeMartini criticized the Sheriff's Department for shunning the county's standard sexual harassment training. It's the only one among 27 county departments to conduct its own training and has been disproportionately targeted in lawsuits by female workers.
Other cases, too
In another case, former sheriff's employee Valine Sarmas accuses Sgt. Pedro Beltran of kissing and groping her and showing her a cell phone video of him having sex with another department employee. In another claim, former community service officer Karen Cadinha said she was unfairly fired after an off-duty "altercation" at a gay bar.
Christianson faces a re-election challenge from Turlock police Capt. Rob Jackson, who worked nearly 20 years for the Sheriff's Department until two years ago.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2390.