State

Lopez trial exacts cost politically, as well, for Christianson's campaign

Airing dirty laundry in a recent sexual harassment trial didn't help Sheriff Adam Christianson's re-election campaign, some political observers say, but losing the case could have proved disastrous.

And Christianson -- or more correctly, his Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department -- didn't lose. Not in court, anyway.

Jurors sided against former records clerk Lydia Lopez, who claimed that Christianson's managers forced her to quit after she dared point a finger at Bill Pooley. Without reviewing results of an investigation, Christianson promoted Pooley to chief of police in Riverbank, demoted Lopez and reassigned her to work under Pooley's father-in-law, the sheriff admitted on the stand.

But the county's attorneys caught Lopez in several inconsistent statements and questioned her continued contact with her husband, a Norteño gang leader serving a life prison term.

"When it comes to credibility, the defense in this case had an automatic extra few points because they do wear a badge," said Mina Ramirez, a Modesto civil rights attorney with no tie to the Lopez case. "And jurors do want to believe they're being protected by honest people."

Christianson did not return calls seeking comment.

Bad timing

Coming in the middle of the sheriff's race heading toward the June election, the Lopez case was unfortunate timing for the sheriff. Worse, it's one among several gender-based legal challenges brought by 10 women who either work for the department or used to.

"People have a general impression that something's going on there, because there are other complaints by other women and not Lopez alone," said Larry Giventer, professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus.

The county has paid $2.6 million as a result of legal troubles at the Sheriff's Department for cases either ongoing or concluding in the past six months. That includes $820,342 in fees for an outside law firm in the Lopez case up to the time the trial started; the county expects another bill for the five-week trial.

The total also includes $705,000 paid to settle two cases without going to trial, plus $215,000 awarded by a federal jury to three people after a dust-up with deputies just before Christianson took office in 2006.

"It's unheard of, the amount of suits facing the department," said Rob Jackson, a Turlock Police captain challenging Christianson on the June ballot. Money spent to defend the department, Jackson said, might have kept deputies from potential layoffs when all county agencies are forced to slash millions, as soon as next month.

"It seems like employees are being forced to the point where the only recourse they have is to take it to litigation," Jackson continued. "You should be able to come to consensus and deal with issues. It shouldn't be 'us versus them,' where people have to take you to court."

County Counsel John Doering said more people have taken legal action against the county during the recession, and that lawyers scraping for work seem more apt to sue.

But politics doesn't factor into the Board of Supervisors' decisions to settle or vigorously defend a claim, Doering said. "Whether it's lingering in the back of board members' minds, I won't speak to that. But I know it never comes up in our discussions," he said.

In his recent court testimony, Christianson came across as fiercely loyal, distinctly calling the defendant "Chief Pooley" although attorneys throughout the trial usually referred to him as "Lt. Pool- ey."

While he leads police serv- ices in Riverbank, a city that contracts with the county for law enforcement, Pooley retains the lieutenant rank within the Sheriff's Department.

Observers might conclude, "that's the way (Christianson) runs his department; if you're one of his buddies, you get a buy potentially on whatever you do. If you're not, you're going to get challenged," said Jack Heinsius, a Modesto Junior College instructor.

Willing to fight

On the other hand, people might admire Christianson's willingness to fight, Heinsius said.

The sheriff was unhappy when county leaders agreed to pay three female workers a combined $545,000 to settle bias claims on the eve of trial, in late October. "My preference would've been to go to the mat," Christianson told The Bee at the time.

Settling leaves questions in people's minds, Heinsius said. A court victory "breaks that up and puts you in a position to argue that nothing had been going on," he added.

"So it's a smart move to take it to court even though you're your own worst enemy in testimony," Heinsius concluded.

Giventer agreed that unfavorable impressions from the trial are likely "to fade, unless his opponent raises it as a campaign issue."

Jackson has run a relatively quiet campaign, raising less than one-fifth the money amassed by the sheriff and appearing at few campaign events. He's "building up steam," he said Wednesday.

Mike Lynch, a Modesto political consultant, said voters are more likely swayed by a "perception of public safety."

Christianson's camp on Monday sent a mass e-mail to supporters asking them to write favorable letters to editors of local newspapers, including The Bee. The note coaches letter-writers on talking points focused on reduced crime statistics.

"With the crime rate significantly down, it will be hard for someone to make the case that the department is not successful in its primary mission," Lynch said. "Unless it can be demonstrated that the current administration is running a rogue operation, what is the public policy imperative to make a change?"

Allegations such as Lopez's should be thoroughly investigated and addressed, Lynch continued, "but this kind of review is best done out of the hypercharged context of political campaigns."

Giventer said, "If the verdict had been decidedly in Lopez's favor, that would have been fairly telling. The mixed verdict as it was, against Lopez -- I think they will just let it go away."

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.

Related stories from Merced Sun-Star

  Comments