DA has active investigation into sexual harassment allegations at Lake County Sheriff's Office

Commissioners, sheriff silent after exec. session
Posted at 3:59 PM, Nov 08, 2017
and last updated 2017-11-09 16:03:00-05

LAKE COUNTY, Colo. – The Fifth Judicial District Attorney’s Office confirmed Wednesday it has an ongoing investigation into allegations of sexual harassment levied against the Lake County undersheriff by at least three female employees of the sheriff’s office.

The confirmation came shortly after the Lake County Board of County Commissioners held a meeting with Sheriff Rodney Fenske and at least one attorney. The meeting was held in executive session, with windows blocked out with paper and reporters not allowed inside.

On Tuesday, Denver7 broke the story that three women who work as 911 dispatchers for the sheriff’s office in the central Colorado county alleged they had been repeatedly sexually harassed by Undersheriff Fernando Mendoza.

The district attorney’s office told Denver7 Tuesday that it was aware of the allegations and said it had not charged anyone criminally. District Attorney Bruce Brown elaborated on that statement Wednesday in a news release sent to Denver7.

Brown wrote in the release that his office has “an ongoing” investigation into the claims. He says his office received a complaint in early October 2017, which led to the investigation.

Brown said his office “has been interviewing witnesses and conducting other activity to determine whether any criminal conduct occurred.”

“To date, no charges have been filed or arrests made in connection with this investigation, which is ongoing,” Brown said in the prepared statement.

He also unveiled that his office did not notify Sheriff Fenske until after the investigation was underway in order “to assure the integrity” of the investigation, despite having told people in the county government about it at its onset. Brown said those people “were notified to enable them to take any appropriate action, such as an internal investigation, concerning the allegations.”

“There is no timetable for completion of the investigation and further announcer announcement will be made as developments occur and can be made public,” Brown wrote.

Before Wednesday's county commission meeting went into executive session, Commissioner Dolores Semsack said: “We haven’t heard anything. We don’t know anything about the investigation."

But the commissioners told members of the public they went into executive session in order to "get legal advice regarding a workplace matter."

After the meeting, the county commissioners, sheriff and attorney all left without answering any questions.

Several of the women who spoke to Denver7 about their allegations were also outside the meeting. Several community members showed up to support them, handing them a signed paper that said “We believe you.”

When Denver7 went to the sheriff’s office Wednesday, representatives said the sheriff was not at the office and could not talk.

The three women alleging they were harassed, as well as a female victim’s advocate who also works for the sheriff’s office, spoke on the record to Denver7 because they say they are concerned that Mendoza has not been placed on administrative leave pending the investigation.

They also alleged he had continued to send them lewd text messages and make inappropriate comments to them even after they reported the alleged misconduct.

Sheriff Fenske did briefly speak with Denver7 when confronted Tuesday, and confirmed he had hired a Denver-area law firm to conduct an investigation after the women made the allegations about his undersheriff.

An attorney for the law firm that conducted that investigation, Lyons Gaddis, wrote to at least one of the women in a letter dated Nov. 2 that investigators had found Mendoza had made “inappropriate sexual innuendo,” but not necessarily sexually harassed her.

“The investigator has determined that the preponderance of the evidence demonstrates that Undersheriff Mendoza has made inappropriate sexual innuendo, particularly through text messages. The independent investigator also found by preponderance of the evidence that the comments do not rise to the level reported by yourself,” the letter read.

“The Sheriff’s Department will move forward with corrective action,” it continued. “Please be advised that the Sheriff’s Department will engage in no act of retaliation due to your complaint and participation in the investigation.”

When Sheriff Fenske was asked by Denver7 Tuesday what changes would be made, he said: “We will make some changes. I just can’t tell you what it is.”

Fenske said Tuesday he was waiting to learn the results of the outside investigation despite Garner having already received her letter last week. It was dated Nov. 2.

Requests for clarification on the Lyons Gaddis investigation made to the law firm on if its investigation was completed and sent to Fenske were not returned.

The district attorney's investigation remains ongoing.