Lake County undersheriff was fired; sheriff's office employees to undergo new harassment training

Two dispatchers who accused Mendoza have resigned
Posted at 4:32 PM, Nov 28, 2017
and last updated 2017-11-29 00:35:29-05

LAKE COUNTY, Colo. – Former undersheriff Fernando Mendoza was fired by the county sheriff’s office in what was an internal decision, and all sheriff’s office employees will undergo additional sexual harassment training after the allegations, a county commissioner said Tuesday.

"The Lake County Sheriff’s office has terminated Fernando Mendoza from his position as undersheriff as of Monday, Nov. 20, 2017 due to several women in the department bringing allegations of sexual harassment," says a statement from the board of county commissioners delivered to Denver7 Tuesday.

Denver7 reported Monday that Mendoza was no longer employed by the sheriff’s office, but it was unclear at the time whether he had been fired or had resigned. On Tuesday, county officials confirmed Mendoza was fired on Nov. 20.

Three women who were dispatchers working for the sheriff’s office accused Mendoza of making unwanted sexual advances and remarks toward them, telling Denver7 he often made lewd comments toward them and sent them inappropriate text messages.

Two of the women — Maria Chavez and Nicole Garner — told Denver7 Tuesday they had since resigned from their positions, but said they were pleased that no other women might be victimized.

"I do feel relief with his termination that he will no longer sexually harass employees at the Lake County Sheriff's Office, and that there is a sense of pride in that and a sense of relief in that," they told Denver7.

"The message that we would like to portray is that your voice can be powerful, that to all victims — domestic violence, sexual harassment, sexual assault — all victims...there is support. There are resources," they said. "Your voice can make a difference."

Chavez and Garner said the ordeal was "scary" and that some people didn't believe their stories initially. But they say they believe their actions were necessary, and that they hope the proposed changes will indeed be made at the sheriff's office.

"I stand by the fact that we have done the right thing," Garner said. "Speaking out will make a difference."

A third-party investigative team was brought on in mid-October to investigate the claims made against Mendoza after one of the women filed a formal complaint with Sheriff Rodney Fenske.

Mendoza was initially allowed to work remotely before he was put on administrative leave.

The law firm handling the investigation, Lyons Gaddis, wrote to one of the victims that Mendoza had “made inappropriate sexual innuendo” but said the actions didn’t rise to the level of sexual harassment, though the dispatchers and a victim’s advocate with the sheriff’s office balked at that determination.

“What is a sexual innuendo compared to a sexual harassment? I don’t know what that means. Either you said it or you didn’t,” the victim’s advocate, Paula Velasquez, told Denver7 earlier this month.

On Tuesday, the Lake County Board of County Commissioners and Sheriff’s Office issued a joint statement saying there would be changes coming at the sheriff’s office:

“The Lake County Sheriff’s Department has instituted additional sexual harassment training for all of its employees. The County Human Resources Department has been working with Lake County Sheriff’s Department employees to inform them of the Lake County policies regarding workplace discrimination and protection from retaliation, as well as reminding them of the procedures in place to report such discrimination or retaliation going forward. The County is exploring the use of a third-party facilitator to assist the Sheriff’s Department in creating and maintaining successful working relationships among all employees.”

The joint statement additionally said county commissioners and the sheriff’s office “do not condone and will not tolerate any form of discrimination or harassment prohibited by federal, state or local law” and said the sheriff’s office had “initiated action necessary to resolve the matter and to prevent recurrence of any acceptable conduct.”

The Lake County District Attorney’s Office has an active investigation into the allegations against Mendoza, District Attorney Bruce Brown reiterated to Denver7 Monday.

After this story was originally published, the Lake County Board of County Commissioners issued another statement confirming that an outside legal team has been hired to investigate in addition to Brown’s probe, and that Deputy Bill Kirkland had been named as interim undersheriff until a permanent replacement is found:

“The Lake County Sheriff’s office has terminated Fernando Mendoza from his position as undersheriff as of Monday, Nov. 20, 2017 due to several women in the department bringing allegations of sexual harassment.  These charges are under investigation by District Attorney Bruce Brown’s office and also by the legal counsel hired by the Sheriff’s Office to assist in personnel matters.

“Deputy Bill Kirkland has been named as the interim undersheriff until such time as a permanent replacement is named.

“As an outcome of this process the Sheriff’s Office has implemented a new training effort to ensure all employees are well trained on the matter of sexual harassment.  Such behavior will not be tolerated within the Sheriff’s Office, nor throughout the Lake County government offices.

“While the Sheriff’s Office operates under their own HR policies and provides their own training on such policies, the Lake County Commissioners are taking steps to ensure all other County employees are aware of the policies and know what to do should they experience harassment or discrimination in the workplace.  The County Commissioners will establish meetings within the next several weeks with each department to answer questions and ensure understanding the policies.

“All employees receive an employee handbook when hired, and receive refresher trainings yearly.  Such training will be deployed to all County supervisors near the end of 2017, to train their own department staff soon after.  The County HR Department is also in the process of reviewing the existing employee handbook to ensure it is clear, accurate, and appropriate and revisions will be made as deemed necessary.”

Advocates of Lake County runs a 24/7 crisis hotline for people wanting to report harassment or assaults. The organization can be reached at 719-486-3530.