Three former Lake County Sheriff’s Office dispatchers who say they were sexually harassed in the workplace are set to receive an $875,000 settlement from Lake County government. The settlement closes the door on the 2017 sexual-harassment scandal that rocked the small mountain community of Leadville to its core.
Former dispatchers Nicole Garner, Chelsa Parsons and Maria Chavez claim that former Lake County Undersheriff Fernando Mendoza and Sheriff Rod Fenske routinely exposed them to sexual comments, jokes, texts and touching.
For example, according to Garner, in 2017 Mendoza showed the dispatcher a picture of her lacerated breast, which was on file from a recent domestic-violence incident. “I got to see your boobs today,” he told her after laughing. Chavez alleges that Fenske would call her “sweetie” and “little girl” while Parsons recalls Mendoza smelling her hair and tickling her torso.
The dispatchers, all of whom resigned from the office over a period of time in 2017 and 2018, also contend that they faced retaliation from LCSO leadership after going public with their stories.
And although the allegations set off a series of events that sent Mendoza to jail, stripped Fenske of his reputation and helped compel voters to elect Lake County’s first female sheriff, it wasn’t until recently that the dispatchers saw their day in court.
The women filed suit against the county eight days after Mendoza was convicted of attempted incest and invasion of privacy regarding his former stepdaughter. The law firm Rathod Mohamedbhai requested damages on behalf of the dispatchers for unlawful sex discrimination, retaliation and violations of their rights to free speech and equal protection.
About six months into the lawsuit and two subpoenas later, Rathod Mohamebhai discovered that someone had removed all references to Fenske in the original draft of an internal investigation into the dispatchers’ allegations. The tampered report was the only copy provided to the plaintiffs’ legal team, as well as the Lake County Board of County Commissioners, before the subpoenas.
“It is outside the bounds of acceptable behavior that the results of an allegedly neutral, taxpayer funded investigation into sexual harassment at LCSO were tampered with so as to conceal some of the findings from other public officials and, ultimately, from the public,” the dispatchers’ attorney, Iris Halpern, said. “It should not have taken a federal lawsuit, third-party subpoenas and multiple written and oral arguments in court to reveal this information.”
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Lake County’s new sheriff, Amy Reyes, says she has a zero-tolerance policy for workplace harassment. “My philosophy is that administrators have to model compliance with policies and procedures in order to have organizational-wide compliance,” she says.
Although the women say they are content with the results of the settlement, they note that the agreement isn’t solely about money.
“The settlement sends a message to law enforcement that no one is above the law,” Garner says.
“I am happy with the settlement, but what makes me feel like this was all worth it was the changes our allegations brought to LCSO. I am happy that the case catapulted sexual harassment into the spotlight and brought much-needed attention to the issue,” Parsons adds.