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San Diego County received whistleblower complaints on public defender office in 2020

 January 27, 2023 at 3:21 PM PST

S1: Allegations of workplace hostility , retaliation and racial discrimination happening in the county public defender's office. I'm Harrison Patino , in for Jade Heineman. This is KPBS midday edition. Workplace ethics violations are highlighted in a recent wrongful termination suit at the county Public Defender's office.

S2: The heat is on. They have an affirmative obligation to figure out what it is that was going on that persuaded the jury to award a multimillion dollar verdict.

S1: And in our weekend preview , we have a Oaxacan festival , piano music and some Scandinavian art. That's ahead on Monday edition. Whistleblowers alerted San Diego County about alleged poor treatment of employees in its public defender office in late 2020. That was two years before a jury awarded $2.6 million to an ex employee earlier this month in his wrongful termination suit. KPBS investigative reporter Amita Sharma explains.

S3: In November 2020 , at least two whistleblowers filed complaints against the public defender's office with San Diego County. The complaints alleged retaliation , hostility , racial insensitivity and conflict of interest. The allegations followed the firings of three deputy public defenders , including Zach Davila , who earlier this month won a $2.6 million judgment in a wrongful termination lawsuit against the county. County spokesman Mike Workman told KPBS in an email that the county's Office of Ethics and Compliance investigated the whistleblower complaints. But Workman said the probe was suspended when officials learned that two of the three fired deputy public defenders might sue. Dan Eaton is a San Diego legal analyst. Watch.

S2: Watch. The litigation begins. It is not uncommon for whatever investigation is in process to be put on hold , which is what the county essentially did , because the litigation was a whole different set of rules for finding out what happened.

S3: This raises questions as to whether anything has been done over the past two years about the alleged hostile work environment inside the public defender's office. KPBS asked the county for details on the investigation. When was the probe launched ? How many people were interviewed and when was it suspended ? The county refused to comment. But Eaton says county officials had choices.

S2: The county doesn't have to put an investigation on hold.

S3: Here's what we do know about the investigation. Lawyer Chris Latimer represents ex-deputy public defenders , DuVernay and Michelle Reynoso , who has also filed a wrongful termination suit. Ludeman says he notified the county on November 24th , 2020 , that litigation was pending. That was about three weeks after the whistleblowers filed their complaints. Latimer says the county never contacted his clients for an interview about the complaints. However , the county did forward the complaints to public defender management. Testimony during Davina's wrongful termination trial reveals that in early December 2020 , a supervisor in the public defender's office said in a letter to the county that an internal h.R. Investigation report had determined the whistleblower complaints were unfounded. That's the same report. Public defender Randy Mize testified during trial that he signed knowing it contained false statements by supervisors in his office.

S2: I bet 10 to 1 that that decision to put the investigation on hold was dictated by the lawyers in the litigation.

S3: New York University law professor Stephen Gillers says an employer is obligated to investigate allegations of discrimination , harassment and retaliation. In other words , the law doesn't change just because an employer has been sued.

S2: Because the concern of the organization is to make sure that things are being done properly. Whatever the legal fallout in the litigation.

S3: In Davina's case , the jury agreed that as a gay man , he was discriminated against for his gender expression. At one point , Davina was asked whether he was too flamboyant and animated during his tenure review panel. The jury also found that Davina faced retaliation. Gillers says the pressure only intensifies on a workplace to investigate when jurors agree with the plaintiff , such as they did in Davina's wrongful termination lawsuit. That jury also found that the county did nothing to prevent discrimination and retaliation against Davina.

S2: The heat is on. They have an affirmative obligation to figure out what it is that was going on that persuaded the jury to award a multimillion dollar verdict.

S3: Another verdict may be on the way. Former deputy public defender Reno says Case , which is similar to Davina's , is scheduled for trial next month.

S1: And she joins us now with more. Amita , welcome back.

S3: It's good to be with you , Harrison.

S1: Amita , you ended your story with information about a second wrongful termination suit filed by another former deputy public defender. Remind us about that lawsuit and what the likelihood is that the county might settle that case.

S3: Like Davina , Michelle Rae knows the other deputy public defender complained about a senior supervisor named Sherri Stone. She along again with. Other deputy public defenders in the office had complained about Stone basically berating or demeaning a very well respected trial lawyer in the office. And that came after he told public defender managers that they were alienating lawyers of color in the office. So so David Reynoso and these other deputy public defenders wanted Stone to be demoted , and they wanted her to receive diversity training. Stone was told about that complaint by a fellow supervisor , and then she ends up sitting on says and Davina's tenure review panels. And as part of a decision making process that led to their terminations. Now , beyond that , Reynoso is saying that her tenure review panel interrogated her. They questioned her harshly about her personal political beliefs and the work that she does during her private time for Black Lives Matters. She says that after the tenure review panel , she was told by a public defender's supervisor that she was being terminated for that off duty political work. I think there are a couple of issues for the county to weigh in , deciding whether or not to settle Reno's this case.

S1: Well , also included in the complaints alleged by the whistleblowers are conflicts of interest in the public defender's office.

S3: And basically says , don't worry , I'll take care of it. And Stone's given the names through an email chain of who exactly made the complaint against her. So , of course , Davenport and Reynoso are included on that list. And then again , you have stones sitting on both Davina's and Reynoso tenure review panel after knowing that they were part of a group of deputy public defenders who had asked that she be demoted and received diversity training. I spoke with legal ethicist Stephen Gillers at New York University Law School about Stone's sitting on , Reynoso says , and Davina's tenure review panels. He said this.

S2: That supervisors should not have an Army tenure review committee that just knowingly violates what I would call law office administration one on one. You don't ask someone who has reason to dislike another person to sit in judgment of the performance of that other person's job.

S1: I mean , say you did a story a few weeks ago regarding Randy Mies acknowledging on the stand that he signed an investigative report into ex-deputy public defender Zach Davern. His firing , despite knowing the report , contained false statements. He spoke to a legal ethicist about that admission.

S3: He said that because Mies is the head of the public defender's office , there should be a review of him. And because the act affects the overall credibility of the office , especially before a judge's no matter how honest the line deputy public defenders are , the image of that office has been tainted by Mies's admission. He had more to say about this.

S2: Even if that signing was not under oath , that alone would warrant professional discipline under the rules in every American jurisdiction. Knowing falsity in that professional context warrants discipline. I guess he could say that he tried to make amends by admitting it in court. But nonetheless , it's a serious act , and I think he has to worry about the consequences.

S3: It's really anyone's guess what those consequences are. And at this point , we really have no idea how the County Board of Supervisors views Mies's admission on the stand that he signed this investigative report knowing that it contained false statements by his supervisors. We don't know if they are upset about this , if if they plan to discuss it. We just have no idea at this point.


S3: And I asked him about what kind of reaction deputy public defenders get if and when they take their concerns at. At the work environment. There are two supervisors in the office and he said that supervisors seem stuck in their management style , that they don't want to turn a page for the better and that deputy public defenders basically feel this way.

S4: Ignored told that their complaints aren't real , being made afraid to even make the complaint in the first place. Any time there are complaints , they're not taken seriously. Internal panels , external panels that are making recommendations , just like I did in my case , are shut down consistently , habitually and perpetually because that management refuses to be introspective. So.

S1: So.

S3: So I imagine that there will be many more follow ups.

S1: I've been speaking with KPBS , investigative reporter Amita Sharma. Amita , thanks.

S3: Thank you. Harrison.

S1: This is KPBS midday edition. I'm Harrison Bertino , in for Jade Heineman. For our weekend preview , we have a Oaxacan festival , piano music , palm trees and some Scandinavian art. Joining me with all the details is KPBS arts producer and editor Julia Dixon Evans. Welcome , Julia.

S5: Hi , Harrison. Thanks for having me.

S2: Of course.

S1: So first , let's start with this Oaxacan Gil , I guess , a festival at the San Diego Museum of Art.

S5: It's held annually in Mallorca , and it's in conjunction with one of the San Diego Museum of Art's current exhibit , the Sergio Hernandez , members of Wow Exhibition. Hernandez is a Weehawken artist and the works in the exhibition really draw on this indigenous Mesoamerican roots , the myth and the paintings , as well as the imagery and the materials that he uses. It's been on view for a while , but it closes in a few weeks and this festival is totally free. It includes admission to the museum. So if you haven't had a chance to check out the exhibition , now's a great time. There'll be traditional dances and music from the region and some art making activities as well , and also a market. And it's on Saturday from 2 to 5 p.m..

S1: So up next , we have a concert at the new Guggenheim Theater at UC San Diego Park in Market. It's the first in a new series of events called Intersections.

S5: And they're bringing in three piano players who all play in different styles. There's Irving Flores , who plays Latin jazz. There's Tina Chang , who plays classical. And then Joshua White , who'll be playing jazz. And we're listening to Joshua Way. This is him playing at the top of Symphony Hall in 2016. And one cool thing about this show is that these three musicians have never performed together before. I mean , I don't know if there are a lot of opportunities for three piano players in a concert booking , but I'm here for it.

S1: It sounds fun. Okay , so let's talk about some theater now. New Village Arts has a new production of The Ferryman.

S5: He wrote it in 2017 , and it is set in 1981 in Northern Ireland during the Heart of the Troubles. And it weaves together multiple storylines that are all somehow connected to one farm's annual harvest. And it has a huge cast , including Joy Van Jones as Caitlin Kearney. And this is going to be the first production in the newly named the Hurston New Village Arts Center. This weekend , they're still in previews , so this is a chance to see it at a lower cost. The shows are 8 p.m. tonight and Saturday night and 2:00 on Sunday afternoon. And New Village Arts did warn that the script has adult content. So they're advising that it's not suitable for kids under the age of 15.

S1: We'll have more child friendly stuff later on in the segment. But artist Perry Vasquez has a new exhibition opening on Saturday called Some Palms.

S5: And first , I'll say that he is a super versatile artist , and we got to see a lot of his breadth as an artist in his San Diego Art Prize exhibition recently. And really intricate drawings , poetry , painting. But since 2017 , he's also been painting a bunch of portraits of palm trees , some of them very straightforward. Some of them are on fire. And I really love what happens when artists do that sort of repetitive series work , when they can really dwell in a subject and or a format and play with it. And you can see it for yourself at Quint and Girard through February 18th. And on this Saturday , they're doing a morning reception from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m..

S1: Okay , so now we're going firmly into the Scandinavian portion of this segment. Broadway's frozen tour is in town.



S5: So I have a daughter who is in seventh grade , so she's too cool for Frozen now , But she certainly was not when the movie came out when she was four. We listen to the soundtrack so much. I definitely had a love hate relationship with it. But I did. I took her with me to see the Broadway musical this week. We both enjoyed it. It was really entertaining. The special effects were great , and I guess enough time had passed that I wasn't sick of the songs anymore. The songwriters , in fact , the songwriters from the original movie , they wrote a handful of new songs for the stage production , mostly to give us more back story of the family and kind of flesh that out. And they also let us dwell in some of the more theatrical elements. And this is one of those new songs I'm saving you from the earworms of the Frozen Smash Hits. This one's called Hugo. And it was kind of a ridiculous side plot about that Danish concept of , of course , Miss Hugo.

S4: But allow me to translate. Hee hee hee hee. He means comfortable. He means cozy. He means sitting by the fire with your cheeks all rosy. Hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee hee ! Bikini ! Higley ! Higley ! I just translate more.

S1: All right. Well , we have one more Nordic themed event. This one is a concert called Scandinavian Winter. That sounds pretty huge.

S5: That's correct. Good job. So this is a concert from the Greater San Diego music Katori , and it's conducted by Dr. Angela Young , and they're performing on Sunday afternoon at 230. They'll do some Sebelius Grieg and also this piece by Niels got. It's called after Kleiner a fashion.

S1: All right. You can find the details on these and more arts events or sign up for Julia's weekly arts newsletter at KPBS Arts. I've been speaking with KPBS arts producer and editor Julia Dixon Evans. Julia , thanks.

S5: Thanks , Harrison. Have a good weekend.

S1: Have a Hugo weekend.

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Whistleblowers alerted San Diego County about alleged poor treatment of employees in its public defender office in late 2020. That was two years before a jury awarded $2.6 million dollars to an ex-employee earlier this month in his wrongful termination suit. Then, for our weekend preview, we have a Oaxacan festival, piano music, palm trees, and some Scandinavian art.