Sheriff Ed Prieto denies the allegations, which include groping.

Female deputy's suit accuses Yolo sheriff of sex harassment

Published: Thursday, Jul. 11, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Thursday, Jul. 11, 2013 - 9:53 am

A veteran female sheriff's deputy in Yolo County is accusing longtime Sheriff Ed Prieto of subjecting her to protracted sexual harassment, culminating in his offer to trade an assignment for oral sex.

Robin Gonzalez claims in a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday that the blatant conduct has continued for almost her entire 11 years under Prieto's command.

The uninvited and unwanted attention has included hugging and kissing her, cradling her buttocks in his hands, pinching other parts of her body, lewd stares, repeated observations regarding her appearance and weight, and remarks laced with sexual innuendo, according to Gonzalez.

At one point, Gonzalez states in the civil rights suit, Prieto told her she could continue in her position as an investigator if she performed oral sex on him.

Although always hesitant to complain for fear of retaliation, Gonzalez relates in the suit, she finally reported the sheriff's behavior to Mindi Nunes, the county's Human Resources director.

She says Nunes told her there was not much her office could do because Prieto is an elected official.

However, Nunes did look into the matter and found at least some of her grievances were justified, Gonzalez relates, and Prieto promised to avoid contact and conversation with Gonzalez. Instead, she says, he continued the actions that have created a hellish working environment for her, and her fear of retaliation became a reality in various ways.

It got to the point, says Gonzalez, that other deputies teased her that if she would "take one for the team" by having sex with Prieto, it might garner everybody more overtime.

Gonzalez, 42, seeks compensatory and other money damages in an unspecified amount. Her suit claims discrimination, sexual harassment and a failure to prevent the harassment.

Prieto, 69, denies the accusations.

"This is litigation and, as you know, I can't make any comment regarding these false allegations," he said in a voice mail message responding to an inquiry. "It's unfortunate, but I can't."

Cori Sarno, an associate in the Sacramento law firm Angelo, Kilday & Kilduff LLP and who represents Prieto and the county, was vehement in the defense of her clients.

"This lawsuit is a bogus attempt to extort money from the county (a co-defendant in the suit) by making false, inflammatory claims against the sheriff," Sarno said in an email message. "The county has looked into Deputy Gonzalez's claims by hiring an independent investigator who interviewed quite a few people in the department and found no evidence to support her claims."

The attorney said the sheriff hugs colleagues and friends "as a platonic, nonsexual form of greeting males and females." He encourages his staff to be physically fit and "compliments people who are attempting to improve their health through losing weight."

She then fired a shot across the bow of Gonzalez lawyer Johnny Griffin III. He is "the same lawyer who has filed two other meritless claims against the sheriff and the county," Sarno declared. "One of the lawsuits has already been thrown out by the courts. … We are preparing to file a motion to deal with the second in the same manner."

Sacramento Connect: Related stories about Sheriff Prieto

In March of last year, Griffin filed a suit against Prieto and the county on behalf of Darrel Johnson, a 42-year-old African American with 14 years as a peace officer – seven years with the Yolo County Sheriff's Department and seven with the Sacramento Police Department.

Johnson, who is no longer with the Sheriff's Department, claimed he "was subjected to vile and reprehensible racial slurs by … Prieto," creating a "racially hostile work environment."

In February, U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller awarded summary judgment in favor of the defendants, finding that Johnson did not have enough evidence to back up his accusations in court.

"Even assuming the terms 'gravy' and 'dark one,' as directed at plaintiff by Sheriff Prieto and other deputies, are subjectively and objectively offensive slurs, they were neither frequent enough nor severe enough to create a hostile work environment" under federal and state law, Mueller wrote in disposing of the case.

"We were naturally disappointed," Griffin said Wednesday of the outcome, "but she is a fair-minded person and I'm confident she called it as she saw it."

In October, Griffin filed another suit against Prieto and the county, this time on behalf of Victoria Zetwick, a corrections sergeant with 24 years in the Sheriff's Department. She alleges numerous unwanted advances by Prieto, beginning right after he was first elected in 1998.

Shortly after it was filed, Prieto denied the allegations in Zetwick's suit, saying, "I'm offended by these misleading statements."

That suit, which is before U.S. District Judge Troy L. Nunley, is still in its early stages and there are no motions pending. Sarno promises her firm will be filing a motion for summary judgment on behalf of the defendants.

Griffin declined to comment on the Zetwick and Gonzalez suits.

Call The Bee's Denny Walsh, (916) 321-1189.

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