, May 25, 2022

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Solano Sheriff declined to fire sergeant accused of harassment, disregarding IA recommendation

  •   5 min reads
Solano Sheriff declined to fire sergeant accused of harassment, disregarding IA recommendation
Sheriff Tom Ferrara and Sgt. Jason Speakman when Speakman was promoted in 2016. Ferrara demoted Speakman for six months in 2018, despite an internal affairs investigation recommendation that he be fired. Photo: Solano County Sheriff's Office.

FAIRFIELD – Solano County Sheriff Tom Ferrara declined to fire a sergeant who exchanged sexually explicit text messages with a sheriff’s dispatcher, despite the findings of an internal affairs investigation recommending his termination after the dispatcher said she felt pressured and bullied to send him photos of herself.

After the woman reported the text messages — which allegedly included Sgt. Jason Speakman sending her a video of himself masturbating in his office — an internal investigation recommended he be terminated for violating the department’s harassment policy. But at Speakman’s disciplinary hearing in 2018, Ferrara concluded the texts were consensual and demoted him for six months. The dispatcher was fired while she was on extended medical leave after reporting the activity.

The dispatcher, Melissa Kunz, sued the county in 2019. On Friday, during the first day of arguments in a jury trial in Kunz’s lawsuit, Kunz’s attorneys revealed the investigation’s findings and the notice of intent to discipline that the sheriff’s office sent to Speakman.

The lawsuit is the latest accusation of a lack of discipline in the sheriff’s office. Earlier this year, an investigative report revealed that several deputies had posted Three Percenter symbols on their social media page, which Ferrara declined to investigate. In August, a woman sued the sheriff’s office alleging she had been beaten unconscious and arrested for no reason. The sheriff’s office defended the deputies, saying the woman struck a deputy in the face, though no video evidence has shown that.

Speakman and Kunz dispute how long they were exchanging explicit messages. Attorneys for the county contend that Speakman and Kunz were sending sexually explicit text messages to each other since 2012 until Kunz reported the behavior in July 2018. Kunz’s attorneys, however, say that they started exchanging texts in November 2017.

In the trial’s opening arguments, Kunz’s attorney Randy Strauss said that Kunz had been hired as a dispatcher for the sheriff’s office in 2011. He said Speakman had a history of exchanging sexually explicit text messages with dispatchers, including his wife, who was Kunz’s supervisor and friend.

In 2017, Strauss said that Kunz’s schedule changed so that she regularly worked with Speakman. Shortly after that, Strauss said that Speakman approached Kunz in an empty kitchen and said he wanted to “play a game” with her. She was confused by what he meant, but he told her to “just play along” and that he “wouldn’t want this to come back” on her, according to Strauss’ opening statement in the trial.

Strauss said that the messages started after that. He said Kunz felt “intimidated, frightened and threatened” but felt like she had no choice. And while she had no interest in Speakman, “she feared the damage he could do to her career and to her personal life,” Strauss said.

At times, Speakman would send Kunz blank messages, which she understood to mean he expected an explicit text in return. Sometimes she wouldn’t respond, but he would demand photos of her body. If she sent old photos, he would say, “I’ve already seen that one,” according to Strauss. Speakman sent her photos of himself as well, including a video of him masturbating.

Strauss said that Kunz told him to stop, but he would tell her, “It’s just a game,” and not to worry. He instructed her to delete the texts at the end of each workday and he would do the same.

The interactions left Kunz feeling anxious, withdrawn, disassociated and depressed, Strauss said. Strauss said that  her husband — a former police officer in the ​​Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta town of Isleton — noticed and she told him about the text messages when he confronted her in July 2018. They called the sheriff’s office and attempted to reach Speakman to confront him, but he was occupied. They drove to the sheriff’s office to report the behavior, Strauss said.

The sheriff’s office opened an internal affairs investigation headed by Lt. Robert Nichelini, the former Vallejo police chief. Nichelini’s investigation concluded that Speakman’s conduct warranted termination.

On Sept. 19, 2018, the sheriff’s office sent Speakman a notice of proposed termination. Excerpts of the letter presented in court stated that the investigation found that Speakman had violated the department’s policy against sexual harassment by a supervisor. While Speakman had no direct authority over Kunz, it stated that as a sergeant he could serve a supervisory role during night and weekend shifts and that Kunz had a “reasonable belief” that Speakman had authority over her.

Despite that, a month later at Speakman’s “Skelly” hearing — a mandatory hearing for officers facing discipline — Ferrara decided not to fire him and instead demoted him for six months. In an August 2021 deposition played in court, Ferrara said that he found Speakman “truthful” and “forthcoming” and believed that the texts were consensual.

Instead of being fired, Speakman signed a “last chance agreement,” in which he acknowledged that there was cause to terminate him. Notes from the Skelly hearing read during Ferrara’s deposition quoted Ferrara as telling Speakman that the conduct “occurred while you were in a supervisory role,” and that there was an “expectation that you’re the boss.” Ferrara also referenced statements from Kunz recalling Speakman in a black uniform “towering above her” while working a night shift.

But Ferrara said he found that Speakman had not harassed Kunz, that the contact was consensual and that Speakman was in fact only guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer. “It’s a he said-she said,” Ferrara testified in the deposition. “I didn’t have a compelling case for sexual harassment, and I did what I thought was best for the organization.”

In fact, former Undersheriff Gary Elliott, who signed Speakman’s termination letter, testified in court Friday that its description of Speakman’s authority over Kunz was inaccurate. He said that the first time he read the letter carefully was in preparing to testify during the trial.

Serena Warner, an attorney for the county, argued in court that the texting relationship had gone on for six years and Kunz was covering after her husband found out. She said that in signing the last chance agreement, that the sheriff, the attorneys for the county, Speakman and his attorney “didn’t notice” that there was a reference to sexual harassment that should have been removed “in hindsight.”

Warner also said that investigators had “serious concerns” about Kunz’s credibility, stemming from her reluctance to turn over her phone, despite telling investigators that she had destroyed all the messages at Speakman’s request, and not participating in a third interview, though Nichelini sent Kunz a letter stating that her allegations of harassment had been sustained.

Ultimately Kunz, not Speakman, was fired from the sheriff’s office. Kunz left on medical leave after she reported the alleged harassment and the county cut off her medical insurance later that year. Warner argued that she did not provide timely doctor’s notices while on leave and the county fired her in March 2019.

“Jason Speakman did not sexually harass Melissa Kunz and the county legitimately terminated her employment,” Warner said.

Kunz’s attorneys said that she did not appeal her termination because Ferrara would have made the decision and she didn’t think it would make any difference.

As evidence, they quoted an email from Office of Emergency Services manager Don Ryan from February 2019, which said, “I’m not in favor of any extensions because the employee has made it apparent they want to sue the county.”

Testimony in the trial is scheduled to resume on Wednesday.

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