Lawsuit alleges Hanford credit card abuse, sexual harassment and wrongful dismissal

Paula Lofgren, center, has filed claims against Hanford Community Development Director Darlene Mata and Hanford City Director Mario Cifuentez in a recent lawsuit.

Explosive discrimination, sexual harassment and the unfair dismissal trial of former Hanford finance manager Paula Lofgren lift the veil on what she describes as a toxic workplace where a cranky and autocratic city manager , Mario Cifuentez, made sexual advances at her and described Community Development Director Darlene Mata as a “mean” and “rude” person.

Lofgren also alleges financial misconduct, saying that then Hanford City Council member Francisco Ramirez and two other unnamed council members abused and abused a city credit card while they were traveling. The lawsuit alleges that city manager Mario Cifuentez was aware of the actions of Ramirez and unnamed council members and did nothing about it.

The lawsuit also said that during his first months of employment in August 2016, Lofgren found $ 3 million “hidden” in another fund that was supposed to be in the city’s general fund, used for operations. daily.

Lofgren filed a civil lawsuit for wrongful dismissal and sexual harassment on June 4 in Kings County Superior Court. She is represented by Taylor M. Prainito of Los Angeles.

Ramirez, who is now mayor, and Cifuentez have denied the allegations both in the city’s official response to the trial and in telephone interviews.

The Hanford city attorney filed a response on July 7 denying all of the allegations.

Credit card abuse

It was Lofgren who was responsible for the city’s credit card (CalCard) operations, policies and procedures. Among those policies was the requirement that the card never be used for personal purposes and not for the purchase of meals, according to the lawsuit. City employees received an advance for pre-trip meal purchases. Additionally, the CalCard was not to be used for fuel purchases, as city employees were given a gas card, according to the lawsuit.

Ramirez has taken several work-related trips and received an advance before traveling, according to the lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, when Ramirez returned from his travels and handed over the travel documents, he was missing receipts. In addition, he had used the CalCard to purchase meals even though he had received an advance for this purpose.

Next, City Clerk Sarah Martinez was tasked with reconciling the use of the cards, according to the lawsuit. “When Martinez spoke to the board member (Ramirez), he refused to produce receipts and he refused to admit that the food purchases were wrong.”

Lofgren raised the issue with then interim city manager Mike Olmos, who called the city attorney. The issue was also discussed with the mayor and deputy mayor, according to the lawsuit.

Later, a similar incident happened with two city council members, and Lofgren enlisted the help of Cifuentez, who was now city manager. “Lofgren never knew whether Cifuentez brought up the issue with the board members or not because he never discussed it further with her or gave her an update, even when there had been a another incident with a council member after that, ”the prosecution said.

Lofgren felt that Cifuentez ignored the seriousness of the problem and completely ignored his authority in this area. Lofgren said in the lawsuit that she made a good faith effort to inform her supervisors / managers of what she believed to be illegal conduct.

The lawsuit also alleges CalCard abuse involving the purchase of flowers by city employees. “Cifuentez just didn’t want to respond to everything Lofgren pointed out, no matter how serious. “

Sexual harassment

City manager Mario Cifuentez reportedly told Lofgren that he was the kind of person who needed affection and that his ex “trophy wife” had cheated on him, according to his lawsuit.

“He went on to tell Lofgren that he’s the kind of person who needs affection that his wife wouldn’t give him and that he had been married and divorced before his current wife,” the suit said.

“Lofgren was in complete shock and very uncomfortable because this extremely personal information was not appropriate for the job and was absolutely unprofessional,” the lawsuit said. Lofgren said she felt harassed by Cifuentez’s comments about his wife, including, but not limited to calling her a “trophy wife.”

Lofgren replied that she had divorced herself and Cifuentez replied that it was good to know. He then asked, according to the lawsuit, if she had ever been married or had a boyfriend.

This comment led Lofgren to believe he was fishing to find out if she was in a relationship because everyone knew at work that she had been married, had a daughter and talked about her all the time. current boyfriend over six years old, the lawsuit says.

“Lofgren,” the lawsuit said, “always felt very uncomfortable when Cifuentez spoke about her personal issues as she felt it was inappropriate, unprofessional and harassing.”

The lawsuit also describes the relationship between then-director of community development, Darlene Mata, and Cifuentez, who Lofgren says had known each other since working together at Visalia.

Lofgren said in the lawsuit that Mata was trying to undermine Lofgren’s accomplishments in the finance department. She described Mata as follows: “Mata had a reputation for being hostile to other employees, rude to people, including citizens, constantly taking time off work, making false statements about them and trying to get them dismissed. people. “

Lofgren said at least two council members tried to have Mata’s former city manager sacked, according to the lawsuit.

“Lofgren and other staff quickly found out that Cifuentez had obtained much of his information directly from Mata and he did not bother to verify whether it was true or not,” the lawsuit said. “Cifuentez spent a lot of time talking to Mata in his office and Lofgren believes Mata told Cifuentez false defamatory lies to Cifuentez about Lofgren,” the lawsuit said.

Mata’s attorney, Rachele Berglund, did not respond to an email or phone call requesting a response from her client to Lofgren’s allegations. Berglund is representing Mata in a more than $ 1 million lawsuit against the city over allegations of sexual harassment against council member Art Brieno.

Termination a total surprise

Lofgren said it was a total surprise when she was fired on August 11, 2020. The lawsuit said Cifuentez gave her a termination letter, and when she said he didn’t communicate any issues to her and he replied, “Yes, I know, but the budget this year…” He also reminded her that she was an employee at will.

When she was assessed in 2018, she received an “exceptional” rating, according to the lawsuit. During her tenure, she reduced the city’s $ 100,000 utility billing loss to about $ 20,000. Other actions by Lofgren, according to the lawsuit, saved the city $ 1 million in liability expenses.

Prior to being hired by the city, Lofgren was director of business and finance at the University of California at Berkeley. She was hired by former city manager Darrel Pyle on August 29, 2016 as chief financial officer after longtime Hanford chief financial officer Tom Dibble retired on July 2, 2017.

Other allegations in the lawsuit are sexual harassment in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act, quid pro quo sexual harassment, discrimination on the basis of disability in violation of the Fair Housing Act for the employment, failure to provide reasonable accommodation in violation of the Fair Employment Housing Act, failure to engage in an interactive process, retaliation for engaging in a protected activity in violation of the Fair Employment Housing Act .

Lofgren’s lawsuit says she suffered from a disability and / or a health problem.

The city has denied all of Lofgren’s claims. He is an “ex-employee who is not happy with the way things have turned out,” said city manager Mario Cifuentez. He said he didn’t want to go into specifics because the case is ongoing.

In his response to Lofgren’s trial, Hanford City attorney Mario Zamora said the city was not responsible for any harm and that the plaintiff had not indicated a cause of action and was not entitled to no amount of money. Zamora’s denial also said the case should be closed and the city should be paid money for the costs of the lawsuit.

Lofgren said in the lawsuit that she exhausted all administrative remedies before proceeding and that she wanted a jury trial, general and special damages, attorney’s fees and money in excess of $ 25,000. . She said she suffered from humiliation, emotional distress, mental and physical pain and anguish.

Reprinted from articles in the Hanford Lemoore’s future

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