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San Bernardino County will pay $3 million to settle a lawsuit that alleged sexual abuse in the county’s Public Defender’s Office.

Co-defendant and former Chief Public Defender Chris Gardner denies the suit’s allegations. The settlement does not include an admission of guilt. Gardner is contributing $40,000 to the settlement, paid by insurance.

“I wasn’t going to admit to anything, because I didn’t do anything,” Gardner said by phone July 28.

County spokesman David Wert said by email the suit was settled to protect taxpayers’ money.

“The County maintains that it addressed the matters in question promptly, appropriately, responsibly and effectively when concerns were brought to the County’s attention. The County agreed to settle this case to protect the taxpayers from the high costs of protracted litigation, and to assist the Public Defender’s office in moving forward,” Wert wrote.

Gardner said he wanted to settle the case as long as he was able to maintain his innocence, and as long as he did not pay out of his own pocket.

The plaintiff’s attorney, Brad Gage of Goldberg & Gage, said in a press conference July 28 that the settlement proved that women can get compensation if they speak up about sexual abuse.

“It’s hard, and it takes awhile, but at the end, you can be vindicated. And the way that we vindicate victims in America is through money. I’m sure that you will hear that the county and the Public Defender himself, they disagree, and they claim that there was nothing done wrong. But I submit to you that when there is a settlement of $3,040,000, there are over 3 million reasons explaining why things were done wrong in this case,” Gage said.

Claims of abuse

The suit was brought by four employees of the office, including one public defender, two investigators and one office assistant.

The $3.04 million settlement will be split among the plaintiffs, with each plaintiff receiving between $500,000 and $1 million, Gage said.

The complaint claimed an employee was raped in the office, Supervisor Mark Shoup forced an employee to perform oral sex and Supervisor Jeff Canty took employees in a county car to a strip club.

Gardner was named as the primary abuser. The plaintiffs allege in the complaint that Gardner used his position to invite himself to his employees’ homes, attempted to exchange sex for benefits and placed one of the plaintiff’s hands on his penis.

The complaint says that Gardner took a special interest in Public Defender Investigator Stacy Thacker. It says he built an abusive relationship with her that he sought to hide by intimidation. The suit claims he swerved into Thacker’s freeway lane to successfully intimidate her against telling his wife about their relationship. It also claimed that he drove Thacker from her residence to Newport Beach on Aug. 2, 2020, for what he falsely claimed was work. It further said he drove his car after Thacker opened her passenger’s side door, and slammed her arm into his car console, to prevent her from leaving his car. He persuaded Thacker not to file a police report by promising he would end the relationship and stop being involved in her work assignments, the complaint claims. In November, the suit claims, Gardner called Thacker, told her that he was coming for her and that he’ll never stop. Thacker filed a report with the Newport Beach Police Department in December 2020, the suit continues. The plaintiffs claim Gardner used his official position to stymie the investigation.

Back into private practice

Gardner resigned as public defender the same month. He declined to comment further on the reason for leaving. He joined the Law Offices of Michael Scafiddi as an attorney.

Scafiddi said by phone July 28 that the allegations were untrue to anyone who knows Gardner, and that the county’s loss is his gain.

“I’ve known Chris Gardner on a personal and professional level for over 25 years. For all that time, Gardner has been known as the premier juvenile criminal defense lawyer in the Inland Empire,” Scafiddi said.

Gardner’s true nature is known to all who’ve worked with him, and many attorneys in San Bernardino rallied around him when the case was developing, Scafiddi said.

As public defender 

While working at the Public Defender’s Office, Gardner was responsible for rehabilitative reforms that have changed the way California prosecutes cases, Scafiddi said.

Gardner worked to augment social workers into the Public Defender’s Office, which helped ensure that defendants had the support and resources to lower recidivism rates, Scafiddi said.

There are now around 25 social workers in the office, and other counties have copied the practice, Gardner said.

He also hired many qualified women to leadership positions in the office, Scafiddi said.

“I think this case speaks for itself, with it not going forward to trial,” Scafiddi said.

Before joining the Public Defender’s Office in 2006 as the chief of Human Services Division, Gardner was a partner at Friedman, Gebbie and Gardner. While in private practice, Gardner specialized in juvenile criminal defense. He introduced Scafiddi to the idea of holistic lawyering when they met 25 years ago, which focuses on providing services to help the entirety of a client, not just criminal defense, both attorneys said. Holistic lawyering has since become the Scafiddi firm’s unofficial motto.

Gardner was promoted to assistant public defender in 2010, and to public defender in 2018.

While in leadership, he started the Coalition against Sexual Exploitation with the district attorney, and went on statewide speaking tours to encourage other public defenders to pattern themselves after San Bernardino, he said.

Gardner thanked members of the San Bernardino legal community for rallying around him and the county for their legal support.

The plaintiffs since the suit

The plaintiffs filed their case Nov. 5, 2021.

The plaintiffs have not seen any corrective action at the Public Defender’s Office, Gage said.

“Indeed, the women feel that they have been punished. While the harasser has gone about finding a new job, continuing to work as a lawyer, making a nice living, having accolades and a reputation that is pretty much unsullied. And they talk about how unfair that is and how harmful and hurtful it is to them,” Gage said.

The plaintiffs have also left the Public Defender’s Office. Investigator Michelle VanderLinden is placed on a year of paid leave due to the settlement. Thacker, Deputy Public Defender Laura Leticia Alvarez and office assistant Gricelda “Gracie” Arciniega left the county June 21. 

Four other people have come forward with allegations of sexual abuse at the office, Gage said. 

The complaint brought charges of harassment, quid pro quo harassment, discrimination, retaliation, failure to take corrective action, assault, false imprisonment and a violation of the Bane Act.

The settlement was first reached Feb.1. The San Bernardino Board of Supervisors approved it Feb. 28, but delays in Orange Superior Court kept the case in court until its dismissal July 26.

Scott Spriggs of Kinkle Rodiger & Spriggs and Doug Smith of Smith Law Offices represented Gardner.

Christie Bodnar Swiss and Howard Franco of Collins + Collins represented San Bernardino County.

Orange County Case No. 30-2021-01229991

Read the complaint here.

Read our previous coverage here.

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