Long-settled harassment lawsuit continues to dog Sonoma County sheriff candidate Dave Edmonds

Lauren Ferrara, a young female deputy, accused Dave Edmonds and other sheriff’s officials of discrimination and retaliation in a 2005 lawsuit later settled with the county for $160,000.|

It’s been 17 years since a young Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy filed a lawsuit alleging she had suffered harassment, discrimination and retaliation from the upper echelon of the Sheriff’s Office.

And it’s been 15 years since the county settled that suit by writing a $160,000 check to the woman.

Yet, the lawsuit continues to dog former Capt. Dave Edmonds in his current run for sheriff.

The accusations against Edmonds — that he threatened to discipline the deputy for reporting a racist remark from a co-worker, followed her into the women’s locker room and yelled at her as she cried — have come up at least twice in recent public campaign appearances.

Edmonds, who was one of 14 individually named defendants in the original complaint, denies any impropriety and questions the relevance of the lawsuit, saying, “This has become the focus of my campaign, even (though) I know my performance was ethical, professional and with compassion.”

But he was the first to bring it back up.

Just five weeks before Edmonds announced his candidacy, he called the now-former deputy out of the blue and left a voicemail saying he hoped she was well and that he wanted to resolve the problems between them.

It had been nearly two decades since she’d heard from him.

“I know I was dropped early (from the suit) and what not, but I do want to talk about that stuff, just close the door on those things,” Edmonds said in the May 26, 2021, voicemail, which was provided to The Press Democrat.

Edmonds has positioned himself in his campaign to be Sonoma County’s next sheriff as an outsider, set out to eliminate a culture of bullying and cronyism within the office.

But his critics and opponents point out that he’s been accused of bullying himself.

“That this case should have happened actually indicated that Dave was likely part of that bully culture against women that has been notorious at the Sheriff’s Office,” Kathleen Finigan, a longtime local community activist, told The Press Democrat.

Finigan first raised the issue at a January Homeless Action! candidate forum. Three months later, one of Edmonds’ opponents, retired San Francisco Police Sgt. Carl Tennenbaum, invoked the lawsuit at a Human Rights Commission forum.

Several former and current members of the Sheriff’s Office have echoed the same concerns.

Edmonds, 58, said he would answer Press Democrat questions about the voicemail only if they were submitted in writing.

In an email response to those questions, he said he tried to contact the former deputy because “I knew this case would come up. I knew I had done right by (her) and I wanted to hear her out. ... People can mature. I’ve always felt that in her heart she knows that, too.”

He added that, “I was hoping she would have bigger perspective, now that so many years had passed. This is a tough job, especially for women. I tried my best to help her.”

The woman, Lauren Ferrara, 43, said she didn’t respond to the message from Edmonds, but that it left her stunned and in tears.

“Some may wonder why I chose to speak up now after all this time has passed. Surprisingly, I have Dave Edmonds to thank for that,” Ferrara said in a statement to The Press Democrat.

Though the incident that led to the suit happened 20 years ago, she said she felt compelled to speak out about her experience and what she hopes Sonoma County voters will learn from it.

“Some may think the incident was too long ago and is completely irrelevant to (who) he is now and the position he is seeking,” Ferrara said. “However, others may view this incident as an example of a pattern and practice of bullying and manipulation, which are not ideal qualities in a candidate for sheriff.”

‘Traumatizing’ incident

In an interview, Ferrara said hearing Edmonds’ voice on the voicemail — 15 years after she cut ties with the county — brought her to tears.

“I was even more disturbed that he was trying to close a door on something I’ve been dealing with for years and years,” she said.

In May 2002, Ferrara was 22 and training as the Sheriff’s Office youngest female deputy, when Edmonds, a lieutenant at the time, called her into his office one day.

She said he told her that he’d heard she mentioned witnessing racism in the Sheriff’s Office. Edmonds, she said, demanded she tell him what had occurred.

Ferrara denied it. She told The Press Democrat she never said anything negative about a peer or superior, believing she was vulnerable as a young, gay female trainee.

But when he pushed her further, she told him about a night in Windsor, when her field training officer told her that if she saw a Black person on a porch, “I was to immediately call for backup, stop the patrol car, exit, find cover and draw my handgun.”

Ferrara said the officer told her, “Black people should not be in the town of Windsor. If they were in the area, they were there to commit crimes and were from places like Oakland, Richmond or Vallejo.”

Edmonds and Ferrara agree a conversation about the comment took place, but disagree about what happened next.

Ferrara said Edmonds checked with the training officer, then told her she “made up the whole story.” She said he added that he would put a memo in her personnel file to be reviewed by higher-ups.

“He told me I may be too sensitive about race to be in law enforcement,” Ferrara said.

Edmonds, however, points to a memo he said he wrote following the conversation, which states the field training officer “did use the example of a Black man loitering on a front porch of a home in the middle of the night, but he did so to illustrate that you have to make contact because of the activity, and not because the subject is black.”

Edmonds said he never told Ferrara she was too sensitive about race. Instead, he said, he told her she needed to properly report problems immediately when they arose.

He disputed that he threatened discipline, pointing to the end of the memo, where he wrote, “The issue was a misunderstanding. No parties are at fault.”

After she left his office, Ferrara said she was “devastated by the level of manipulation, corruption and cover-up that had just occurred.” She began to cry and went to the women’s locker room.

Ferrara said Edmonds loudly banged on the door, and before either she or the other woman in the locker room could react, he “barged (past) her.”

“He stormed over to where I was standing by the mirror and stood to where his face was within inches of mine. He was in a complete rage and red-faced. He furiously demanded, ‘What are you crying about?!’” Ferrara said.

“He looked right into my eyes, still inches from my face, and threatened, ‘Just remember, a memo is going in your file.’”

Edmonds disputes this as well. He said he remembers approaching her in the women’s locker room, but it was days after their initial conversation about racism.

During a shift in which he was the only supervisor, he said, another female deputy told him, “Lauren was crying on the floor of the women’s locker room.” He opened the door partially and gently asked after her, he said, and then entered.

“ (Lauren) appeared to not have her composure,” he said, and he told her she should take the rest of the shift off.

“I think I handled everything absolutely professionally with compassion for an employee that was in some level of crisis,” Edmonds said.

Ferrara said the consequences of her interactions with Edmonds were immediate and long lasting. She said that a year later she was reassigned to the Windsor substation, where the deputy she accused of racism worked, in what she believed was retaliation.

She resigned in 2004.

Dismissed, settled

When the lawsuit has come up during his campaign, Edmonds has repeatedly defended himself by pointing to the fact that he was dismissed from the suit in June 2006.

“I was dropped early, and rightfully so,” he said.

But according to Rick Simons, one of Ferrara’s attorneys, Edmonds and all other individually named defendants were dropped from the suit after county liability was established — a standard civil strategy.

“If this guy, now that's he's running for office, claims he's totally exonerated, my answer would be, no, he wasn't. Nobody was totally exonerated except for the people who were dismissed by the court at the very beginning, and he wasn't one of them,” Simons said.

Judge Charles Breyer denied Edmonds’ first request to be dismissed in August 2005, allowing the claims against him to go forward, though he granted dismissals to some other defendants.

The lawsuit never made it to trial. The county did not admit fault, but settled with Ferrara in May 2007 for $160,000.

“Unfortunately, having the lawsuit attached to me kept me from getting a (comparable) job for 15 years,” Ferrara said. “I only just financially recovered from the incident.”

Ferrara said she still has psychological scars.

“It ruined me and it never went away. It caused me to distrust law enforcement,” she said.

An unfavorable reputation

During the campaign, critics have focused on Edmonds’ conduct in office.

“He has a reputation for being a bully as a supervisor and manager and for perpetuating the ‘good old boys club’ mentality,” said Cody Ebert, president of the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, the union representing sworn employees of the office.

Referencing the lawsuit, Ebert added, “This behavior does not reflect who we are as an organization or who we want as our leader, both internally and as a leader in our community.”

Jail Sgt. Robin Wright, who was Ferrara’s co-plaintiff on some of the lawsuit’s claims, worked for the office much longer and said it was common knowledge that Edmonds “bullied people and led through intimidation.”

Edmonds’ financial support and endorsements include few members of law enforcement and virtually no one from the Sheriff’s Office.

Edmonds said his supporters in the Sheriff’s Office are afraid to vouch for him because of agency cronyism that discourages straying from the consensus.

Kimber Williams, former president of the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Association and now-retired correctional sergeant, said that over the 25 years she has known Edmonds, “He always treated me with respect. He treated my partner with respect. Everyone I was around, Dave was always respectful.”

Sally Lopez, one of Edmonds’ campaign managers and a former community services officer at the Sheriff’s Office, agreed, saying, “People change, people grow. I’m sure he wasn’t perfect. … However, I feel in my heart that Dave has integrity. Dave is honest.”

Kevin McGoon, vice president of the deputies’ union, said the lawsuit “is indicative of his overall use of bullying and intimidation in positions of leadership” that “paints a larger picture of poor leadership qualities.”

Nelson Pinola, a tribal administrator for the Manchester Band of Pomo Indians and a former sheriff’s lieutenant who worked with Edmonds, also contends he is not suited to be sheriff.

“He’s basically a bully. He would always try to pick on people who were either women or people of color who he could do this to,” Pinola said, adding, “The way he treated the females, I just thought it was pretty atrocious.”

The allegations against Edmonds arose as the Sheriff’s Office was facing increasing internal criticism for its treatment of women and minorities. In 2004, the year before the lawsuit, all 13 female deputies signed an open letter demanding gender equality at the office.

Edmonds said he never acted in a discriminatory manner.

“I absolutely dispute all of that, categorically deny that I have ever talked that way. It did not happen. I love people,” he said. “It is unfair. It is not me. I don’t judge people. I do not treat people that way.”

He said his critics were speaking out about him “because I am the challenger” of the Sheriff’s Office.

You can reach Staff Writer Emily Wilder at 707-521-5337 or emily.wilder@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @vv1lder.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.