Alleged cover-ups of wrongdoing, a failure to act on internal investigations and a lack of written procedures for investigating misconduct are undermining the administration of Family Court marshals.
The swirling allegations, which grew from complaints that marshals abused two women who appeared in Family Court on unrelated matters, highlight mounting concerns about misconduct among the officers who are supposed to keep the peace in a highly charged court that deals with domestic problems.
Family Court, a division of Clark County District Court, has 20 judges who oversee a variety of domestic issues, including divorces and child custody and abuse cases.
Providing the backdrop in the unfolding drama is a bitter legal fight by the 112 marshals assigned to both Family Court and the Regional Justice Center to shift from court supervision to instead become Clark County employees. The marshals believe the county would establish written guidelines for dealing with disciplinary matters.
In December, the Clark County Deputy Marshals Association asked the Nevada Supreme Court to recognize the marshals as county employees. The courts opposed the move, but the county indicated it “neither supports nor opposes” the effort and would recognize the marshals if ordered to do so.
“There’s a lack of administration and supervision under the courts, which is the problem,” said attorney Adam Levine, who represents the marshals union. “There are laws governing the investigation and discipline of peace officers. Because the judiciary and the court administration have attempted to assert control over the marshals, these laws are not being complied with.”
Levine also represents former Marshal Ron Fox, who was fired after an internal investigation by court administrators into an allegation that he groped Monica Contreras, 28, who was in Family Court with her 3-year-old daughter on Aug. 8, 2011, for a brief hearing related to her divorce.
In a courtroom incident captured on video, Contreras complained to Hearing Master Patricia Doninger that Fox assaulted her in a nearby witness room under the guise of searching for drugs.
Contreras alleged Fox touched her buttocks and breast and ordered her to lift and shake her bra so he could determine whether she was hiding drugs or drug paraphernalia, according to internal court documents.
On courtroom video, Doninger is seen playing with Contreras’ daughter and appearing to ignore the woman’s emotional description of the incident and plea for help.
Fox tried to get her to recant the allegations. When she refused, another marshal, James Kenyon, handcuffed her and took her into custody. Her crime, as described by Fox, was making false allegations.
As she’s about to be led away, a hysterical Contreras is heard on the video pleading with the seemingly indifferent hearing master, “How could you do this to me? How could you watch? How could you watch?”
Then she tells the marshals, “Leave me alone. I don’t want to go to jail. I’m just trying to defend myself.”
As Fox makes arrangements to send Contreras’ daughter to Child Haven, the girl runs up to the marshals and tells them not to take away her mother.
Contreras was taken to a holding cell, where she was subjected to urine and field sobriety tests. Fox contended she was displaying the demeanor of someone on drugs. The tests results were negative.
Marshals cited Contreras on charges of providing false information to a police officer and disturbing the peace, both misdemeanors.
Months later in May 2012, she pleaded no contest in Las Vegas Justice Court to a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge that had been changed from the charge of providing false information. The disturbing the peace charge was dismissed.
Court officials would not say whether her daughter actually ended up in Child Haven.
Officials also refused to say whether Doninger, who is still a hearing master, was disciplined for looking the other way.
Records show the marshals asked Las Vegas police the day of the confrontation to investigate Contreras’ allegations against Fox. Detectives interviewed her at Family Court, but later dropped the investigation after they concluded she “changed her story numerous times.”
Little was heard about her allegations after police dropped the case until Contreras filed a complaint against Fox at the Regional Justice Center on Oct. 25, 2011, and the internal court investigation was launched.
FIRING, SCATHING REPORT
Fox denied the allegations, but was placed on administrative leave on Nov. 1, 2011, and ultimately fired.
Assistant County Manager Ed Finger, who served as a hearing master in post-termination proceedings, issued a scathing 12-page report upholding Fox’s firing.
“Fox, and to some degree Kenyon, simply intimidated and bullied the complainant in a way that is shocking and almost incomprehensible, using the complainant’s own freedom and custody of her three-year-old child as threats,” Finger wrote.
But in December, Levine filed a petition in District Court seeking to overturn Fox’s firing. Levine also asked for a court injunction to stop all disciplinary proceedings against marshals until written procedures for investigating misconduct complaints are in place and available to the public, as state law requires.
Levine argued Fox did not get a fair hearing. Without written procedures to guide investigators, Leonard Cash, the assistant court administrator who oversees Family Court, was able to tamper with witnesses, he alleged.
Kristina O’Connor, Family Court’s office services manager, can be heard in an audio recording of her interview with investigators saying she felt “uncomfortable” that Cash approached her before the interview.
O’Connor told investigators Cash wanted her to recall a key aspect of a conversation that she could not remember.
“Why is an assistant court administrator telling witnesses what to remember right before an internal affairs interview?” Levine asked.
Allegations also surfaced that some Family Court marshals, including their supervisor, Lt. Steve Rushfield, participated in a cover-up of the assault allegations against Fox.
But it is unclear whether the allegations were substantiated and what, if any, action was taken.
This is not the first time Rushfield has been scrutinized.
He came under an internal investigation for a May 20, 2010, incident in which he is alleged to have choked a 23-year-old woman restrained in a chair in a holding cell.
The woman, Crystal Williams, was at a hearing in Family Court to support a friend. After a confrontation with marshals outside the courtroom about her use of a cellphone, she was taken to a holding cell and strapped into a restraining chair.
Marshals found she had outstanding traffic warrants in the city and were holding her for city marshals.
According to one of the four marshals in the room, Williams was combative and constantly screaming. The marshal, who asked not to be named in fear of retribution, said Rushfield grabbed her by the throat with one hand, shoved her head back and said, “You’re in my house, bitch. Shut the f---- up.”
Rushfield is also alleged to have broken her cellphone.
“There was no reason to put his hand on her throat,” the marshal said.
Before an internal investigation into the incident, Rushfield summoned all the witnesses to the back of the courthouse to “get the story straight,” the marshal said.
Court personnel were slow to report the alleged wrongdoing out of fear of retaliation from Rushfield, who they believed had the ear of the judges in Family Court, the marshal explained.
“He walks around like he’s untouchable,” the marshal said. “We were scared of losing our jobs, but we realized that something was wrong and it needed to be brought to someone’s attention.”
Las Vegas police also were asked to investigate the incident, but in early 2011, detectives with the Criminal Intelligence Section of the Metropolitan Police Department decided the matter was best left for administrative action by the court.
“We took a preliminary look at it, but thought it was more of a personnel issue and turned it over to the court administration,” said Lt. Dave Logue, who runs the intelligence section.
Two years later, Steve Grierson, the District Court’s executive, has taken no action against Rushfield, even though Bob Bennett, the court’s security director, recommended firing the lieutenant.
Court officials would not allow Rushfield, Bennett, Grierson, Cash, O’Connor and Doninger to comment on this story. Chief District Judge Jennifer Togliatti declined comment.
Mary Ann Price, the court’s public information officer, said court employees are prohibited from commenting on personnel matters and litigation.
“When the actions of any District Court employee are called into question, the court immediately responds by conducting a fair, thorough investigation and, upon completion, taking appropriate action,” Price said.
The marshal who witnessed the alleged choking incident, however, said court officials are covering it up.
“People’s rights are being violated in Family Court,” the marshal said. “They have their own rules and regulations. There is no accountability. None.”
Contact Jeff German at email@example.com or 702-380-8135.