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County Special Public Defender retires after investigation into anti-police culture

Updated March 21, 2024 - 7:55 pm

The Clark County special public defender retired after a human resources investigation found she lacked leadership and failed to uphold county policies in addressing the office’s anti-police culture, records obtained by the Las Vegas Review-Journal show.

JoNell Thomas, who became the department head in 2017, was placed on paid administrative leave in January but left with a $34,601 severance payment, records show. She retired Feb. 22, after the internal investigation into bullying and harassment found lapses in her leadership.

Thomas, who did not return requests for comment, told staff in an email that she was leaving the county after 16 years to work as a federal public defender. The county paid her $125,517 in cashed-out sick and vacation leave in addition to the severance, records show.

When asked why an employee who was under investigation and on leave received severance, county spokesman Erik Pappa said Thomas was eligible for it under the county’s management-compensation plan. He declined to provide further details, citing personnel privacy.

Special Public Defender Virginia Eichacker and Assistant Special Public Defender Darren Cox — both former assistant public defenders at the county — are now running the office, which represents indigent criminal defendants.

Pappa said in a statement that the county was seriously committed to making sure its employees work in an environment free of harassment, bullying and discrimination.

Slow to respond

Clark County managers have often been slow to respond to inappropriate behavior at various county offices.

Management failed to stop two years of turmoil in the public administrator’s office before the Review-Journal wrote about it. The stories prompted Public Administrator Robert Telles to kill Review-Journal reporter Jeff German, according to police and prosecutors who charged him in the slaying. Other high-profile investigations by the Review-Journal also have revealed county oversight failures and wide-ranging problems at the coroner’s office, the public defender’s office and the Henderson constable’s office — all since 2018.

The Review-Journal first exposed the issues at the special public defender’s office in November, when current and former employees claimed that the office was hostile and intolerant toward law enforcement. Some of those employees told the newspaper this month that they were not interviewed by HR until after the newspaper reported their concerns.

Human resources received a bullying and harassment complaint in August from a retired California detective who worked at the office as an investigator. The former employee, Monica, agreed to speak to the Review-Journal on the condition her last name not be published as she feared it would affect future employment.

In her complaint, she states that Chief Deputy Special Public Defender Ashley Sisolak – the daughter of former Gov. Steve Sisolak – had a “F-ck The P lice” sign in her office.

Ashley Sisolak and other staff attorneys also participated in a group chat that targeted Monica after she brought a “Back the Blue” coffee mug to work, according to the complaint. The next day, attorney Melissa Oliver wore a “Blue Lives Murder” shirt into a meeting. The Review-Journal obtained a photo of Oliver wearing the shirt.

In the group chat messages obtained by the newspaper, Oliver wrote: “I’m gonna wear my blue lives murder shirt again. And make sure she sees it. Two can play this game…” Sisolak called Monica’s mug “copaganda” and wrote “Acab,” which according to the Anti-Defamation League website is slang for “all cops are bastards.”

All of the attorneys in the group chat — including Oliver and Sisolak — still work at the county, Pappa said. He declined to say if they were disciplined.

Investigation ongoing

Oliver and Sisolak did not return requests for comment. The president of the public defender’s union, David Westbrook, said he could not comment on the investigation, which he called ongoing and unresolved.

Thomas emailed both Monica and Oliver the day of the incident, writing that the mug and T-shirt had offended staff and violated county policy, records provided by the county show.

But the county’s HR investigation found that Thomas knew Oliver had worn the shirt to work that day and failed to prevent her from walking into the meeting with it on. It also states that Thomas “routinely ignores or refuses to address concerns within her department.”

Monica told the Review-Journal that she planned to resign after the harassment, but she was let go the day after she filed her complaint because she was still in her probationary period. The chat messages between employees stated it would be a problem if she were allowed to pass probation.

Thomas told HR that she felt she could not address the behavior of the others because it was a matter under investigation, records show. She did institute a new dress code policy in September, which included clothing that was “not political” or “offensive,” according to an email released by the county.

After learning of the county investigation, Monica said she was happy to see that her claims were taken seriously, but she wished that there had been more discipline for everyone involved.

“I’ve never heard from anyone at the county regarding my termination, and it would have been nice to get at least an apology,” she said. “But really they owe an apology to more people than just me.”

Additional complaints

After Monica’s complaint, the county received two others, records show. They corroborated Monica’s version of events but included additional information regarding an alleged hostile work environment.

HR substantiated a claim of retaliation made by then-Assistant Special Public Defender Jordan Savage, whose emails and records show that he apologized to Monica after the incident and repeatedly urged Thomas to take a stance against the workplace bullying.

According to the HR report, Savage claimed that Thomas threatened to fire him in a meeting with two other staff attorneys who began “attacking his strong position against bullying in the office.” HR also found that Thomas supported the inappropriate confrontation and “failed to de-escalate or end the meeting when things became aggressive and hostile.”

In a statement provided to the Review-Journal, Savage, who retired in January, referenced the county’s strict policy against this type of conduct.

“Bullying is wrong regardless of which side of the political spectrum it comes from,” Savage said. “We do not tolerate bullying from 7-year-olds on the school playground. We definitely should not tolerate it from educated adults in a professional law office.”

Contact Briana Erickson at berickson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5244. Follow @ByBrianaE on X. Erickson is a member of the Review-Journal’s investigative team, focusing on reporting that holds leaders and agencies accountable and exposes wrongdoing.

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