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Former gov’s daughter, others accused of anti-police culture in county office

Updated November 10, 2023 - 6:28 pm

The daughter of former Gov. Steve Sisolak and some of her colleagues are accused of creating an anti-police environment in a county office that represents indigent criminal defendants, records and interviews show.

Chief Deputy Special Public Defender Ashley Sisolak had a “F-ck The P lice” sign in her office and took part in at least one other obvious anti-law enforcement activity while working at the Clark County special public defender’s office, according to a human resources complaint obtained by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Former and current employees describe a chaotic, hostile work environment that has led to high turnover and a culture that is intolerant toward law enforcement.

“I was just shocked to my core,” said Monica, the retired California police detective who filed the HR complaint and spoke to the newspaper on the condition her last name not be published. “I never thought I’d be working side by side with people that were so hateful.”

Monica brought a pro-police mug to work, which said: “Back the Blue.” The next day, attorney Melissa Oliver wore a “Blue Lives Murder” shirt into a meeting, the HR complaint alleges. The Review-Journal also obtained a photo of Oliver wearing the shirt.

In group chat messages also obtained by the newspaper, employees shared pictures of Monica’s “Back the Blue” mug. Oliver wrote: “I’m gonna wear my blue lives murder shirt again. And make sure she sees it. Two can play this game…”

Ashley Sisolak also chimed in, calling Monica’s mug “copaganda” and writing “Acab,” which according to the Anti-Defamation League website is slang for “all cops are bastards.” She texted that she would order an “acab” mug for anyone who wants one as they could get a bulk discount.

The head of the office, JoNell Thomas, later emailed Monica that the “Back the Blue” mug had offended her colleagues and violated county policy regarding political speech. The HR complaint filed Aug. 30 states that Assistant Special Public Defender Jordan Savage and management analyst Christina Greene apologized to Monica about the “Blue Lives Murder” shirt.

Oliver did not return Review-Journal requests for comment, and Savage, who is retiring in January, said he couldn’t comment on the pending investigation. Savage announced his retirement in an email to staff Monday and confirmed it to the Review-Journal in a statement, writing that he had been thinking of retirement before and the timing seemed right.

“The conduct of others under review and the resulting divisiveness inevitably causes a very difficult working environment,” he wrote. “The shame of these episodes is that it overshadows the great client-centered representation of our most vulnerable citizens.”

When reached by phone, Thomas scheduled an interview with a reporter for the next day but later emailed that she couldn’t discuss personnel matters. Ashley Sisolak said she needed to make sure she could comment and then did not return subsequent phone calls.

Ashley Sisolak was hired by the county in 2016, when her father, Steve Sisolak, was chairman of the Clark County Commission. State law prohibits top government officials from employing relatives at the agencies they head.

Steve Sisolak said he could not comment on the complaint against his daughter and that he had nothing to do with her hiring.

Clark County spokesman Erik Pappa denied a records request for documents related to HR complaints made against the office. He said the county has a policy that no employee may display political items in the workplace, but he could not elaborate on the special public defender controversy because he claimed HR matters are confidential. State law does not exempt personnel records from release under the Nevada Public Records Act.

Grievances filed

SEIU Local 1107, the union that represents some county employees, has filed a grievance against the special public defender, charging the office violated both the union contract and the county’s zero-tolerance policy of discrimination, according to a copy obtained by the Review-Journal.

The special public defender office, which takes on murder cases and felonies that carry a life sentence, typically only has about 40 employees in its ranks. Half of the staff are attorneys. Monica, who worked as an investigator for the attorneys, is one of 22 employees who have started but are no longer employed with the office since 2016, records show. One investigator left Aug. 18 — less than two weeks after he started.

Betsy Smith, a retired police sergeant and spokeswoman for the National Police Association, said she found the details of Monica’s complaint, which the Review-Journal provided to her, concerning.

“We have this planned action to wear this ‘Blue Lives Murder’ shirt. That’s clearly anti-police, and they’re allowed to display it, and that absolutely is a hostile work environment,” she said. “This should be an even-handed situation. In a government office, if they’re not going to allow a ‘Back the Blue’ mug, then a ‘Blue Lives Murder’ shirt is obviously inappropriate.”

Monica alleges in her complaint that the sentiment against law enforcement was felt immediately when she started working there in May. The complaint states that she also heard office attorney Tegan Machnich loudly say in front of her: “Most police are dirty and lie.” Machnich did not return requests for comment.

Victorio Roman, who left the office in October 2020 after nearly two years, said he heard the same statements when he was an investigator. Roman, a former police lieutenant and a licensed attorney in New York, said non-attorney support staff were often belittled and segregated at Christmas parties and other events.

“I was really perplexed,” he said. “Why do you post that you want former law enforcement to do investigations if you don’t really like us?”

Monica said she planned to resign, but she was let go the day after filing her complaint because she was still in her probationary period. The chat messages between employees repeatedly questioned if she would successfully finish her probationary period.

An email from earlier that month gave Monica’s work performance “five star” reviews. She was concerned that using her last name in this story would affect her future employment and the safety of her family.

Thomas instituted a new dress code policy in September, which included clothing that was “not political” or “offensive,” according to an email obtained by the Review-Journal.

Monica also has filed complaints with the Nevada Equal Rights Commission and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The State Bar of Nevada told her the matter should be addressed “in the appropriate administrative or judicial forum.”

She has yet to hear from the county.

“I’d just like to see some changes there for the staff that’s remaining,” she said.

History of hostility

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. Investigative reporter Jeff German, who wrote the stories, was murdered last year and then-Public Administrator Robert Telles has been charged with murder in German’s death.

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.

Former legal assistant Karen Meyer, who quit the special public defender’s office in January, said county officials told her that there would be no action taken in her complaint because it did not rise to the level of harassment. Instead, the person she said bullied her became her supervisor.

“The county threw me to the wolves,” she said.

Meyer said her colleagues were aware that her husband was a Metropolitan Police Department corrections officer but still made derogatory comments in front of her about police.

One day, she wore a “Vegas Strong” shirt with a Metro badge on the front and a Police Protective Association logo on the sleeve and was told it was inappropriate. But other employees had worn “Black Lives Matter” shirts to work with no admonishment, she said.

Meyer, who has since left the law field, said her mental health deteriorated during the five years she worked at the office. She would have constant panic and anxiety attacks headed to work.

“It sucked any happiness I could have possibly had and left me an empty desolate shell of nothing but feeling like I’m worthless,” she said.

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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