Former Hanford finance director Paula Lofgren’s explosive discrimination, sexual harassment and wrongful termination lawsuit pulls back the curtain on what she describes as a toxic workplace where a moody and autocratic city manager Mario Cifuentez made sexual advances toward her and describes Community Development Director Darlene Mata as a “nasty” and “rude” person.
Lofgren also alleges financial wrong doing saying that then Hanford City Council Member Francisco Ramirez and two other unnamed council members misused and abused a city credit card when they were on trips. The suit alleges that City Manager Mario Cifuentez was aware of the actions by Ramirez and the unnamed council members and did nothing about it.
The lawsuit also said that within her first few months of employment in August 2016, Lofgren found $3 million “hidden” in another fund that was supposed to be in the city’s General Fund, used for day-to-day operations.
Lofgren filed the wrongful termination and sexual harassment civil lawsuit on June 4 in Kings County Superior Court. She is being represented by Taylor M. Prainito of Los Angeles.
Both Ramirez, who is now mayor, and Cifuentez denied the allegations both in the formal city’s response to the lawsuit and in telephone interviews.
The Hanford city attorney filed a reply July 7 denying all allegations.
Credit Card Abuse
It was Lofgren who was responsible for city credit card (CalCard) activities, policies and procedures. Among those policies was the requirement that the card never be used for personal use and not for purchases of meals, the lawsuit said. City employees were given an advance for meal purchases prior to traveling. Also the CalCard was not to be used for fuel purchases as city employees were given a gas card, the lawsuit said.
Ramirez went on several work-related trips and received an advance prior to traveling, the lawsuit said.
According to the suit, when Ramirez returned from his trips and turned in trip documents, he was missing receipts. In addition, he had used the CalCard to buy meals even though he had received an advance for this purpose.
Then city clerk Sarah Martinez was responsible for reconciling card usage, the lawsuit said. “When Martinez talked to the council member (Ramirez), he refused to produce receipts and he refused to acknowledge the food purchases were wrong.”
Lofgren raised the matter with then interim city manager Mike Olmos who called the city attorney. The issue was also discussed with the mayor and vice mayor, the lawsuit said.
Later a similar incident happened with two city council members and Lofgren sought the assistance of Cifuentez who was now city manager. “Lofgren never knew if Cifuentez addressed the issue with the council members or not because he never discussed it further with her or gave her an update, even when there was another incident with a council member after that,” said the suit.
Lofgren felt Cifuentez disregarded the seriousness of the issue at hand and totally disregarded her authority in this area. Lofgren said in the suit that she made a good faith effort to inform her supervisors/managers about what she believed to be illegal conduct.
The lawsuit also alleges CalCard misuses involving the purchase of flowers by city employees. “Cifuentez simply did not want to address anything Lofgren reported regardless of the severity.”
City Manager Mario Cifuentez allegedly told Lofgren that he was the type of person that needed affection and that his ex “trophy wife” had been cheating on him, according to her lawsuit.
“He went on to tell Lofgren he was the type of person that needs affection that his wife would not give him and that he had been married and divorced before his current wife,” said the suit.
“Lofgren was in complete shock and very uncomfortable because this extremely personal information was not appropriate for work and was completely unprofessional,” the lawsuit said. Lofgren said she felt harassed by Cifuentez’ comments about his wife including but not limited to calling her a “trophy wife.”
Lofgren replied that she had been through a divorce herself and Cifuentez replied that that was good to know. He then asked, the lawsuit said, whether she had ever been married or had a boyfriend.
“This comment led Lofgren to believe he was fishing to find out if she was in a relationship because everyone knew at work that she had been married, that she had a daughter and that she talked about her current boyfriend of over six years all the time, the lawsuit said.
“Lofgren”, the lawsuit said, “always felt very uncomfortable when Cifuentez would talk about his personal issues as she felt it was inappropriate, unprofessional and harassing.”
The lawsuit also describes the relationship between then Community Development Director Darlene Mata and Cifuentez who Lofgren said had known each other since they worked together in Visalia.
Lofgren said in the lawsuit that Mata was trying to undermine Lofgren’s accomplishments in the finance department. She described Mata as follows: “Mata had a reputation of being hostile to other employees, rude to people, including citizens, missing work all the time, and making up false statements about them and trying to get people fired.”
Lofgren said that at least two council members tried to get the former city manager to fire Mata, the lawsuit said.
“Lofgren and other staff members soon discovered Cifuentez got a great deal of his information directly from Mata and he did not bother to verify if it was true or not,” the lawsuit said. “Cifuentez spent a lot of time talking to Mata in her office and Lofgren believes that Mata told Cifuentez false, defamatory lies to Cifuentez about Lofgren,” the lawsuit said.
Mata’s attorney, Rachele Berglund, said by email that she had no comment at this time. Berglund is representing Mata in a more than a $1 million lawsuit against the city for sexual harassment allegations against Council Member Art Brieno.
Termination a complete surprise
Lofgren said it was a complete surprise when she was fired on August 11, 2020. The lawsuit said Cifuentez handed her a termination letter, and when she said he had not communicated any problems to her and he replied, “yeah I know, but the budget this year…” He also reminded her she was an at will employee.
When she was evaluated in 2018 she received an “exceptional” rating, the lawsuit said. During her tenure she reduced the city’s $100,000 utility billing loss to about $20,000. Other actions by Lofgren, the lawsuit said, saved the city $1 million in liability expense.
Prior to being hired by the city Lofgren was director of Business and Finance at University of California Berkeley. She was hired by former city manager Darrel Pyle on August 29, 2016 as finance manager after longtime Hanford Finance Director Tom Dibble retired she on July 2, 2017.
Other allegations in the lawsuit are sexual harassment in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act, quid pro quo sexual harassment, discrimination on the basis of disability in violation of the Fair Employment Housing Act, failure to provide reasonable accommodation in violation Fair Employment Housing Act, failure to engage in an interactive process, retaliation for engaging in a protected activity in violation of the Fair Employment Housing Act.
Lofgren’s lawsuit says she suffered from a disability and/or a medical condition.
The city has denied all of Lofgren’s allegations. It’s an “ex-employee not happy with how things went,” said City Manager Mario Cifuentez. He said he didn’t want to get into the details because the matter is ongoing litigation.
In his answer to Lofgren’s lawsuit Hanford City lawyer, Mario Zamora said the city is not liable for any injury and that the plaintiff fails to state a cause of action and is not entitled to any money. Zamora’s denial also said the case should be dismissed and that the city should be awarded money for the costs of the suit.
Lofgren said in the lawsuit she had exhausted all her administrative remedies prior to suing and that she wants a jury trial, general and special damages, attorney’s fees and money in excess of $25,000. She said she had suffered humiliation, emotional distress, mental and physical pain and anguish.
Reprinted from articles by the Visalia -Hanford-Lemoore Future