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Taxpayers May Pay in Sexual Harassment Claim

By Tracy Lehr, KEYT NewsChannel 3 Reporter, tracy@keyt.com
Published On: Nov 27 2013 08:00:19 PM CST
Updated On: Dec 02 2013 04:46:44 PM CST

Santa Barbara County Undersheriff Retires After Sexual Harassment Probe

SANTA BARBARA COUNTY, Calif. -

A sexual scandal implicating recently retired Santa Barbara County Undersheriff Jim Peterson could leave taxpayers holding the bag.

It went public Nov. 15 when former Search and Rescue volunteer Valerie Walston filed a claim alleging sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation, assault, battery, blackballing (California Labor Code 1050,1054), and emotional distress.

The 17-page legal document is filled with lurid details of a relationship that went from cordial to sexual.

The claim seeks in excess of  $10,000 and is the first step toward a settlement or a lawsuit.  

Walston said it cost her a volunteer job she loved as the public information officer for the county's Search and Rescue team known as SAR.  She also said it destroyed her hopes for a similar post within the sheriff's department.

At a SAR dinner last November, Walston said she broke down in tears after Peterson told her she did not get the position she had applied for with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office.  She said she emailed him to apologize for crying.

Walston claims more than 11,500 text messages between them followed.

From Dec. 8 to Jan. 25, she said she met with Peterson in a parking lot on Hope Street three times.

On New Year's Eve, she said they shared mimosas in her car. Walston said she felt she had no choice but to comply with his requests for sexual contact a few weeks later.

Inspired by the dominance/submission book "Fifty Shades of Grey", Walston claims he wanted to use the character names Christian and Anastasia and have a safe word or phrase.  She said they chose the sheriff's name Bill Brown to be used when a line was crossed.

Walston claims they kissed, fondled and groped in the back seats of both their cars.  The claim did not describe his car, but it is considered standard procedure for command staff such as Peterson to drive a county-owned unmarked sheriff's vehicle.

Walston claims Peterson made job-related promises.

In April, she said she met him in a hotel suite during an undersheriff's conference in Santa Barbara.  Who picked up the tab for the suite was not revealed.

One of her claims states a NewsChannel 3 photojournalist took pictures of Walston and Peterson at a summertime blood drive.  

Walston said she had a boyfriend at the time and that Peterson was married, but claimed he told her he had an agreement with his wife.

By August, Walston was not hiding the sexting relationship.  She showed texts and photos to members of the NewsChannel 3 staff at the Dignatarios fiesta event August.

She also texted a photo to a male Channel 3 news staff member who asked her to stop texting him.

Since there were no claims of abuse or harassment at the time, NewsChannel 3 management did not deem the affair newsworthy then.

Elsa Granados, the director of the Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center, said she was not surprised to hear about the photo sharing.  She said survivors of sexual harassment, in the wake of the Anthony Weiner sexting scandal, may try to gauge the reaction and possible support of others.

Walston also showed nude photos of Peterson she received to Sgt. Sandra Brown, a sheriff's candidate, who said it was her duty to report it.

An internal investigation followed and soon the undersheriff announced his retirement without explanation.

Walston said she soon found out her volunteer SAR position was eliminated and that talks about job opportunities with the Montecito Fire District were stalled.

In a prepared statement to NewsChannel 3, Sheriff Bill Brown said the "plaintiff's tort claim is an incomplete representation of what transpired when compared to the results of our investigation.  Due to the threat of a lawsuit I am unable to comment on any specifics at this time, but if the matter proceeds to litigation the rest of the story will be told."  

Law professor Steve Underwood has reviewed thousands of claims against the county and called this one unusually long.

Although she has a legitimate case, Underwood said she is now committed to the statements she made in the claim.

Since Peterson was not fired from his job, his annual $185,704 pension is protected.

Both Walston and Peterson and their attorneys declined requests for interviews.

But they may be asked to testify if the case ends up in court.

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