DA gets involved in sheriff’s office flap
GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Garfield County commissioners on Monday referred allegations against Sheriff Lou Vallario to the 9th District Attorney’s Office for possible criminal investigation.
The action came after two commissioners received an e-mail last week alleging that a romantic relationship between Vallario and one of his employees is resulting in favoritism in the department and retribution against employees who have voiced concerns about the relationship and its effect on the department.
Vallario has acknowledged the relationship but denied that it is having any impact on his management of the department.
“As far as the relationship, I’m absolutely having a relationship with someone who works for me. Is it influencing my decisions in any way? No,” he said.
He says the allegations are coming from disgruntled employees who don’t like the changes he is making to improve his department.
County attorney Don DeFord said the e-mail includes allegations of what might be considered misuse of public funds, a criminal offense. But he emphasized that he doesn’t know if there’s any truth to the allegations.
The commissioners’ action Monday did not include a specific request for a criminal investigation. It will be up to District Attorney Martin Beeson to decide whether to pursue such an investigation. Beeson said later Monday that he hadn’t yet heard anything about the matter from county officials and it would be premature for him to comment.
Vallario’s office voiced confidence in a statement Monday that Beeson “will recognize the lack of substance and truth with all statements in the anonymous e-mail.” It said the e-mail consisted of “fabricated stories, gossip and rumors.”
The e-mail accuses Vallario of promoting his girlfriend over more deserving candidates.
It says he fired someone who opposed inappropriate behavior by him. It says a critic of his relationship was terminated but then rehired after promising not to talk to a Grand Junction newspaper that had contacted him about the matter.
The Daily Sentinel had set up an interview with one ex-employee who later canceled the appointment.
The author of last week’s e-mail wrote that employees “have reason to fear for their job” if they voice complaints through internal channels within the sheriff’s office.
The e-mail, sent under the account name of Jim Williams, also was addressed to The Daily Sentinel and Glenwood Springs Post Independent. The sender did not reply to a request for comment and his identity could not be verified.
A Jim Williams works for Vallario but says he did not write the e-mail, and declined further comment. Vallario said he doubted that employee would have written it because he recently was promoted to sergeant.
Vallario said it’s more likely that the author chose to use that name to get back at Williams because of “sour grapes” over the promotion and the fact that the department has been advancing people in rank based on qualifications rather than mere seniority.
The promotion of Vallario’s girlfriend, who works in the jail, has particularly concerned people who have contacted area media in recent weeks but been unwilling to be quoted by name.
The sender of last week’s e-mail wrote that Vallario’s girlfriend was promoted over a much more qualified employee, Ron Mitchell.
Mitchell said in an interview that he had far more experience than the woman, including 32 years of security work, some of it supervisory, at the Rocky Flats plant near Denver, and eight years with the sheriff’s office.
Mitchell said he left the sheriff’s office in June after starting to become aware of the relationship between Vallario and the woman, and because of his discomfort after hearing her say that she and Vallario had jointly decided something regarding operations in the jail.
“I made up my mind at that point if that’s the way things are going to be I need to get myself out of there, go find another job and go on, and I did that,” Mitchell said.
“I just didn’t feel like I wanted to be a party to it anymore or stand for the way things were going,” he said. “I just couldn’t see any future there because of the situation that was going on.”
Vallario said department promotions are collective decisions of a committee, not just himself, and his girlfriend was promoted before he was dating her. The promotion was based on qualifications, and on who was most capable of advancing the goals of the department, he said.
“Ron Mitchell, in the time he was there, basically stood around and took up space,” Vallario said.
He also said Mitchell later told him he quit because his wife didn’t want him working rotating shifts.
Vallario said the employee he’s accused of firing because of her concerns about his behavior resigned after he raised issues about her performance.
He also denied rehiring someone to keep that person from speaking to a reporter. But he said all employees know it’s against policy to go to the media — a policy that applies to the author of last week’s e-mail, if the writer is a department employee.
“When we track down who did it, they’re gone,” he said.
He said such actions can’t be defended as whistleblowing, and employees with concerns about him have a more appropriate option.
“My response is then you run for sheriff against me,” he said.
Vallario formerly worked for the Glenwood Springs Police Department and is in the middle of his second term as sheriff. A Republican, he defeated Democratic incumbent
Tom Dalessandri in 2002 and was uncontested in the 2006 election. He can run again in 2010 because voters have exempted county elected officials from term limits.
The e-mail author also accuses Vallario’s girlfriend of exercising favoritism or retaliation toward those she manages, depending on their views toward her relationship with Vallario.
Vallario said her decisions regarding employees have been based only on a desire to improve the department.
“If they’re not willing to step up, improve the organization, and their idea of vision is how do I get to the end of my shift, I don’t want them in my organization,” he said.
He said he’s facing resistance to change within the department from some “old guard” employees at the jail. He said he’s begun focusing more attention there, including addressing matters raised by the American Civil Liberties Union in a suit regarding jail operations.
County Commissioners John Martin and Trési Houpt received last week’s e-mail. Last year, Martin’s daughter, Lisa, sued the sheriff’s office, where she once worked. She claims a jail official sexually assaulted her and she was wrongfully terminated, allegations that Vallario previously has called “totally frivolous.”
To avoid possible conflicts of interest tied to that suit, Martin abstained from voting Monday to refer the new allegations to prosecutors. But both he and Commissioner Trési Houpt voiced concern in interviews about the appropriateness of Vallario having a relationship with an employee. Martin said “no one wins” in such situations.
Said Houpt, “I’ve always thought that it puts everyone in a tenuous situation when you have that type of relationship going on as an immediate supervisor, but we as commissioners are not elected to oversee the sheriff.”
Still, allegations about the relationship’s impacts on the department concern her.
“I do think there should be some way to pursue some accountability if indeed there is some truth to this e-mail,” she said.
Vallario is an elected official with independent authority over his own department and its employees, and the commissioners’ only say is over budgetary matters.
“John Martin and Trési Houpt are not my bosses. … I set my own policies,” Vallario said.
Sheriff’s office policy states that all department members have a right to private and personal relationships that shall remain confidential until they cause disruption of performance of essential duties. If the relationships create an appearance of impropriety or discredit to the sheriff’s office, an employee must obey a supervisor’s commands to alleviate the situation or face disciplinary action.
Vallario is recently divorced and lives with his girlfriend.
“If anybody thinks that I’m going to give up what I have with this lady — who I’m going to spend the rest of my life with — for this job, they’re out of their … mind,” he said.