A Pitkin County Sheriff’s deputy who was fired after 29 years for allegedly failing to report a traffic accident said Monday she plans to sue the law enforcement agency, Sheriff Joe DiSalvo and the county government for sexual discrimination.
Former patrol director Ann Stephenson has filed a claim with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which has launched an investigation into the matter.
The claim comes at the same time DiSalvo is defending allegations by former deputies of cronyism and nepotism involved in the promotion of his ex-brother-in-law to director of operations for the office. DiSalvo also spoke about the turnover rate of his office after a Pitkin County commissioner last week raised the issue.
DiSalvo on Monday said Michael Buglione, who was promoted last year, has been renting a home in Basalt that the sheriff owns. Buglione was married to DiSalvo’s sister for 13 years before they divorced.
“I cannot control what people think or perceive but that’s not true,” DiSalvo said of the favoritism charges. “I don’t see the relevance of that when it comes to staff turnover.”
Buglione’s promotion came after Ellen Anderson, a longtime deputy and former emergency management coordinator, retired in 2011. DiSalvo moved Tom Grady, the then-director of operations, to Anderson’s old job of emergency management coordinator, said Joe Bauer, who retired June 5 after 24 years.
DiSalvo said he promoted Buglione to Grady’s former position within a few months of taking office in January 2011, and defended the decision on Monday.
“I’m confident in Michael and in his abilities,” DiSalvo said. “He’s proven them time and time again.”
But Bauer, who acknowledged Monday that he was interested in the operations director position, said Buglione was promoted over himself and three other patrol directors, all of whom had much more experience.
“There was favoritism toward certain people, and if you weren’t one of those people, it was pretty tough,” Bauer said, adding he resigned as a result.
The rental agreement meant Buglione was “paying Joe’s mortgage,” Bauer said. “To me that just stinks.”
DiSalvo said he wasn’t sure how long Buglione has rented his home but said the practice isn’t unusual. Deputy Renee Rayton rented the residence before Buglione, DiSalvo said, and if another deputy wants to rent it after Buglione moves out July 1, he’s open to it (Rayton has resigned from the sheriff’s office and will work through the end of the month).
“It’s always available to someone who works for me because I don’t live there,” said DiSalvo, who lives in Aspen. “I’ve done nothing inappropriate.”
When DiSalvo took office, Bauer said the sheriff put in place a management team that included himself and other long-tenured deputies.
“But right from the start, it became obvious that the knowledgeable people weren’t in the plans for the future,” he said.
Stephenson, who said DiSalvo demoted her last year to deputy after 15 years in a supervising role, was fired March 5 following an accident with her patrol vehicle and a citizen’s truck in early February.
Stephenson was investigating an unrelated accident on Cluny Road near the Aspen airport. After her investigation, she drove her patrol SUV in reverse while backing down the dirt road, DiSalvo said in March, and struck a parked truck near Owl Creek Road.
DiSalvo said he fired Stephenson — whom he said “did a good job for us from the time she started” — because, like all drivers under Colorado law, she should have stopped immediately, reported the accident and waited until another law enforcement officer had cleared her from the scene.
“Every driver, not just police officers, has the duty to report every accident,” DiSalvo said in March. “I hold myself and my deputies to a higher standard.”
On Friday Stephenson’s attorney, Todd McNamara of Denver, sent DiSalvo and Pitkin County Attorney John Ely notice of her anticipated lawsuit. Those intending to sue governments in Colorado by law must file a “notice of claim” as the first step in litigation.
The standard for EEOC investigations is 180 days, however they are frequently still incomplete by then. After the six-month period, though, those who are charging discrimination can ask for, and almost always receive, “a right-to-sue letter” that permits litigation in federal district court, McNamara said. So a lawsuit is very likely in U.S. District Court in Denver after the EEOC’s 180 days, he said.
As for why she was fired, the notice to sue says Stephenson told a fellow deputy about the collision, believing the damage to be minimal. Then, when contacted by an emergency dispatcher and the citizen that the damage involved was worse than she thought, Stephenson contacted her supervisor as is department policy. The Colorado State Patrol eventually issued her a ticket for careless driving.
The eight-page notice outlines allegations and claims for injuries for damages. With the loss of salary, health insurance, vacation and holiday pay, and retirement benefits, Stephenson may claim damages likely to exceed $100,000.
In an interview at her Basalt home on Monday, Stephenson said her pending lawsuit is not about a higher standard but a double standard involving sexual discrimination.
The late Dick Kienast, the Pitkin County sheriff who instilled in local law enforcement the idea of community policing, hired her, she said. The policy calls for, among other ideals, problem-solving and understanding over draconian law enforcement.
Stephenson said she fell in love with public service under Kienast and his protégé, former sheriff Bob Braudis.
But DiSalvo demoted her two ranks in August 2011, “a demotion unheard of in the annals of the department,” the notice to sue says. “Her demotion was the result of specious and ambiguous charges, including that she was not supportive enough of the sheriff and his policies.”
DiSalvo said he knew that when he took over there would be some who don’t always agree with the new boss.
“I expected some turnover, and it happened,” he said. “Sour grapes are not good-tasting.”
Stephenson said she believes the department has fallen from the Kienast standard that made it unique.
“Now it’s becoming a cookie-cutter of any law enforcement agency in the country,” she said.
DiSalvo vehemently disagreed, contending “this department is the best of its size, without question, in Colorado and maybe the country.”
The turnover issue arose last week when Pitkin County Commissioner Jack Hatfield asked in a public meeting why 10 employees had left the sheriff’s office since DiSalvo took office.
DiSalvo said Hatfield was misinformed. He said the number of former employees who have left since he took over is five, comprised of the termination of Stephenson and four resignations — along with Rayton, Anderson and Bauer; longtime deputy Mario Strobyl also recently retired.
Hatfield did not return a message seeking comment Monday.