Sheriff, deputy discuss termination decision
Fired sheriff’s deputy Ann Stephenson and Sheriff Joe DiSalvo used to be good friends, she said.
“He helped my husband and I move into this house,” Stephenson said Monday in the dining room of her Basalt home. “I don’t know where it went south, to tell you the truth.”
Now, the two are on pace to be on opposite sides in a courtroom.
Stephenson, a former Pitkin County Sheriff’s deputy, has filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) over her termination in March after nearly 30 years with the department. A sexual-discrimination lawsuit against DiSalvo, the county government and the sheriff’s office will likely be filed in U.S. District Court after the EEOC has investigated the matter for six months, her attorney said.
On Friday, the attorney, Todd McNamara of Denver, sent DiSalvo and Pitkin County Attorney John Ely notice of Stephenson’s anticipated lawsuit. By law those intending to sue governments in Colorado must file a “notice of claim” before filing a lawsuit.
The standard for EEOC investigations is 180 days, however inquiries are rarely complete by then. After the six-month period, though, potential plaintiffs can ask for, and almost always receive, “a right-to-sue” document that permits litigation in federal court, McNamara said.
The relationship between Stephenson and DiSalvo apparently started going south in August 2011, eight months after he took office following a landslide election win. That month, he demoted her from being one of four patrol directors, a position she said she had held for 15 years, back to deputy status.
McNamara, in the notice to sue, says the demotion was “the result of specious and ambiguous charges, including that she was not supportive enough of the sheriff and his policies.” Stephenson said one reason DiSalvo fired her was her failure to have productive weekly shift meetings, something she denied.
The demotion “was perhaps the most shocking thing to me because I thought he would either terminate me or keep me, not demote me two ranks,” she said. “I’ve dedicated my life to that agency. I truly believe in my heart of hearts that he expected me to resign on the spot when I was demoted. But I love the work.”
DiSalvo on Monday said he knew going into the job that there would be friction among some of his employees with the turnover in leadership. But the reason Stephenson was fired had nothing to do with her support, or lack thereof, for him, he said. The termination decision hinged on a traffic accident Stephenson was in while on patrol in February, he said.
Investigating an earlier accident on Cluny Road near the Aspen airport, Stephenson was reversing her patrol SUV down the dirt road when she clipped a citizen’s truck.
Stephenson said she knew her vehicle’s side mirror had been bent back. But after using a flashlight to inspect the other vehicle, she said the truck’s mirror had folded in as it was designed to do and that she didn’t observe any more damage. So she drove to the airport — her next patrol stop — reporting the accident to a fellow deputy while en route, says the notice to sue.
A county dispatcher soon called her and said the citizen wanted to speak with her.
“He indicated that there might have been a little damage to his left rear quarter panel,” McNamara wrote in the notice.
Stephenson immediately called her supervisor to report the accident, and met the man and a Colorado State Patrol trooper at the Aspen Airport Business Center to discuss the collision, the notice says. Days later, the state patrol issued her a ticket for careless driving, which resulted in a $169 fine and a four-point penalty that was reduced to two points against her license.
Stephenson “acted above-board and honestly throughout,” McNamara wrote. “Under the circumstances, she did all that she could have reasonably been expected to do.”
DiSalvo disagrees. Colorado traffic laws, which don’t exclude law enforcement officers, mandate that drivers report the accident, wait for police to respond and then remain until they are cleared, he said.
That mandate aside, DiSalvo said he also holds his deputies to a higher standard than the public.
“I stand by my decisions,” he said.
But Stephenson and McNamara claim she is a victim of a “good ole boys network” that originated under former Sheriff Bob Braudis and continued with DiSalvo.
“Numerous male deputies have committed transgressions far more serious than deputy Stephenson’s, even assuming that she violated any departmental policy,” the notice says. “For instance, Sheriff DiSalvo was charged with assault ... a number of years ago, but no disciplinary action was meted out to him.”
The municipal assault charge came after DiSalvo, then director of operations, punched another man while off duty during a row at an Aspen restaurant in 2004. The city prosecutor gave DiSalvo a deferred sentence. As far as inner-office discipline, the Aspen Daily News reported that Braudis put DiSalvo on administrative leave for eight days.
The notice goes on to list several incidents involving male deputies who allegedly were either minimally disciplined or not punished at all.
“Clearly the sheriff’s department and Pitkin County [have] one set of rules for male law enforcement officers and supervisory personnel and another for females,” McNamara wrote.
Braudis did not return messages seeking comment. DiSalvo said he would not comment on the incidents involving male deputies, other than to say “Ann was not present at the time those things occurred, and she was not present in the decision-making.”
Asked about the “good ole boys” claim, he said, “That’s Ann’s opinion, but I think it’s totally out of proportion. It’s not accurate.”
Commissioner clarifies comment on turnover
Pitkin County Commissioner Jack Hatfield on Tuesday clarified comments he made last week about the turnover rate at the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office.
At a meeting June 5, he asked why 10 employees of the office had left since Sheriff Joe DiSalvo took office in January 2011.
He said Tuesday during a commissioner meeting that he inquired about it after citizens told him that many staff had left. But he also said he had spoken with DiSalvo, who told him that five deputies have left, most of whom resigned.
Dannette Logan, the director of the county’s human resources office, said the confusion might have arisen because the county communications center is under the purview of the sheriff’s office. Turnover there is much higher than among deputies, she said.
The inquiry “was never an indictment of our sheriff,” said Hatfield, adding that DiSalvo told him one deputy left because he “didn’t like arresting people.”
“I was just asking the public’s questions,” Hatfield said.