Drug policies draw debate among sheriff candidates

by Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer
Pitkin County Undersheriff Joe DiSalvo, who is running for sheriff, said Wednesday night the last time he did illegal drugs was in 1984.

That drew an incredulous response from one of his opponents in the race, Rick Magnuson, who is a 14-year veteran of the Aspen Police Department, which shares the basement of the county courthouse with the sheriff’s office.

“You’ve never done drugs, since 1984?” Magnuson asked DiSalvo.

“I didn’t say never,” DiSalvo said. “I said the last time I did drugs was 1984. My answer was 1984.”

“All right, all right,” Magnuson said. “I had this question about four years ago with Bob [Braudis] and I was astounded by his answer, and I’m just, I’m not sure if, you know ... if that’s your answer, that’s your answer.”

Magnuson said that he smoked pot six years ago in Amsterdam but that he is “not interested in taking drugs.”

The third candidate, Rick Leonard, said, “I can’t recall the last time I did illegal drugs.”

The question about doing drugs came during the last round of questions during “Squirm Night,” a  political tradition where local newspaper editors ask tough questions of candidates.

In addition to being asked the last time they did illegal drugs, the candidates were asked if they had a medical marijuana card. All three said they did not.

They also were asked if they had ever been arrested.

Magnuson said he had never been arrested.

DiSalvo said he was arrested the night in 2004 when he punched a man in Jimmy’s bar in Aspen. He also pointed out that since the third-degree assault charge was dropped after a settlement agreement, the arrest had technically been erased.

“So technically no, I’ve never been arrested, but honestly, yes I was,” DiSalvo said.

Leonard said he was arrested in either 1980 or 1981 for driving under the influence, and then pleaded no contest and paid a fine in Georgia.

“I learned a very important lesson,” Leonard said. “It didn’t involve an accident or anything of that nature.”

The candidates also were asked, “If you are out for a hike, and you see someone smoking a joint, what are you going to do to this person?”

“Nothing,” answered Magnuson. “Maybe talk to them, but there is no way I’m going to arrest someone for smoking a joint. Marijuana is essentially legalized here.”

Magnuson said he had a “very liberal policy” when it came to soft drugs, especially marijuana, which he said he was “easily available and legal in many cases.”

But he said when it came to cocaine or heroin, “that’s different.”

“I would follow that to the full end of the investigation,” he said.

“Mr. Leonard, what would you do if you saw someone smoking pot?” asked Aspen Times Editor Rick Carroll, who was asking questions along with Aspen Daily News Editor Carolyn Sackariason.

“If it was a young person, I would make a point of getting in touch with their parent or guardian and let them know about it,” Leonard said. “If they were truant, I deal with the truancy. If it was someone camping out, and they were older, it’s a non-issue for me.”

Sackariason was about to move on to the next question when DiSalvo asked, “How come you didn’t ask me that question?”

 Dustin Franz/Aspen Daily News
From left: Rick Magnuson, Joe DiSalvo, and Rick Leonard, all Pitkin County sheriff candidates, are pictured during Squirm Night at Aspen City Hall on Wednesday.

“I think we know the answer,” Sackariason said.

Drug enforcement issues came up frequently during the grilling of the candidates, including how each of them felt about undercover drug investigations.

Leonard said no law enforcement agency head liked to do undercover work because it was expensive, complicated and dangerous, but said it he viewed it as a legitimate “last resort” to root out a drug problem.

He added that it can come down to the question of “am I going to conduct an undercover investigation or am I going to do nothing?”

“I do not support undercover work in Pitkin County,” DiSalvo said after Leonard’s comments. “I do think it violates public trust in a small community.”

DiSalvo added that “we are not at a last-resort level on the war on drugs in Aspen yet.” DiSalvo later said that he felt strongly that anyone under the age of 18 or 19 should not do any drugs.

“The reality is that there is undercover work going on in the county — it is farmed out to the DEA and TRIDENT,” Magnuson said, referring to the Drug Enforcement Agency and a regional drug task force. “I’m not going to farm it out to them, I want to be involved in these decisions and know what is going on.”

He concluded that “I think we should do some” undercover work.

Other issues raised during the evening included the expertise in the sheriff’s department in regard to handling crime scenes.

Leonard called the investigation into 2008’s accidental carbon monoxide poisoning of a Denver family “a mess and a shame,” and said sheriff’s investigators should be sent to an urban area to gain more experience in handling serious crime.

DiSalvo responded that the sheriff’s office gets consistently high marks and reviews from judges and prosecutors on their work.

“I’m proud of the work that our investigators do,” DiSalvo said.

Magnuson also defended the quality of the work in the sheriff’s office, noting that the two detectives on the carbon monoxide case are “exceptional.”

Leonard, who has extensive experience as a police officer in Florida and New York, answered a question from the audience about why he felt after living in the valley for only four years that he would be an effective sheriff.

“I don’t really find this place to be so unique, to tell you the truth,” Leonard said. “Policing is policing and I have more experience than either of the other two candidates. I don’t think you really need to live here for 10 years in order to be the sheriff.”

In response to questions, DiSalvo said he has never asked anyone who works for him to campaign for him, and that he considered the efforts of his deputies on his behalf — such as a float in the Fourth of July parade — as a “gift.”

He also said he had banked over 300 hours of vacation time in anticipation of campaigning and that if he ever talks about his campaign on the job, he deducts it from his vacation hours.

“I’ve been very careful,” DiSalvo said, adding, “I haven’t been on vacation in a long time.”

“How can you, Bob’s always gone,” quipped Leonard, referring to the extensive amount of time that Braudis has been out of Aspen in the last year, in large part for health reasons.

The quip did not draw a smile from DiSalvo.