Sheriff’s candidate Michael Buglione didn’t have to say much during what was described in advance as a “meet and greet” at the monthly meeting of the Woody Creek Caucus Thursday night.
Some of Buglione’s supporters — a handful of people in the audience who peppered his opponent in the Nov. 8 election, incumbent Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, with highly critical questions and statements — did a lot of the talking for him.
The tension was high at the Aspen Community School gymnasium during the hour-long portion of the meeting allotted to the two men vying for the role of the county’s top cop.
“I felt ambushed,” DiSalvo would say Friday, the day after the meeting, “My supporters in the room felt the same way. What was supposed to be a candidate meet and greet was actually an unmoderated debate with people in the audience interrupting me and talking over me without letting me finish an answer. I had expected a different environment.”
It was an unusual situation for an elected official who has had little trouble getting reelected every four years since voters first gave him the job in November 2010 following the announced retirement plans of his mentor, longtime sheriff Bob Braudis, who passed away in June.
And it started innocently enough, with DiSalvo and Buglione each reading statements touting their credentials for the job, essentially explaining why they are the better choice.
Buglione, a former sheriff’s office supervisor who now works in the construction industry, spoke of his previous law enforcement experience and said he would be a “full-time sheriff.” He took aim at DiSalvo’s contention early this year that the county needs a new, state-of-the-art jail. Buglione said employee housing for deputies and traffic enforcement should take precedence over the millions of dollars that would be spent on a new jail facility.
DiSalvo spoke of his 37 years of experience in law enforcement and the progress that’s been made since he took office. He cited better relations with other Colorado sheriffs, improved 911 emergency communications technology and development of a structured incident management team that served the county well during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Addressing the jail issue, he said the facility needs to be safer for both detainees and jailers, but that planning a new detention facility is lengthy, involves many community players and ultimately will be decided by county commissioners. Currently, Pitkin County houses its long-term detainees at the Garfield County Jail in Glenwood Springs, a decision DiSalvo made following a string of safety incidents.
“There is no definitive plan for the jail,” DiSalvo said. “There is no size, there is no location, there is no cost. There is no design, there is nothing but some commissioners and a sheriff looking at talking to consultants and seeing what is best for our community.
“The only thing that we’ve really done as far as future thinking [on the jail] is they asked me for a Christmas list. My Christmas list was, we need to separate men and women. We’ve had interactions in jail that are inappropriate. And I want a mental health facility and/or detox facility [at the jail],” DiSalvo said.
A few minutes later, it became obvious that DiSalvo — Buglione’s former brother-in-law and employer — had stepped into the proverbial lion’s den. Aspen resident Ruth Harrison said she didn’t understand his position and asked, “Why are you so bent on having a new jail?” Buglione then cited newspaper reports early this year in which DiSalvo spoke of the need for a new jail and then later softened his stance.
DiSalvo then turned to Bill Dinsmoor, chair of the Woody Creek Caucus, for assistance in moderating the discussion.
“I will moderate when necessary,” Dinsmoor said.
DiSalvo then sought to answer Harrison’s question. “When I said ‘new jail,’ that means remodel, remove, rebuild — it could be anything. … I said ‘new jail,’ let’s stick to it. What I mean was we need something different than what we have.”
A few minutes later, Aspen Village resident Ellen Anderson, who like Harrison was wearing a button expressing support for Buglione, spoke up on a topic that has already become a campaign issue: DiSalvo’s interest in Lift Vodka, a company primarily owned by his friend, cycling celebrity Lance Armstrong.
“I want a full-time sheriff,” Anderson said. “I feel as a taxpayer, that’s what I’m paying for. And I really want someone who has a passion for public service, not private enterprise. And I believe that Michael has that.”
She said she understood from her friends that DiSalvo spends an inordinate amount of time in Palm Springs, where he owns a house. “I have a problem with that because you’re getting paid a lot of money to be sheriff,” said Anderson, a former employee of the sheriff’s office.
DiSalvo asked Anderson if there was a question.
“I’m asking, do you really want to be sheriff, and if so, why are you spending so much time in private industry?”
DiSalvo said there are “ridiculous rumors” that he spends six to eight months outside of the county. He said that county employees with his tenure get eight weeks of paid vacation annually, but that he’s not a county employee. As an elected official, he doesn’t have vacation-time limits.
Still, he said, he spent eight weeks away from Pitkin County last year, and worked more than a few hours on most of the days he was away.
“Anything else [outside of eight weeks] is a lie by uninformed people,” DiSalvo said.
Anderson pressed him about a statement he made in the press regarding his role in “schlepping” vodka. The Lift Vodka controversy has been blown out of context, the sheriff continued.
He referred to a situation in which the vodka was manufactured and delivered to the company’s facility in the Aspen Airport Business Center, but it was boxed incorrectly in cases of 12 bottles instead of six.
“I offered to help and we sat at the Airport Business Center for four days, moving cases from 12 packs to six packs. They were not delivered to restaurants. They were not delivered to liquor stores,” he said. “That was [the context of] my comment of ‘schlepping’ ...”
DiSalvo said he was gifted 5% ownership in the company by Armstrong, describing it as “a handshake deal.” He said he receives no compensation and his name is not associated with the company in its official “paperwork.”
Buglione chimed in, saying that DiSalvo was “under investigation” by the state regarding his role in the vodka company.
“I am not under investigation, Lift Vodka is,” DiSalvo replied.
DiSalvo continued to be a target for the remainder of the impromptu debate. No one in the audience posed questions to Buglione.
Another woman wearing a Buglione button criticized DiSalvo for terminating two school resource officers after they received gifts from parents of students. DiSalvo said that wasn’t the case: They weren’t fired for receiving the gifts; they were fired for lying about it, he said.
DiSalvo also addressed criticism about his office’s patrol boat at Ruedi Reservoir. He said the vessel is necessary because of increased activity at the reservoir and the frequent public safety issues that have arisen there.
But what came next led to raised voices involving DiSalvo, Buglione and Buglione’s wife, Holly. And it came after DiSalvo said he wanted to address “the elephant in the room” — the reason why Buglione left the sheriff’s office in early 2019 following decades of friendship with DiSalvo.
Basically, according to DiSalvo, Buglione shirked his responsibility of chaperoning a high school fundraiser at Bumps restaurant that was organized by Buglione’s teenage daughter, who was 17 at the time. The fundraiser ended up turning into a teen party, with no adult chaperones, and there was evidence of alcohol and cocaine use. A girl who was at the party received a minor-in-possession charge in connection with and following the event. The incident was documented in a recent story by The Aspen Times, which obtained information through a Colorado Open Records Act request.
Buglione said he didn’t attend the event because he was out of the area receiving law enforcement training. Following an investigation by the sheriff’s office, DiSalvo demoted Buglione from his supervisory position to a jailhouse job. That led to Buglione’s resignation after nearly two decades in local law enforcement.
At the school gymnasium, DiSalvo laid the blame at Buglione for failing to attend the event as a chaperone and also failing to notify others in the sheriff’s office that he would be away. Buglione contends that since the sheriff’s office assigned the training, it was the department’s responsibility to assign another chaperone.
DiSalvo said his investigator obtained statements from Buglione in which he said he “forgot” about the fundraiser. At the Woody Creek event, Buglione denied that he told anyone he forgot.
The fracas continued, with DiSalvo urging all those who are interested to examine public records.
After the event was over, DiSalvo lamented that the sheriff’s race had taken a turn away from civil discourse. He said he wasn’t sure if he would participate in any more off-the-beaten-path candidate forums, but added that he would probably attend the traditional Squirm Night event in mid-October.