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Internal battles present hurdles in Jefferson County’s response to lawsuit

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To resolve allegations that have rocked Jefferson County’s law enforcement department, administrators and lawmakers will have to reach what has proven in recent years to be an elusive goal: working in harmony with Sheriff John P. Burns.

That hypothetical harmony will be put to the test today, when the Board of Legislators meets to discuss the matter, probably behind closed doors.

“I’m telling my legislators that regardless of what problems you might think you have with the sheriff, put them aside,” said Chairwoman Carolyn D. Fitzpatrick, R-Watertown. “We’ve got some tough issues. We’re all under the county roof; let’s all work together.”

Mrs. Fitzpatrick said she and Mr. Burns have been trying to meet more frequently.

Legislator Michael J. Docteur, R-Cape Vincent, echoed Mrs. Fitzpatrick’s get-along sentiment.

“It’s in best interest of the Legislature to work with the Sheriff’s Department to resolve all issues, and it’s in the best interest of the Sheriff’s Department to work with the Legislature,” he said. “We have the same constituents that we’re serving. Public health and safety are the No. 1 concern for the Legislature and for the Sheriff’s Department.”

Last week, sheriff’s Deputy Krystal G. Rice alleged in a $50 million lawsuit that Detective Steven C. Cote “exploited” her in 2006 by taking topless photographs of her for use in an online pedophile sting — photographs that no longer can be accounted for, she says. Mr. Cote, Mr. Burns and a supervisor who allegedly knew about the photographs are named as defendants in the state Supreme Court lawsuit.

Now it’s up to the county’s legal team, with the input of the Board of Legislators, to figure out what’s next. Several legislators have privately discussed the possibility of an independent investigation into the conduct at the Sheriff’s Department to answer the question of who knew what, and when, and whether any criminal activity took place.

Set against the backdrop of those allegations are years of nearly open hostility between the Sheriff’s Department and the county’s administration and Board of Legislators. Disagreements have ranged from the bureaucratic to the janitorial; some have prompted attempts by the Sheriff’s Department to seek criminal charges against top county officials.

Even procuring a boat — a new, 24-foot Boston whaler that the state would lend the Sheriff’s Department, gratis, to patrol Lake Ontario — became complicated earlier this month. The Legislature tabled a resolution to accept it because the Sheriff’s Department did not provide the county’s legal team with a contract for the boat nor outline how the boat would be insured.

The sheriff, like the members of the Board of Legislators, is an elected official. A Democrat, he was first elected in 2002, and won a third four-year term in 2010.

Mr. Burns says the Board of Legislators has only the power to set the department’s budget. Some county legislators and administrators disagree, saying they’re responsible for other oversight matters.

For example, in March, County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III emailed Mr. Burns with a request for him to “update everyone with regards to how your budgeted sheriff patrol staff are currently assigned.” Mr. Burns responded by asking why his department was singled out. He told Mr. Hagemann, in an email that county legislators also received, that he would release a statement to the media about the matter. Mr. Burns did not end up releasing a statement.

Mr. Hagemann was appointed by a vote of the Board of Legislators, and runs the day-to-day affairs of the county. He was hired in 1996.

In 2008, a detective in the sheriff’s office recommended criminal charges against Mr. Hagemann after complaints of animal cruelty at the county’s dog shelter. District Attorney Cindy F. Intschert ruled against filing charges.

The detective who sought charges against Mr. Hagemann was Mr. Cote, the same man named in Ms. Rice’s lawsuit.

Mr. Hagemann declined to talk about the previous dust-ups, arguing that they’re irrelevant to the matter at hand.

“I clearly see the issue of the day being removed from any sort of ongoing operational issues that might have surfaced,” Mr. Hagemann said. “Our focus is to work with the county attorney to address the accusations of the lawsuit. That’s it. I don’t see the connection in any way, shape or form of the two.”

Disagreements also have surfaced about whose responsibility it is to clean the building where the Sheriff’s Department is housed.

And a comment during the 2011 elections by Legislator Robert D. Ferris, R-Watertown, owner of Big Apple Music, about expanding the jail was met with this stern rebuke from Mr. Burns: Mr. Ferris “should stick to selling car stereos instead of micromanaging the Jefferson County jail.”

On the recent lawsuit against the department, Mr. Ferris said he had confidence in the Sheriff’s Department.

“I have full faith in the Sheriff’s Department, that they’ll get to the end of it,” he said.

Mr. Burns did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.

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