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Jefferson County Sheriff and Board of Legislators reach truce, for now

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Over the past year, Sheriff John P. Burns has come under repeated fire from the Jefferson County Board of Legislators over a growing list of incidents of alleged misconduct in his department.

Lately, however, things seem to have stabilized, with both sides content to move forward with business as usual though tensions lie just beneath the surface.

“Where we’re moving forward to I’m not exactly certain, but I think things have stabilized and I’m happy with that,” said Legislator John D. Peck, R-Great Bend.

How long the temporary peace lasts is anyone’s guess, but the results of a special prosecutor’s investigation into a Dec. 1 incident in which a deputy is suspected of drunken driving could shatter or solidify the tranquility. Those results could come as soon as the end of the week, according to Mr. Burns.

In the meantime, an absence of new problems seems to have put legislators’ minds at ease.

“Frankly, there’s been no further incidences,” said Legislator Scott A. Gray, chairman of the board’s Finance and Rules Committee.

The tally of alleged misconduct occurrences began last April with a $50 million lawsuit brought against the county by Deputy Krystal G. Rice, who claimed she was coerced by Detective Stephen C. Cote into posing for a series of sexually provocative photographs under the guise of assisting in an online pedophilia investigation. Though state Supreme Court Justice James P. McClusky dismissed significant portions of the lawsuit because they were filed after the statute of limitations had expired, one action — alleging breach of contract — remains.

Since then, the list of charges incurred by members of the sheriff’s department includes both off-duty and on-duty malfeasance and seems to have coalesced around a Dec. 1 incident in which K-9 Deputy Adam B. Hallett was discovered off to the side of a road in the town of Henderson slumped over the steering wheel of his patrol vehicle with his dog inside and an open bottle of liquor in his center console several hours after he went off duty.

The deputy who responded to the scene, believed to be Matthew A. Vaughn, threw the liquor bottle into a nearby field, according to reports written by Mr. Burns and County Attorney David J. Paulsen.

Following the incident and an internal investigation that resulted only in a ticket for an open alcoholic container, the criticism of Mr. Burns reached its greatest fervor.

The board called upon the state attorney general’s office for an outside probe. Deanna R. Nelson, an assistant attorney general assigned to Jefferson County, recommended that the department establish a protocol governing misconduct, institute regular personnel evaluations and seek accreditation with the state Division of Criminal Justice.

The board apparently was not satisfied with the attorney general’s response to the situation.

A month later, a special prosecutor was appointed to handle the investigation.

Since then, the issue seems to have dropped off the radar, with legislators and the sheriff content to move forward.

Mr. Peck, who raised concerns about oversight at the department in the past, said the appointment of Undersheriff Paul W. Trudeau has helped restore his confidence in the department’s leadership capabilities.

“It’s certainly been a difficult transition between undersheriffs,” Mr. Peck said.

The previous undersheriff, Andrew R. Neff, was suspended with pay in October following allegations that he sent a convicted felon lewd photos using his department-issued cellphone. Mr. Neff retired with full pension and benefits in February. A state police investigation into his actions is underway, though Mr. Burns said he has received some indication that the investigation may be coming to a close.

With the investigations into Mr. Neff’s actions and the Dec. 1 incident involving Deputy Hallett potentially reaching a resolution in the coming weeks, legislators seem comfortable to let things run their course.

“Everything is being managed properly at this point,” said Mr. Gray, R-Watertown, one of the most vocal advocates for an external investigation into the Deputy Hallett incident.

In addition to the unresolved cases involving deputies Hallett and Vaughn, Detective Cote and Undersheriff Neff, there is a third-degree assault charge pending against Corrections Officer Mark H. Kellogg, resulting from an off-duty bar fight in Adams Center.

Issues that have reached a resolution are those involving a corrections nurse who resigned after being confronted about illegally accessing non-inmate medical records and the 60-day suspension served by Deputy James J. Randall, who had a relationship with a woman with a criminal record in violation of department policy. The nurse’s activities were reported to the state Education Department, which licenses registered nurses to practice in the state, according to Mr. Burns. Deputy Randall remains on duty.

Mr. Burns acknowledged that the last year has been a difficult one but said there is little he can do to control the behavior of his personnel when they are off-duty.

Many of the incidents that have occurred over the past year already are being investigated by outside agencies, Mr. Burns said.

As for the ones that are not, Mr. Burns said he has taken all the correct steps.

In the case of Deputy Hallett, Mr. Burns said he brought the strongest charges he could with the evidence he had.

The fact that a special prosecutor has become involved in the case even after the attorney general’s office released its findings is “definitely political,” he said.

Mr. Burns is a Democrat facing a 15-member board composed of 13 Republicans and two Democrats.

“I’ve never been one to back down from, number one, doing what’s best for the citizens of Jefferson County and trying to run a tight ship here and standing up to the legislature,” Mr. Burns said.

But things seem to be trending in a positive direction.

Mr. Burns said that morale at the department, which suffered a bit during the last year, is now on its way back up, and the department is working toward receiving accreditation from the state.

The major hurdle in that effort is receiving the county’s permission to conduct personnel evaluations, which the sheriff said the board is loathe to grant for fear of union demands for concessions.

But the unions are behind the measure, Mr. Burns said.

And moving forward, the department will be quicker to clamp down on misconduct, he said.

Detective Sgt. David J. Pustizzi Jr. and Lt. Kevin M. Amann have been sent to a disciplinary course to learn how to handle such incidents.

“They know if there’s any more incidents that we’ll really come down on them for anything,” Mr. Burns said. “The sergeants all know they either report the stuff or they’re going to be looking at some issues.”

Despite the intense attention from the media and the legislature over the past year, Mr. Burns said that when he talks to the public, “90 percent of the people will tell you they see it as nothing more than the legislators going after me.”

Mr. Burns was first elected to office in 2002 and was re-elected twice.

He said he will not run for a fourth term in 2014.

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