FARMINGTON — San Juan County Sheriff Ken Christesen has removed the Region II Narcotics Task Force director from his position after nearly six years of service in retaliation for supporting an opposing candidate in the recent primary elections and because his wife was among those who filed a lawsuit against the sheriff, according to sources with knowledge of the matter.

Christesen said Lt. Neil Haws is being transferred, not demoted, because he was Region II director for too long and a change is now necessary. "And it's my decision," he said.

The Daily Times learned of the move from a source close to the Sheriff's Office who asked to remain anonymous.

Haws said he is unclear why he is being removed from his position. He said Christesen broke the news Tuesday, and he has been provided no documented reprimand. Haws will return to the Sheriff's Office for reassignment on Tuesday.

The action is a demotion, Haws says, because his pay will drop and he is losing a position of authority.

Mike Kovacs — who was supported by Haws when he ran unsuccessfully against Christesen for sheriff in the recent primary election — said he's baffled.

Kovacs, who recently retired as Bloomfield's police chief, had served as chairman of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, which worked closely with Region II.

"Why would you remove that guy? It makes absolutely no sense to me," he said, his voice rising in volume over the phone. Sometimes employees become "stale" in their jobs, but Haws loved his job, Kovacs said, and he was one of the best at it.

"I don't get this," he said. "That guy is in a position that probably very few can do as good as he does."

He had worried Haws would face retaliation, Kovacs said, for his choice in the sheriff's race and because his wife, Lisa Haws, and three other deputies filed a lawsuit against Christesen and others for unjust demotions, work-place harassment and demands to support his re-election campaign.

"It's awful suspicious," Kovacs said. He said he believes the removal was retaliation.

Christesen says Kovacs is wrong.

"This is coming from Mike Kovacs?" he said. "Isn't he retired? He's not an attorney, is he? So he wouldn't know whether it's retaliation or not, would he?" Christesen spoke about Haws's removal in general terms. He said everybody has a right to vote for whomever they want, but they don't have a right to "go out and trample whoever you want to achieve your personal agenda." He said some people think they have a right to maintain their position while damaging the organization for which they work. Libel and slander, he said, is not free speech.

Christesen added that this is not the reason Haws was removed.

Haws said it's obvious whom Christesen was talking about. Haws is the only Region II director to ever be unwillingly removed, he and Kovacs said.

Christesen, who was the Region II director from 2004 to 2008, said other directors have been removed against their will, though he could not provide their names. He added that the position is not a career job.

According to the Sheriff's Office policy, Christesen holds the ultimate authority to discipline deputies.

Haws said his demotion wasn't completely unexpected because of the current "atmosphere." He paused on the phone as he drove to the Region II headquarters in Farmington, and declined to elaborate. He said he's unsure how much he can tell The Daily Times without being reprimanded.

His last day is Sunday, he said. On Tuesday he would have been the director for six years.

He loved his job, he said. He loved working with the district attorneys, investigators, police, Farmington city councilors, county commissioners — even Christesen — while directing the task force, he said.

"Oh man, it's just been awesome. I don't know," he said. "I don't know. It's over for me now."

Dan Schwartz covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606 and dschwartz@daily-times.com. Follow him @dtdschwartz on Twitter.