FARMINGTON — Sheriff Ken Christesen began questioning the performance of two of his employees less than a month after he learned they would not support him politically, which the employees said was retaliation, according to emails obtained in a Daily Times open records request.
"I have received a lot of information in the past few days," Shane Utley, one of those employees, wrote to Christesen in an email on March 23, "and it breaks my heart to hear the things you, (Undersheriff) Ron (Anderson) and (Captain) Brice (Current) have been saying about me and my wife."
Current wrote back 42 minutes later from his iPhone, "If you are going to make an accusation that I am speaking about your wife you need to be prepared to supply the facts because that is not true."
Christesen said writing the emails to the Utleys is part of his job.
"It's my job, as sheriff, to make sure that we're all held accountable, including myself," he said.
Utley was a Sheriff's Office captain until he retired on Friday citing retaliation as one of his reasons. Utley is part of a group of sheriff's office employees who filed a lawsuit against Christesen and other department leaders claiming retaliation. The emails detail the events that apparently led to the lawsuit.
On April 17, Christesen sent Utley and his wife, Public Information Officer Beth Utley, emails within 18 minutes of each other. The husband and wife said in their individual responses that his emails were retaliatory and "do not have a good faith basis."
Shane Utley said he and his wife went to San Juan County human resource officers Charlene Scott and Roberta Padilla after receiving Christesen's emails, but they took no action. Lt. Neil Haws, who emailed Christesen a similar letter saying he would not support the sheriff politically, also asked Scott to protect him from retaliation. He filed a grievance on July 11 claiming Christesen had retaliated against him.
Shane Utley said he thinks the county's human resource office didn't help him or his wife because it doesn't have power over Christesen, an elected official.
Repeated efforts Thursday to reach Scott by phone for comment were unsuccessful. Her office is closed Fridays.
Without any other options, Shane Utley said, he and his wife filed a lawsuit against Christesen, Anderson, Current, the sheriff's office and the county board of commissioners for unjust demotions, work-place harassment and demands to support Christesen's re-election campaign, among other complaints. Haws' wife, Lt. Lisa Haws, and Sgt. Matt Wilcox, both sheriff's office deputies, are also plaintiffs.
"Just because you file a lawsuit doesn't give you and your friends free reign to not be held accountable," Christesen said. "You will be held accountable." In his email to Beth Utley, Christesen asked her to explain a mistake she made when drafting a letter that was sent to a woman who applied to volunteer at the sheriff's office.
The letter denied the woman citing negative results from a National Crime Information Center background check.
But, according to Christesen's email, the volunteer candidate was denied because of the bad reviews she received from her references.
Utley's office assistant wrote the letter, which was standard procedure, and Utley hadn't read the entire document before signing and mailing it. She said she explained the error to her assistant but took the blame.
"Ultimately, it was my name and signature that were on the letter," she wrote in her response to Christesen.
Utley said the issue was trivial.
"It's trivial?" Christesen said. "It's not trivial."
Utley's actions led to an "untruth," he said, and was one of many mistakes.
In his email to Utley, Christesen also asked her why she had not added photos and a story from an event to the sheriff's office Facebook page and website, and he reminded her he had asked her to do so on April 14.
Utley told Christesen she posted the photos, story and photo captions before 5 p.m. that day.
"I wouldn't know why he would say that," she said in an interview, "and that's why I answered the way I did — (describing it as) retaliation."
Eighteen minutes later, Christesen emailed Shane Utley, telling him he was aware of three chain-of-command issues in the past few weeks and asking for an explanation.
On April 2, Christesen said, the SWAT team was activated to arrest a former deputy, Steve Saiz, who was later charged with harassing and stalking his estranged wife after allegedly threatening to kill her. Christesen asked Utley why he hadn't notified Anderson.
Utley said the detective division requested the SWAT team, and that division is under Current's chain of command. Also, Lt. Shane Ferrari was Utley's SWAT team leader, he said, and he saw Ferrari brief Anderson and later speak with Christesen.
"So based on the above information," Utley wrote back to Christesen, "you can see how a reasonable person would believe that you were both fully briefed."
Christesen said in an interview Utley deliberately avoided notifying him and Anderson.
Christesen then asked in his email why Utley had transferred three of the SWAT team's MP-5 submachine guns to the Region II Narcotics Task Force without prior chain-of-command approval.
Utley told Christesen he has transferred equipment many times "over the years," and he's never needed approval to do it. All supervisors are allowed to transfer equipment, and it's been that way for years, he said.
Christesen said in an interview this is untrue. But Haws said Utley has never needed permission.
In his March 23 email to Christesen, Shane Utley said he knew what the sheriff planned for him and his wife after the election "(regarding our employment at the Sheriff's Office)."
"At the time, he had offered me the undersheriff job so that he could get my support throughout the agency," Utley said in an interview. But, he said, if Christesen were re-elected, he knew the sheriff planned to fire both the Utleys.
Christesen said Utley is trying to pretend he is a victim.
"He's not a victim," he said. "I had no intention of firing him and Beth after the election."
Below Utley's signature in his email is a post script asking Christesen to tell Current to stop talking negatively about Utley's wife. When asked what Current was saying about his wife, Utley referred to the lawsuit.
Current, according to the lawsuit, was criticizing Beth Utley's work performance, telling sheriff's office employees and the public she was trying to "sabotage" Christesen, "bad mouthing" her while golfing with former Bloomfield Police Chief Mike Kovacs, stating she made too much money and saying she is bad at her job and ought to be fired if any sheriff's office jobs were cut.
"It's my job to evaluate personnel in this office, whether it be positive or it be negative," Current said, speaking to Utley's performance. He said he cannot address the comments in the lawsuit.