Four San Juan County Sheriff's Office employees file civil complaints against Sheriff Ken Christesen, others

Dan Schwartz The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Four San Juan County Sheriff's Office employees have filed a complaint against Sheriff Ken Christesen, Undersheriff Ron Anderson and Capt. Brice Current for unjust demotions, work-place harassment and demands to support Christesen's re-election campaign.

Capt. Shane Utley, Public Information Officer Beth Utley, Lt. Lisa Haws, and Sgt. Matt Wilcox are the plaintiffs. Their attorney is the Albuquerque-based lawyer, Michael Mozes.

The civil complaint was filed April 16 and alleges violations of the First and Fourteenth amendments to the Constitution, an implied contract of employment, and the government conduct act.

The county and its board of commissioners also are named as defendants.

County Executive Office Kim Carpenter declined comment for this story as it involves ongoing litigation.

Christesen, who spoke for Anderson and Current, said he believes the complaint is politically motivated.

"I cannot comment because this thing is under litigation and it is a personnel matter," he said. "However, I will say take a look at the people involved and the timing of this event."

The election for sheriff is June 3, and Christesen is competing against Bloomfield Police Chief Mike Kovacs. The president of Bad Boyz Bail Bonds, Daniel Goldberg, is also running.

Marlyn Wyatt in 2010 and early 2011 made a bid for the office with Kovacs as his undersheriff. Christesen said he's facing the same group of people with Kovacs, instead of Wyatt, vying for the top job.

But Kovacs denied that his campaign sparked the civil complaint.

"This has nothing to do with my campaign," he said.

Kovacs said he has known "there was something stirring" because the plaintiffs are his friends. But the first time he read the 31-page complaint was when The Daily Times emailed it to him, he said.

Kovacs added that he considers the defendants his friends.

However, he said some of the allegations disturb him. If he were sheriff, his employees wouldn't have to worry, he said.

"If it's true," he said of the claims, "that's a travesty."

During the 2010-11 election and near the end of her tenure as the detective lieutenant, Haws vocally supported Wyatt, according to the complaint. And during Christesen's campaign, while walking door-to-door, he told residents in the county he planned to "'get rid of the Haws mafia,'" the complaint states. Haws husband is also a deputy.

Two months later, once Christesen was sheriff, he demoted Haws. Christesen denies this.

Haws experienced other harassment, according to the complaint, and on March 25 — after Christesen had repeatedly denied her requests to attend a prestigious FBI training course, a class for which the bureau had chosen her — she attempted to file a complaint with the county's human resources department. But the complaint was not accepted.

Beth Utley and Wilcox also filed complaints with the Human Resources department but are unaware of any investigation, according to the document, and the same day Shane Utley filed his complaint Christesen and Anderson confronted him.

In January, Beth Utley learned of an opening for office manager, and she was the only employee at the time qualified for the position, according to the complaint. Christesen intended to fill the position with an under-qualified man, according to the document.

When his decision was challenged, Christesen placed two under-qualified women in the position and promoted the male applicant, according to the document.

Current by then was criticizing Beth Utley's job performance and generally speaking poorly of her, according to the document.

Current told Utley's husband, Shane, that she was "'just trying to sabotage the sheriff' and 'make him look bad' after Current believed Ms. Utley had not done all in her power to make a (Sheriff's Office) golf tournament a success," according to the document.

While golfing another time with Kovacs, Current "spent a considerable amount of time 'bad mouthing' Ms. Utley," according to the document.

In a March meeting addressing budget cuts, Current told the room "if any jobs are to be cut, then 'Beth's should be the first to go,'" according to the document.

On March 11, Christesen told Shane Utley, Current, Anderson and another deputy that he needed to know he had their support in the upcoming election, according to the document. Then Christesen, Anderson and the deputy walked out of the room, pretending to answer a phone call, leaving Shane Utley and Current alone.

"Current, acting as the mouthpiece of Christesen, then began questioning the support of Mr. Utley," according to the document.

Shane Utley told Current he supported Christesen, according to the document, but Current said he needed to donate to the sheriff's campaign and plant signs in his yard supporting the sheriff's re-election.

During the discussion, Christesen roamed the hallway outside, often looking inside the room, according to the document.

"It was obvious that Current was acting at the behest of Christesen and merely repeating questions and comments Current and Christesen had discussed before hand," the document states. "As proof of this motive, Current, who had no authority to speak about or direct such matters, stated that Mr. Utley would only be Christesen's undersheriff if he complied with the demands Current was making."

Mozes advised his clients against speaking to the media. In a written statement, Mozes said: "The (Sheriff's Office) has brazenly used official authority to coerce employees to vote and toe 'the Christesen line' or face retribution and alienation. This retaliation has been ongoing for years now. The citizens of San Juan County deserve a Sheriff's Office that is depoliticized for the purposes of ensuring that law enforcement acts professionally — not politically."

Christesen, after reading the full statement, said Mozes is a "paid mouthpiece."

Mozes said in his statement that the facts included in the complaint are supported by documents, Sheriff's Office records and conversations.

The county has hired an independent agent to investigate the allegations, Christesen said. He said he and his administration will fully cooperate.

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