San Juan County Sheriff's office responds to claims of retaliation

Dan Schwartz
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Attorneys for the San Juan County Sheriff's Office deny Sheriff Ken Christesen and members of his department retaliated against deputies who did not support him in the recent primary and in the election before that, according to documents filed on June 30 in response to a civil complaint.

Christesen, Undersheriff Ron Anderson and Capt. Brice Current are defendants in the civil complaint, which accuses the three men of demotions, harassment and demands to support the sheriff in his re-election bid. The sheriff's office and the county commission are also named as defendants.

Sheriff's office Capt. Shane Utley, spokeswoman Beth Utley, Lt. Lisa Haws and Sgt. Matt Wilcox filed the complaint on April 16 in New Mexico District Court. Albuquerque-based lawyer Michael Mozes represents the four plaintiffs.

The complaint says sheriff's office officials violated the First and 14th amendments of the Constitution, an implied contract of employment and the government conduct act.

Christesen declined to comment for this article. He referred questions to his attorneys, who could not be reached for comment.

Efforts to reach Mozes were also unsuccessful.

County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter declined to comment on ongoing litigation.

The response to the complaint offers little new information, other than denying many of the claims made in the complaint.

The complaint states the four plaintiffs experienced retaliation under Christesen's administration. It states Christesen, when he was campaigning door-to-door during the 2010 to 2011 sheriff election, told residents if he won he would "get rid of the Haws mafia." Lisa Haws' husband, Neil, is also deputy in the sheriff's office. He served as director of the Region II Narcotics Task Force for nearly six years before Christesen demoted him earlier this month. Christesen has declined to comment on the matter.

The complaint states Christesen demoted Lisa Haws from detective lieutenant to patrol lieutenant about four months after he became sheriff. Court document also allege he told sheriff's office employees this was an attempt to force her resignation.

Christesen also barred Lisa Haws from attending the FBI National Academy three times, and he denied her attendance a fourth and fifth time, even when an academy coordinator asked she attend, according to the complaint.

In March, Lisa Haws asked Christesen whether she'd ever be allowed to attend the academy, and, according to the complaint, he told her he'd make his decision after the June 3 primary election. Lisa Haws "understood at that point that Christesen was connecting any possibility of her ever attending the (academy) to her electoral support for Christesen," according to the lawsuit.

The response to the complaint denies Christesen told voters he planned to remove the "Haws mafia," and it denies he demoted Lisa Haws.

Also according to the response, Christesen's administration didn't allow Haws to attend the FBI academy because she had previously declined to go to the National Staff Command Training. It also states that due to "multiple other factors," she wasn't the candidate for the next national training "who would best serve the sheriff's office and the needs of the community it serves."

The complaint also states Current entered Lisa Haws' office about four months before the primary election and "essentially stated" Shane Utley needed to actively support Christesen. Christesen told Haws days later that Utley, the complaint states, "is playing a dangerous game."

The response denies Christesen's statement.

Around this time, Shane Utley learned Christesen was unhappy with him because he believed the captain was supporting Christesen's opponent, according to the complaint.

The response denies this.

The complaint also states Current had been telling sheriff's office employees that Beth Utley is bad at her job and should be fired. During a March meeting related to budget cuts, Current said "if any jobs are to be cut, then 'Beth's should be the first to go,'" the complaint states.

The response denies Current made these statements.

The complaint further alleges Wilcox was demoted from lieutenant to sergeant and faced retaliation, which the response refutes.

Meanwhile, Christesen doubted Shane Utley's loyalty, despite Utley's initial support, and Utley feared he would be fired. The response denies this claim.

Utley ultimated supported Christesen's opponent, saying in the complaint he was mentally and emotionally worn from Christesen's pressure.

"Mr. Utley also requested that Christesen notify Current to quit speaking poorly about his wife," the lawsuit states.

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