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Sunday Commentary: Prieto is the One Who Can Stop This Now

Prieto-SheriffThe Grand Jury report that came out this week has the Board of Supervisors frustrated and the media and public confused. It was not a very good, very complete, or frankly a very helpful report.

We can start with the “wild, wild west” title and go from there. The title is not becoming of a Grand Jury report. Frankly, I’m not sure it is becoming of a newspaper headline or even a blog title. It is unnecessarily inflammatory but, most of all, it is inaccurate.

As the Bee wrote, “One would reasonably expect to hear tales of brutality and lawlessness among the ranks of law enforcers. Or at least of outlaws shooting it out in, say, Woodland and Davis. But the grand jury report released this week didn’t deliver any smoking guns, let alone any evidence of a Dodge City-like atmosphere in Yolo County.”

And if the report focused on the shooting of Luis Gutierrez in 2009 by Yolo County Sheriff’s Deputies or actions by two Yolo County Sheriff’s Deputies that caused Judge Rosenberg to throw out separate traffic stops, there might be something that we want to look at to see if there is a pervasive problem in the department.

But, as the Bee notes, “At most, it accuses Sheriff Ed Prieto of being a lousy leader and bad manager whose imposing presence quashes any criticism or complaint among his staff. Plus, he might not have complied with some county-mandated training.”

“For other county department heads, those deficiencies would be enough to be fired by the Board of Supervisors,” the Bee adds. “But in this case, supervisors, who requested the grand jury report, have little power to enforce it.”

It is not that we are not troubled by this report, it is that we do not know whom or what we should be troubled about. Should we be troubled about the way the sheriff runs the sheriff’s department, about the lack of any substance in the Grand Jury report, or about the quick and strong response by Supervisors Don Saylor and Matt Rexroad?

Are the claims made in the Grand Jury report proven facts or are they allegations made by a small number of employees in the department?

One thing that is clear, the Grand Jury can do certain things well, but I’m not sure this is one of them. I think back to the 2008 Grand Jury report that cited the Davis firefighters’ union, the Union President Bobby Weist, and Fire Chief Rose Conroy.

Despite the salacious allegations, the city of Davis had to hire an independent investigator to follow up on the report. The city council then voted to bury it, and the Vanguard and other entities spent five years and three lawsuits to get those findings out to the public. By that point, it’s not that no one cared, but the community moved on and the council and city had other means to deal with the problem.

Clearly, this was beyond the ability of a citizen’s body to investigate. That is a source of additional frustration for the Board of Supervisors who must have believed, with a deputy attorney general assisting the Grand Jury on this investigation, they would get closer to the truth.

The Board of Supervisors seems a bit divided on how to proceed. Matt Rexroad clearly wants some sort of follow up investigation. I think he’s correct that if employees were reluctant to come forward when subpoenaed that the proposed solutions from the Grand Jury in terms of a Survey Monkey are not going to work.

Jim Provenza wants to get clarification from the Grand Jury as to what this investigation means – but I’m not sure there is going to be more that comes out.

For his part, Sheriff Ed Prieto has been reluctant to come forward and address these matters on the record. One supervisor indicated that he needs to become a leader and take control of this.

The sheriff indeed has pending litigation, but the litigation at this point is focused on claims of sexual harassment. Most of this report focuses elsewhere, although a small section focuses on sexual harassment. At some point, the sheriff has to be able to go public, come clean on his version of the facts and allow his deputies to do likewise.

Otherwise, there will always be an air of suspicion.

Enterprise on Prieto

While we blasted the Enterprise for their criticism of the parcel tax discussion, we think they were pretty spot on in terms of their comments on the Grand Jury report.

“The supervisors were not pleased” with the report, they said, noting, “The board believes the grand jury’s findings, in many cases, are superfluous,” they said in a statement.

The Enterprise continued, “No kidding — why, for example, is a 13-year-old charge of nepotism in the report? And why does it misstate the number of relatives the sheriff has on his staff?”

They add, “And what, in the big picture, were the supervisors looking for? To complain publicly about the results of investigation they, themselves, requested smacks of pre-judgment. Did they want more dirt on Prieto? The whole thing is a mess. “

Marcos Breton on Prieto

Writes Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton, “Prieto has Yolo County authorities in a figurative chokehold and there doesn’t appear to be much anyone can do about what last week’s grand jury report partly revealed – at least for now.”

“The allegations are serious: sexual harassment, intimidation, disregarding state labor practices and creating a hostile workforce where some of Prieto’s subordinates – sworn peace officers who carry guns – are afraid to speak against him without the protection of anonymity,” he writes, but adds, “But the allegations against Prieto are not even close to being the worst aspect of this story.”

The key is, “Big sections of the grand jury report against Prieto are a joke and Yolo County supervisors, who asked for the report, weren’t happy with the slim results.”

Like us, he notes the problems begin with the title: “Yolo County Sheriff: Leadership Practices from the Wild, Wild West.”

Quips Mr. Breton, “Putting aside that this is supposed to be a grand jury report and not some blog followed by 17 people, you had better back up such a provocative title. Only 11 pages long, this report doesn’t even come close to examining his actions. Most of it centers on allegations of nepotism against Prieto – allegations that are more than a decade old.”

“This report was driven by Yolo County supervisors concerned that the Sheriff’s Office was eating up more human-resources time than any other county department,” he writes. “It followed a discrimination lawsuit against Prieto from an African American deputy who said Prieto created a hostile workforce that subjected the deputy to ridicule. It followed a suit by two female subordinates accusing him of touching them or kissing them or making comments to them about their appearance.”

He adds, “The grand jury could not determine whether Prieto had followed state law requiring him to receive periodic ethics training and training detailing state guidelines on harassment.”

“Some supervisors, such as Matt Rexroad, testified before the grand jury months ago. Yet nearly a year after the report was requested, jury members waited until June 6 – three days after Prieto was re-elected – to release it to the public,” he writes, though that’s not exactly correct. The report came out on Tuesday, June 10 and Mr. Prieto was running unopposed, so the timing in terms of the election really did not matter unless the Grand Jury’s report had come out in February.

Even in February, there was enough smoke that if someone had wanted to challenge the sheriff, they might have made it a contest.

“I find that very puzzling,” said county Supervisor Don Saylor. “The Board of Supervisors is not satisfied with this report.”

Mr. Breton then writes, “By now you’ve probably noticed that you haven’t heard from Prieto – which brings us to the most troubling aspect of this story. I don’t know if any of the allegations against Prieto are true – he didn’t respond to requests for an interview. But what is undeniable is that Prieto doesn’t have to answer to anybody. He’s not worried about the media and chooses not to talk to us. Supervisors like Saylor and Rexroad have almost no authority over him.”

I cannot say whether Sheriff Prieto has spoken to the Bee, I know that he has declined thus far to speak on the record. I tend to agree with Mr. Breton that he needs to, at this point.

“We can’t reduce his pay or his budget in a punitive manner,” Mr. Rexroad told Marcos Breton.

“Even in the grand jury report, Prieto is not required to respond in any way. But it gets even more interesting. Just getting the grand jury report done was a chore because some key figures wanted no part of it,” Mr. Breton adds to the intrigue.

He writes, “Saylor and Rexroad wanted Jeff Reisig, the Yolo County district attorney, to investigate Prieto, but they said they soon learned that Reisig took a pass due to his close relationship with Prieto. Reisig was unavailable for comment.”

We cannot fault the DA for that. After all, there is a conflict of interest given the close relationship between the DA’s office and sheriff’s department. That is why the Attorney General was the appropriate venue.

Mr. Breton adds, “And the original presiding judge recused himself because of his relationship with Prieto, Saylor said.”

We agree with that as well.

“Prieto is an amazingly engaging guy,” Mr. Rexroad said. “He’s very difficult to go against because he’s a 280-pound guy with a gun and five stars on his collar. … He is a way better retail politician than I could ever hope to be.”

“No one thinks Prieto has done anything that would land him in jail,” Marcos Breton writes. “The issue is that the two sexual-harassment suits against Prieto expose Yolo County legally – and yet there is currently nothing supervisors can do to him. Prieto is so friendly with leading Yolo County legal leaders that supervisors had to rely on a grand jury that clearly whiffed on its assignment – and there is no law-enforcement body with any teeth in place to step in.”

That is the key problem at this point.

As Mr. Breton notes, “That’s a recipe for abuse and corruption, and that’s not a statement against Prieto personally – power corrupts anyone when it is totally unchecked.”

“If any one of the allegations against Prieto were true, a normal department head would be fired immediately,” Mr. Rexroad said. “Nobody wants to cross him, but if any one of these allegations are true, Prieto should not be in charge of a department of 270 people.”

Mr. Breton notes, “Supervisors will ask the grand jury to flesh out the report and clarify what is a finding of fact and what is hearsay. They don’t want a sheriff beyond accepted norms of accountability.”

He concludes, “If Prieto keeps the wagons circled, it will only turn up the heat on him and the many friends who want nothing to do with investigating him.”

Concluding Thoughts

Mr. Prieto is about to start another term of office. He was last challenged for election in 1998 when he first ran. That means he has been elected for a fifth time with four having no challenges, but that’s not unusual.

Don Saylor has now been elected to two terms with no challenge. Matt Rexroad hasn’t been challenged in his last two terms. Jeff Reisig faced no challenge in his last two terms. And when county officials are challenged, like Freddie Oakley, it has been no contest.

We understand the frustration, but Mr. Breton is correct, the supervisors had to rely on the Grand Jury, the Grand Jury blew this, and “there is no law-enforcement body with any teeth in place to step in.”

Mr. Prieto needs to step up and come clean publicly. Forget about the lawsuits, the county needs to cover that, for the sheriff, the integrity of the system is too important to allow this report to sit out there unchallenged and unconfirmed.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About David Greenwald

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

5 comments

  1. Since the Grand Jury took weeks or months to receive and compile the list of complaints against Ed and his Department, he is entitled to some time to prepare a formal response. In fact, Sheriff Prieto did reply immediately to the charges and say he’d reply within the legally allotted time-frame, if possible. I’m not sure what more you could ask of the guy at this juncture.

    Compounding the complexity of responding to the several ambiguous (none of which were investigated to where its “findings” could stand any level of objective scrutiny), is the pending litigation. The Sheriff will be constrained by his legal counsel on how he shall respond to any allegations that have potential “discovery” value to pending lawsuits against Prieto and his organization.

  2. Clem Kadiddlehopper

    Say what? Prieto is the one who can stop this now? Sorry, but that dog doesn’t hunt. The voters of Yolo County are the ones in control of the sheriffs’ destiny.
    The grand jury did exactly what grand juries are supposed to do. While writing the report on their findings, they kept their personal feelings in a box without going rouge. Gee, how refreshing is that??
    The District Attorney and the Presiding Judge did exactly what they are supposed to do as well. They kept their mouths shut, stayed out of the way and let the grand jury system work.
    As far as the board of supervisors being disgruntled with the grand juries findings, that is utter malarkey . This is not their first rodeo. They know the grand jury process. The grand jury hangs the dead chicken around the sheriffs’ neck. The BOS and the news agencies turn up the heat as much as they can to make that dead chicken stink really bad. Meanwhile, the BOS simply sit back in their rocking chairs waiting for the public sentiment to roll in. If it works, they have a recall and the BOS is happy and we all live happily ever after. But in my humble opinion, it’s not going to work this time. Why? Because voters simply don’t care anymore.

    • Davis Progressive

      the voters in yolo don’t have many options at this point for another four years.

      the grand jury really didn’t do what they were supposed to do: few details, no evidence that the allegations were corroborated. i really have to question your understanding of just how poor this investigation was. they basically got one or two guys to make an allegation and printed it without a thorough investigation into whether the allegation was true.

      when is prieto going to come out and say that he has never used baseball rhetoric? that’s never been part of a lawsuit.

  3. “The Attorney General was the appropriate venue.”

    No, the AG’s office is part and parcel law enforcement. That I think is the reason the GJ’s committee report is so very lacking, and was delayed til after elections.

    The AG’s office is unlikely to attack a fellow law enforcement official, and so in this case, they ignored the main issues and instead discussed hiring of family members from years gone by – a dog and pony show of no value.

    • Davis Progressive

      i have to strongly disagree with you. especially under kamala harris, we have been very tough on law enforcement breeches in ethics. the problem here is there is likely not much corroboration to the story and that is on the grand jury, not the ag’s office.

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