The county has a weird system in place. The sheriff is his own elected official even though his employees are county employees, covered under the county HR system. That gives the County Board of Supervisors obligations, even though they have absolutely no authority over elected officials like the sheriff.
On Tuesday morning, the Yolo County Grand Jury cited Yolo County Sheriff Ed Prieto with a wide variety of issues, ranging from mismanagement, bad behavior, poor leadership, and non-compliance with county policies and procedures.
In addition to the original complaint, the Grand Jury also found acts of nepotism, favoritism and management by intimidation, ineffective training and a sheriff’s department burdened by poor morale. However, “the Grand Jury did not find acts of willful or corrupt misconduct that rose to the level that warranted an accusation.”
By Tuesday afternoon the Board of Supervisors informed the public that they had actually been the entity to request the review, after having received numerous serious complaints and allegations from employees about the Yolo County Sheriff and the work environment in the sheriff’s department, and when it became clear that they needed subpoena power.
But instead of getting a definitive finding from the Grand Jury, they got more questions and potentially a political quagmire.
When we read the report, we were underwhelmed. As Supervisor Matt Rexroad noted, the Grand Jury focused one-third of their report on nepotism, charges that go back over a decade that Sheriff Prieto hired his daughter – changes in the county’s HR policies should have covered those accusations.
A statement from the County Board of Supervisors stated that they believe “the report is not responsive to the concerns brought forward by county employees. Furthermore, the Board believes the grand jury’s findings, in many cases, are superfluous to the more serious allegations.”
Matt Rexroad said that the report underplayed some of the more serious concerns. He noted that buried in the section on poor morale is a discussion of baseball metaphors. “A felony arrest is a home run, so we have some sort of cultural incentive to jack up charges to arrest somebody for,” he noted.
That is indeed a serious accusation, but as Matt Rexroad himself pointed out, the report is so poorly written that it is hard to know what is a verified fact and what are accusations made by employees. We have heard that there are denials as to whether this kind of language was ever used and therefore the veracity of the report may be called into question.
The sheriff himself can only state so much publicly at this time, given pending litigation in the form of sexual harassment suits – at least one that has been thrown out.
But there are clearly some troubling factors here. For instance, the report notes that “the County had been concerned with these same issues and had conducted multiple interviews and investigations into complaints regarding the Sheriff. However, the County’s internal investigations were conducted in such a manner that the employees participating did not believe the interviews were confidential thus preventing them from speaking openly and freely in response to inquiries.”
The report notes that HR itself conducted three separate investigations “regarding alleged intimidation, harassment, favoritism and other acts unbecoming an officer. Two of these investigations were not conducted in an impartial manner. Interviews were conducted onsite at the Sheriff’s Offices and/or interviewees were selected by department leadership. Because of the manner in which these interviews were conducted, employees reported they felt their confidentiality was not protected and feared intimidation and retribution by the Sheriff. Employees explained that they chose loyalty to the Department by remaining silent rather than confront the concerns and issues of those investigations by the County Administration and HR. This lack of confidentiality continues to affect employee morale.”
It was for this reason that the county sought out the Grand Jury to conduct the investigations.
Supervisor Matt Rexroad told the Vanguard that Sheriff Prieto does not want another investigation, believing that the matter has been investigated already. However as Mr. Rexroad told the Vanguard, “We made the complaint because our previous two investigations had been undermined because people indicated that they were unwilling to tell the truth unless they were subpoenaed.”
Mr. Rexroad issued some strong statements indicating that had this been a non-elected department head, “we would fire for this exact same report.” The caveat of course is that they would have to determine that these allegations had a factual basis.
Right now, we just do not know. The county issued a strong statement yesterday afternoon, but it is not clear, at least at this time, who okayed that statement – which contains a statement by BOS President Don Saylor – and we have Matt Rexroad’s on the record comments.
However, while the Vanguard has not spoken at length to Supervisor Jim Provenza, it is not clear that he approved the statement or agrees with it.
At this point, it is our view that these are very serious allegations, but it is not clear if the Grand Jury findings can be read as anything more than accusations against the sheriff.
The Grand Jury indicates it “sought legal advice from the State Attorney General through each step of the investigation.” However, one official acknowledged that the Attorney General’s office did not do as much as originally anticipated.
The county is clearly going to have to investigate this matter further and that will mean an outside agency, with subpoena power. That probably puts it into the purview of the Attorney General’s Office.
The investigator must bridge the gap between accusation and fact and clarify which allegations have been proven by investigation and which are simply allegations.
It is difficult for the county to act here in a decisive matter. Sheriff Prieto is an elected official. The county cannot fire him. All that can be done to remove him from office is to force him to resign or to recall him.
As Matt Rexroad put it: “The Grand Jury took it about halfway there, in my mind. It leaves a lot of questions that are unanswered and I think we have a responsibility to follow up on that.”
And that’s where we are – these are serious allegations, but right now, allegations are all they are.
—David M. Greenwald reporting