The Yolo County grand jury issued a report Tuesday critical of Sheriff Ed Prieto’s leadership style, accusing the county’s top cop of engaging in nepotism, favoritism and intimidation practices reminiscent of the “wild, wild West.”
As a result, the 260-employee Sheriff’s Department has become “burdened by poor morale,” though the grand jury’s investigation did not reveal any instances of willful or corrupt misconduct, according to the report.
The grand jury initiated its investigation at the request of the Yolo County Board of Supervisors, which in a twist Tuesday afternoon released a statement saying the report failed to be responsive to the “numerous serious complaints” the board had received about the Sheriff’s Department’s work environment.
“Furthermore, the board believes the grand jury’s findings, in many cases, are superfluous to the more serious allegations,” the statement says, adding that board members plan to seek clarification of the report’s conclusions.
Titled “Yolo County Sheriff: Leadership Practices from the Wild, Wild West,” the 11-page report takes Prieto to task for the hiring of an immediate family member to the department — Prieto, in fact, has two daughters who work for the agency, one as a detective and the other as a crime-scene investigator — hiring personal friends as temporary employees and allegedly retaliating against workers for complaining about him.
Prieto, 70, who was elected to his fifth term last week after running unopposed, declined to be interviewed about the report Tuesday but issued a prepared statement saying that a “thorough inquiry and analysis of evidence-based facts will lead to enhanced procedures, policies and protocols, if necessary.”
“As stated in other grand jury audits, the department’s oversight maintains an efficient level of service to the public,” the statement says. “We continue to strive for top performance in all sections of our department, continually search for best practices and always seek better ways to serve the public. This commitment is not only embedded in our overall mission, but also in our daily work.”
According to the report, the scope of the allegations against Prieto, an elected official, were considered significant enough that the grand jury formed an ad-hoc committee to conduct the investigation and sought legal advice from the state Attorney General’s Office to ensure unbiased counsel.
The grand jury also interviewed its 21 witnesses under subpoena — including one member of the Board of Supervisors and members of several other county departments — noting that those who had participated in the county’s three past internal investigations of the Sheriff’s Department did not believe they were performed confidentially, “thus preventing them from speaking openly and freely.”
Among the allegations raised in the current report:
* Prieto hired a family member to the department in 2001 and protested the county’s nepotism policy when it was brought to his attention several months later. The relative was rehired with a salary increase when the Board of Supervisors amended the policy in 2003 and has since received preferential treatment for herself or her division.
* Sheriff’s employees reported being “threatened, intimidated and had experienced adverse employment actions as a result of challenging the sheriff’s agenda,” including reassignments, disciplinary actions and internal-affairs investigations. Workers also disclosed that Prieto sought information from them about the pending grand jury probe.
* Deputies are held to “unwritten work standards” that affect their performance evaluations, with premium value placed on high-level arrests. In the Field Operations Division, baseball metaphors are used to rank officers’ performances, with citations equated to a “single” and felony arrests a “home run.”
* The county’s Human Resources Department does not provide “proactive oversight” of the county’s personnel policies and procedures when it comes to the Sheriff’s Department, and has not updated its harassment or ethics training requirements in more than a decade. Records of Prieto’s participation in such training are spotty, the report says.
In addition to its findings, the grand jury issued nine recommendations that include reviews and revisions of the county’s nepotism policies, training requirements and evaluation processes.
Don Saylor, chair of the Board of Supervisors, issued a statement Tuesday saying he and fellow board members are “deeply concerned” about the grand jury’s findings as well as the results of the Sheriff’s Department’s previous internal investigations.
The prior investigations stemmed from a series of lawsuits filed against Prieto and the county in federal court — two of them by female employees alleging they were subjected to unwanted hugs and kisses from the sheriff, the third by an African-American deputy who alleged Prieto used racial slurs to describe him. The first two cases are still pending, while the third was dismissed by a judge who ruled there was insufficient evidence that Prieto had created a hostile work environment.
“The Board of Supervisors has a strong commitment to ensuring a safe work environment and a culture of support for all employees of Yolo County, regardless of the department in which they work,” Saylor said.
— Reach Lauren Keene at [email protected] or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter at @laurenkeene