Emails reveal more about city’s response to police misconduct accusations
Steamboat Springs — Facing an investigation into accusations that he helped create a hostile work environment, Steamboat Springs Deputy Police Chief Bob DelValle last week expressed confidence that he and Police Chief Joel Rae would be “redeemed.”
“During many conversations that Joel and I have had over the last few days, we both speak of having faith … that through belief and honest people, we will be redeemed,” DelValle wrote in an email to Sarah Martino, who emailed DelValle to offer him some support.
The email exchange is one of several the Steamboat Today obtained this week from the city through an open records request and from a member of the council.
The emails between City Manager Deb Hinsvark, Steamboat Springs City Council members and the city’s top two police officials offer the public a closer look at the city’s response to the serious accusations of misconduct leveled against DelValle and Rae by former Police Detective Dave Kleiber and other officers.
Rae and DelValle have been placed on paid administrative leave pending the results of an investigation.
Emails show that some council members have questioned and criticized Hinsvark’s response to the misconduct allegations, while others have praised her for staying on top of a “tricky situation.”
They show City Attorney Tony Lettunich warned a member of the council that the council “could not intrude on the investigation without facing substantial liability exposure.”
And they reveal Hinsvark is concerned the misconduct investigation could derail the city’s three-year-old quest to build a new police station.
Council weighs in
The day before the council met behind closed doors last week, council member Sonja Macys was critical of how the pending police investigation was being handled.
“It would be wonderful to create a culture of honesty, integrity, transparency and open government,” she wrote in an email to council member Tony Connell. “Tomorrow I will suggest that Deb and Tony (Lettunich) be removed from involvement with the investigation due to Deb’s obvious bias as noted in the paper and various emails and due to the fact that both Tony and Deb were named in the letter and allegations have been lodged against them.”
In the same email, Macys referred to Hinsvark as the leader of “team stonewall.”
Connell himself said he was planning to propose alternatives and solutions.
The council members made it clear they were going to weigh in on how they wanted the investigation to proceed.
The city has since named a new investigator who wasn’t chosen by the city’s insurance company and hired an outside public information officer.
In several emails to the council, Hinsvark defended how she has responded to the allegations against the top cops.
She also questioned the credibility of the accuser.
“Kleiber is a disgruntled former employee and his statements, and many are hearsay statements, must be taken with a grain of salt,” Hinsvark wrote to the council on March 23. “We are hundreds of years past the Salem witch trials where anyone could point a finger and with a little emotional persuasion and some mob mentality, cause a burning.”
After Hinsvark announced her plan to use the city’s insurance company to select a female investigator, council member Walter Magill expressed support.
“Nice work. Thanks for staying on this tricky situation,” he wrote.
Hinsvark replied that she was sure “this will settle down.”
Concern about investigator
Hinsvark’s decision to hire former Littleton Police Chief Heather Coogan, who was recommended by the city’s insurance company, drew fire from Macys and Connell.
Connell shared some Google research he had done on Coogan, including a link to a newspaper article in Littleton that claimed Coogan left a “hazy” legacy upon her retirement.
Connell said he feared Hinsvark’s decision to hire Coogan, combined with Coogan’s controversial background, could “taint” the results of the investigation in the eyes of the public.
“Thanks for considering an alternative path,” Connell wrote. “You need to act quickly in my opinion.”
Hinsvark said she had Googled Coogan extensively and found no evidence of improprieties.
She also forwarded the council a strong endorsement of Coogan from Craig Police Chief Walt Vanatta.
Concern about police station
On Monday, Hinsvark sent an email to Council President Bart Kounovsky urging him to keep the new police station citizens committee moving forward in the wake of the allegations against the police department.
“I hope you are able to keep the committee on track,” Hinsvark told Kounovsky. “The station isn’t being built as a tribute to Police Chief Joel Rae. It is needed for a squadron of patrolmen/women and investigators to provide the tools they need to do their job well and safely. With everything else they are currently being subjected to, I think it would be a mistake to pull this rug out from under them.”
Hinsvark said Rae wasn’t needed to provide input on “what is needed and why it is needed.”
At its first meeting last month, police station committee Chairman John Kerst called the accusations against the police leadership the “900 pound gorilla in the room.”
He said the claims against the top cops would make the committee’s job more controversial.
The Steamboat Today plans to pursue additional emails that the city withheld from its recent records request citing attorney client privilege.
Macys provided the paper with emails she sent to city staff that appear to have been withheld because City Attorney Tony Lettunich was copied on them.
Macys said she did not copy Lettunich with the intent to withhold the emails, and she wanted them made public.
City Manager Deb Hinsvark said it is the city attorney’s position that if Lettunich is copied on any emails, they are not public record regardless of the content.
Chris Beall, an attorney who represents the Steamboat Today, said that copying the city attorney on an email is not enough to invoke attorney client privilege from the lawyer.
“If the author of the communication is not asking the lawyer for legal advice, it is not privileged,” Beall said.
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