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Teller County Jail deputy disciplined for blowing the whistle

Katherine Jensen says she has always considered herself to be an honest person. Now, she's wondering whether honesty really pays.

After five years as a control officer at the Teller County Jail in Divide, Jensen decided last February to risk her job as a sheriff's deputy by blowing the whistle on what she claims was systematic abuse of taxpayer resources.

Jail officials, she told Teller County Sheriff Kevin Dougherty, were running a private business out of the jail on taxpayers' time and using county equipment.

"I just wanted to tell the sheriff that this is going on, that he needs to do something," Jensen said.

But rather than being protected as a whistleblower, Jensen ended up accused of insubordination, disrespect toward superiors and "jumping the chain of command." Some of the accusations were leveled and investigated by the very same officers whose misconduct she had reported.

Ultimately, Jensen ended up getting a written reprimand and was placed on six months' probation.

Meanwhile, her supervisors at the jail, who admitted having used county resources for private gain, received only a verbal warning -- the least severe disciplinary measure used by the sheriff's office.

The sheriff's office defends its handling of the matter. Sheriff Dougherty and Undersheriff Marcus Woodward say they investigated and addressed Jensen's allegations and took all disciplinary actions according to proper procedures.

"She has not been maltreated or mistreated," Woodward said of Jensen.

Taking care of business

Jensen got along well with her supervisors at the jail until a private business, Quixtar, entered the picture. She had received consistently superb performance evaluations, was given the title of "lead officer" in the jail, and was charged with training other deputies.

A so-called "network sales business," Quixtar recruits people from all walks of life to sell consumer products ranging from underwear to cars. Those who join are encouraged to recruit friends, family members and co-workers as sub-distributors and are rewarded with a percentage of the sales commissions that their recruits earn.

In December of 2001, Jensen was invited to attend a Quixtar recruiting session at the home of Lt. Stan Bishop, the head administrator for the Teller County Jail. Bishop and his wife, who were already Quixtar distributors, talked Jensen into joining the business.

Over the next several months, Jensen was constantly pressured into not only selling Quixtar products, but also buying them from the Bishops, she says. She spent hundreds of dollars each month buying everything from toilet paper to tennis shoes.

At the same time, Jensen alleges, she began noticing that Bishop and another jail officer, Sgt. Bill Cooner, were conducting Quixtar business on county time. They used the jail's Internet access, phones, copy machines, fax machines and postage stamps to do Quixtar business, and held business meetings in jail offices, she claims.

"As taxpayers, we were paying for them to do that on Teller County time," Jensen said.

On one occasion, Bishop and Cooner used a sheriff's office vehicle to deliver products Jensen had ordered to her house in Woodland Park.

Last fall, Jensen decided she didn't want to spend any more time or money on the business and quit. Bishop tried to talk her out of her decision. When she persisted, he and Cooner began giving her the cold shoulder -- "just walking by me, like I wasn't there," she recalled.

Later, when she returned from a period of medical leave, Jensen found that Bishop had replaced her as lead officer without telling her, she says.

Confidence men

Jensen began to feel concerned that her job might be in jeopardy. By February, she decided to share her concerns with Dougherty, a former undersheriff who had just taken office as sheriff.

"I just was trying to tell him, 'Hey, this is what's going on,'" Jensen said. "I went to him in confidence."

Dougherty asked Jensen to put her allegations in writing, which she did. But then, he turned the matter over to Woodward, the new undersheriff. That upset Jensen, who had expected that her allegations would be treated confidentially. Woodward, she says, is a "buddy" of Bishop's and Cooner's.

Woodward and Dougherty, however, say Jensen's allegations were taken seriously and investigated thoroughly.

"I spent a great deal of time investigating," Woodward said. Though he's known Bishop and Cooner for many years, that had no bearing on the investigation, he says.

Bishop and Cooner admitted to having used county vehicles twice to deliver Quixtar products, but denied Jensen's other allegations. And other than asking the two, there was no way to prove any additional wrongdoing, Woodward maintains.

"It's 'he said, she said,'" Woodward concluded. "How do you substantiate that?"

Dougherty admitted, however, that the sheriff's office didn't fully examine records to determine whether Bishop had used county phones or e-mail to do Quixtar business. "We felt comfortable with the fact that he said that he had not," Dougherty said.

Bishop and Cooner were warned not to engage in any private business on county time again, and they have not done so since, Woodward says.

Accusations of insubordination

Though Bishop did not return phone calls from the Independent seeking comment, Cooner said neither he nor Bishop ever used county equipment to do Quixtar business, except for the two incidents involving the use of a vehicle.

Those two transgressions warranted nothing more than verbal warnings, according to Dougherty and Woodward. Bishop and Cooner testified that the vehicle use had taken place during off-duty hours. And on the day they delivered products to Jensen's home in Woodland Park, they happened to be in the neighborhood anyway -- so they didn't really go out of their way to come to her house, Cooner said.

"I don't see where anybody's been ripping off the taxpayers," Dougherty said.

Meanwhile, Jensen was about to face disciplinary action as a direct result of having come forward.

Records in Jensen's personnel file show that when Woodward asked Bishop about the Quixtar allegations in early February, Bishop turned the tables on Jensen by suddenly claiming that she had made "insubordinate" statements to two supervisors two months earlier.

Jensen maintains the allegation is fabricated. She says she was never even told about her supposed insubordination, and records show she wasn't disciplined for any such incident. Nonetheless, Bishop's sudden accusation would later be used against her.

A few days after the early February confrontation, Woodward and Dougherty asked Jensen to meet with them to discuss the outcome of the Quixtar investigation. Rather than lauding her for bringing the matter to their attention, they reprimanded her. By going straight to the sheriff, rather than to Woodward or one of the office's lieutenants, she had jumped the chain of command, they told her.

"She came directly to me, which she's not supposed to," Dougherty said. "She broke policy right then and there, which really upset me."

The infraction earned her a verbal warning -- the same degree of punishment meted out to Cooner and Bishop.

The chain of command

In the months that followed, Jensen says she felt like a pariah at the jail. Superiors began watching her daily job performance closely, looking for an excuse to confront and criticize her, she claims.

In late April, she got into an argument with a superior officer about lockdown procedures. The officer reported the incident up the chain of command to Cooner, claiming Jensen had been disrespectful and insubordinate. Cooner immediately ordered a full investigation and alerted his boss, Bishop.

Feeling mentally shaken by the situation, Jensen decided to call in sick the next day. Normally, she would be required to call her boss, Bishop. Dreading the prospect of having to explain her absence to Bishop, she once again tried to go straight to the sheriff. When Dougherty wasn't available, she ended up speaking with another lieutenant in the sheriff's office.

The lieutenant promptly reported Jensen's call to Bishop and Cooner and provided them with a transcript of the conversation, which had been recorded. Bishop and Cooner then added another incident of "jumping the chain of command" to the accusations they were making against Jensen.

On May 2, Cooner wrote a memo to Bishop, saying he had investigated Jensen and concluded that she had indeed violated office policies.

"This is the second time I know of that she jumped the chain of command," Cooner wrote. "It is my recommendation that Mrs. Kathy Jensen be terminated."

Following a disciplinary hearing on May 6, attended by the Independent at Jensen's request, Woodward recommended a less severe sanction -- a written letter of reprimand. Bishop proceeded to not only give Jensen the written reprimand, but also six months' probation.

Disciplinary action

Dougherty says he has no concerns about the fact that the accusations against Jensen were investigated, and disciplinary action against her imposed, by the very same people whose improper activities she had reported.

"I don't, as long as the undersheriff is overseeing what their findings are," Dougherty said. "He has looked over all the paperwork. He reviewed it and OK'd it."

Cooner, asked whether the Quixtar affair had prejudiced him against Jensen, replied, "Not at all."

And while Bishop couldn't be interviewed for this story, Dougherty dismissed the possibility that Bishop might have an "agenda" against Jensen.

"He doesn't have a grudge," Dougherty asserted. "Most of this is in Kathy's mind."

Dougherty and Woodward also say they don't see anything wrong with Jensen receiving a more severe reprimand for jumping the chain of command than Bishop and Cooner received for admittedly misusing taxpayer equipment.

Jensen, they say, was a repeat offender, having jumped the chain of command twice -- in February and then again in late April. The sheriff and undersheriff also cite allegations of prior violations by Jensen -- including the ones Bishop suddenly made in February.

"She has had numerous infractions," Dougherty said.

Woodward downplayed the severity of the latest disciplinary action against Jensen, calling it a "minor" reprimand. Despite all that has happened, he says he wants Jensen to stay in her job and be happy. "She's a good employee," Woodward said.

But Jensen, who has been on vacation and sick leave since the end of April, wonders if she can ever go back.

"I used to love my job," Jensen said. "They've taken that away from me."

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