Defending failures 

Taxpayers pay for the El Paso County mistakes

Editor's note: This story was updated on Sept. 25 to reflect that former Sheriff Terry Maketa has been accused of sexual discrimination, not sexual harassment.
click to enlarge Risk management funds repair damaged vehicles. - COURTESY SHERIFF'S OFFICE
  • Courtesy Sheriff's Office
  • Risk management funds repair damaged vehicles.

Whether someone dies in custody, is injured in a vehicle crash caused by an El Paso County worker, or finds the county workplace inhospitable, taxpayers can find themselves on the hook for monetary damages.

Claims since 2010 have cost the county upward of $3 million, and future costs could soar due to one person.

On Sept. 1, El Paso County commissioners met behind closed doors to discuss "strategy for negotiations" regarding claims arising from the tenure of former Sheriff Terry Maketa.

The once-popular sheriff left office in late December after serving 12 years. In his wake were a dozen damage claims regarding allegations of a hostile work environment, sexual discrimination, and favoritism toward women with whom he allegedly had inappropriate relationships. (The Independent reported on many of those issues in 2010, but no meaningful action was taken until May 2014 — when a selfie of a bare-chested Maketa and salacious emails between Maketa and his office controller surfaced.)

As commissioners consider those claims and a federal lawsuit, it's worth a look back at past county mistakes from snowplows wiping out mailboxes to deputies brutalizing citizens.

To fund reparations, the county relies on a combination of self-insurance and insurance policies covering catastrophic losses exceeding $250,000 and officials' "crimes," says county spokesman Dave Rose.

The county's risk-management budget — which pays for those insurance policies, as well as property damage, liability settlements and legal fees — has grown from $1.66 million in 2010 to $1.96 million this year.

Of $8.5 million spent on risk management since 2010, almost $3.1 million paid citizens' claims and also repaired or replaced damaged county vehicles, representing about 600 loss incidents. Another $1.1 million went to legal fees for attorneys outside of the County Attorney's Office, according to a breakdown provided by the county. (Outside counsel is hired when conflicts of interest arise, such as more than one county official being sued in the same matter.)

Civil rights abuses have led to the biggest single payments. In 2010, the county paid $300,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by the mother of toddler Alize Vick, who was killed in 2007 by a foster mother who had previously been the subject of Department of Human Services complaints. The county also paid $300,000 in 2013 to the family of Christine Vargas, who was shot and killed in 2011 on South Nevada Avenue as she drove away from deputies trying to serve a warrant.

Other civil rights cases settled:

• $75,000 to elderly Rose Santistevan after a 2009 SWAT raid sent her to the hospital in respiratory distress.

• $80,000 to Brock John Behler in 2010 after a jail deputy slammed him to the floor for no apparent reason, causing a broken arm.

• $85,000 in 2011 to the family of Bruce Howard, 67, who suffered a heart attack in a courthouse holding cell on Nov. 10, 2008 — a time when the room's emergency buzzer didn't work. He later died. The lawsuit also alleged Howard had been denied medical care when booked into jail two days earlier, despite his "shaking and sweating," as described by a jail deputy.

The county also paid $60,000 in a case that didn't involve physical harm but rather intrusion on inmates' freedom of expression when the Sheriff's Office restricted their mail to postcards only. Filed in 2010, it was settled in 2011 with a change in policy and payment to the American Civil Liberties Union, which had filed the suit on inmates' behalf.

Claims related to Maketa fall into the hostile work environment category, which County Attorney Amy Folsom says are the first of their kind in the county since at least 2009.

Two were settled in May, when the county paid about $200,000 in back pay and taxes to Sergeants Emory Gerhart and Charles Kull. They resigned in December 2013 citing Maketa's alleged autocratic rule, sexual harassment and favoritism of his paramours. Gerhart and Kull have both been reinstated since Sheriff Bill Elder took office.

The 10 remaining claims include a federal lawsuit filed in March by five employees: Commanders Mitch Lincoln, Rodney Gehrett and Robert King, as well as Lt. Cheryl Peck and Sgt. Robert Stone. All five cite persecution by Maketa amid a strange episode over a supposedly missing internal affairs file regarding Elder, who worked at the Sheriff's Office years ago. The lawsuit characterizes Maketa's and Undersheriff Paula Presley's so-called investigation as reckless, illegal and merely an attempt to cook up "dirty tricks" to undermine Elder's sheriff candidacy.

Lincoln, Gehrett and King were placed on administrative leave in May 2014 after filing a complaint against Maketa. All of those five remain employed at the Sheriff's Office.

Three others — Caron Allen, Mike Shaller and Cliff Porter — have filed Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints, which can lead to settlements or lawsuits. Porter has filed a notice of claim, as has former employee William Claspell. Wendy Habert has submitted a demand letter. Porter and Habert remain employed by the Sheriff's Office, county officials say.

Folsom can't discuss details of litigation, but notes the pending Maketa-related claims total nearly $4 million. And according to a county spreadsheet of legal fees, taxpayers already have paid more than $42,000 in attorney fees for Maketa and Presley in the federal lawsuit, which could take years to resolve.

The county has paid to settle lawsuits with people injured in crashes involving county workers. For instance, Elizabeth Murphy sued in 2009 over being hit by a county vehicle at Interstate 25 and Motor Way, and ultimately settled in 2010 for $110,691.

In some cases, however, claimants don't have to file a lawsuit to receive payment, as happened with Colorado Springs Police Officer Duaine Peters. While taking part in a motorcycle escort exercise at the former Colorado Springs Airport on Jan. 6, 2012, a sheriff's deputy ran into him with another motorcycle, breaking several bones.

Peters, who missed nearly four months of work, filed a claim seeking $150,000, the maximum allowed under the governmental immunity act for state claims. The county later paid that amount, and Folsom notes that worker's compensation might also have picked up a good portion of Peters' medical costs and lost wages.

Another crash involved a sheriff's deputy who turned into oncoming traffic and injured two women, resulting in a settlement of $39,000 without a lawsuit being filed.

"We evaluate from the moment they come in," Folsom says, referring to claim notices. "We get about 50 notices a year. Those that we have some risk of liability, we settle early. Then we save the attorney fees and costs of litigation."

Many property damage claims are small — replacing mailboxes and fixing hail damage, for example. Others result from mistakes on paper.

A few years ago, the U.S. Corps of Engineers built a pedestrian bridge over B Street near Fort Carson and gave it to the county. After that, landowners found the bridge was on private property, and they sought damages. The county paid $192,227 in 2012 to settle claims that Rose says involved a small parcel.

The most recent six-figure payment came earlier this month, when the county paid $110,000 to Darin Zaruba to compensate for a 2014 error by then-County Treasurer Bob Balink, who allowed mobile home owners extra time to redeem tax liens held by Zaruba.

Two workplace cases are worth noting: In 2013, the county paid George Sleeman $221,172 to settle a federal case in which he alleged he was fired without being given accommodation for an on-the-job injury that left him disabled. And in 2010, the county paid Teena Bowersox $9,900 to settle a lawsuit that also alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.


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