The Montezuma County sheriff’s race heated up recently when Mike Steele announced he was throwing his hat into the ring.
Steele made his intentions known via an April 8 email to The Cortez Journal, stating it would be an honor to serve Montezuma County as the next sheriff. He indicated he had more than two decades of law enforcement experience, having served in operational, leadership and training levels in patrol, jail, investigations, homicide, narcotics, tactical and street gang divisions.
In the email, Steele failed to mention he had faced criminal charges in California.
“Mr. Steele worked at a bail bond agency, and the charges involved business practices that were conducted in an unlawful manner,” San Bernardino Deputy District Attorney William Lee told the Journal.
A quick check by The Cortez Journal initially uncovered that Steele was charged, along with 19 others, by the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office in connection to a bail-bond kickback scheme. According to media reports published in 2004, the scheme, which involved bail agents paying inmates for referrals while they were in jail, was disclosed after a two-year investigation.
According to California Superior Court records, Steele was initially charged with a single felony count of unlawful solicitation of bail and two felony counts of conspiracy in connection to the case. The felony count of unlawful solicitation was reduced to a misdemeanor charge as the result of a plea deal, both counts of conspiracy were dismissed, and Steele was fined $3,000, court records reveal. Seven others were convicted in the case.
‘Nothing to hide’
During an hourlong interview with the Cortez Journal earlier this week, Steele said he was never arrested, booked or fingerprinted in connection to the charges. He argued that he got “wrapped up in the case” because of a friend’s betrayal, a co-defendant convicted in the case.
“This was somebody else’s problem that I got dragged into,” Steele said.
“This is not a skeleton in my closet,” he added. “Skeletons are things you try to hide. This is not a secret. I have nothing to hide.”
Steele explained that he agreed to work under contract for his friend’s California bail bond company starting in Feb. 2002. He said he had no idea the company was under investigation when he accepted employment with the same company in 2004, six weeks prior to search warrants being issued in the case. A cease and desist order was placed on the bail bond company, and Steele said he immediately terminated his association with the company the same day warrants were issued. Steele said he then agreed to work under contract for a separate insurance company responsible for the company’s outstanding liabilities.
Steele said a three-way phone call conversation, in which an attorney alleged Steele accepted money for referring a client, tied him to the case. According to Steele, the attorney later recanted, stating he’d never met Steele.
“The last piece of any physical evidence of wrongdoing was dated 10 months prior to my employment with the bail bond company,” Steele said.
Steele said he had every intention of proving his innocence by a jury of his peers until his own attorney demanded an additional $75,000. Steele said he had previously paid his lawyer a total of $65,000.
“I entered the plea deal, but I didn’t want to do it,” Steele said. “I simply couldn’t afford the attorney fees.”
Steele said prosecutors had dropped the charges twice before refiling the charges a third time based on a new law “fabricated” by California insurance authorities to avoid civil litigation.
“This is a very humiliating part of my life,” he concluded, “but at no time during this mess did I ever feel that I did anything wrong.”
Montezuma County Clerk and Recorder Carol Tullis said Steele had filed an affidavit of intent to campaign as a write-in candidate in the Nov. 4 general election. An unaffiliated candidate, Steele’s name will not appear on the June 24 Republican primary ballot.
“A write-in campaign is certainly not the easiest or preferred method, but it allows the people of Montezuma County a real choice in selecting a candidate for sheriff whose allegiance is not subject to political whim or avarice,” Steele said.
According to Steele, “powerful members” of the community approached and encouraged him to seek the sheriff’s seat, but he initially declined the offer. Because of their persistence and his own research, Steele eventually agreed, despite revelations about his past.
“I’m still going to run,” Steele said.
Steele’s law enforcement career included stints with the Inyo County Sheriff’s Department, located between Fresno and Las Vegas and similar in size to the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office, and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, a much larger and more rough and tumble agency east of Los Angeles. He worked with both agencies from 1974 to 1995.
In his initial campaign announcement, Steele said he also had nearly 20 years of successful private business experience, including all phases of budget, planning and profit and loss assessment. He owned and operated a national fugitive apprehension agency in Oklahoma for 10 years before moving to Southwest Colorado.
“My experience in the business world and law enforcement would provide training and oversight that will prove invaluable in minimizing the county’s exposure to frequent liability lawsuits pertaining to the sheriff department’s performance and the operation of the jail,” Steele wrote in his announcement.
Steele said a pressing priority would be to return the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office to a “community-based policing model rather than the totally failed paramilitary law enforcement paradigm.”
Under his leadership, Steele vowed advancement and supervisory positions within the department would be assigned according to a clearly stated policy encompassing continued training and adherence to well-defined procedures and protocols as opposed to cronyism and nepotism.
“All future employees and candidates for promotion would be subjected to a very thorough background check and evaluation which would protect the citizens of Montezuma County from depredations such as those which have been well publicized during the past year,” Steele said.
Born in Alabama and raised in Lone Pine, Calif., the 56-year-old and his wife, Laurie, moved to Southwest Colorado in 2000. The couple resided in Montezuma County for a year before relocating to Dolores County to be closer to their business. The family relocated back to Montezuma County earlier this year, Steele said.
Steele faces GOP incumbent Sheriff Dennis Spruell and GOP challenger Steve Nowlin.
According to the Colorado Secretary of State, Steele filed as a sheriff’s candidate on April 10.
The Cortez Journal has requested Steele to respond to a sheriff’s candidate questionnaire. He is expected to return the survey on Monday, April 21, at which time it will be posted in its entirety at cortezjournal.com.