The Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office turned over public records in the Patricia McEachern discrimination case only after a First Amendment attorney requested the records on behalf of The Journal, citing a 2008 Colorado Supreme Court decision.
The Journal had requested the records a half-dozen times between November 2013 and September 2015.
The newspaper made its first request for the personnel records in November 2013, days after learning that the sheriff’s office had terminated patrol deputy Patricia McEachern. Then-Sheriff Dennis Spruell refused to release details of the termination, stating, “If a department violation has occurred, we will take corrective action.”
On Jan. 29, 2014, and Feb. 5, 2014, The Journal filed requests under the Colorado Open Records Act for McEachern’s personnel file, including details of internal investigations. The requests were denied.
“Until I know why the record is being sought, and how it is going to be used, I have the discretion to deny,” then-record custodian and Undersheriff Lynda Carter replied in an email on Feb. 5, 2014.
Colorado law stipulates that custodians may withhold investigative records if their release would be contrary to the public’s interest.
The Journal pursued the case again on Aug. 18, 2015, after Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin confirmed that a settlement in the McEachern discrimination case had been reached. Nowlin said he had no personal knowledge of the settlement details and advised the Journal to contact county officials.
The Journal followed up with emailed requests to county administrator Melissa Brunner and attorney John Baxter on Aug. 19th, and again with Brunner, Baxter and commissioners Keenan Ertel and Larry Don Suckla on Aug. 21.. The following day, Nowlin said he would provide settlement details by Aug. 24, but a few days later, demanded a written request. The Journal complied on Aug. 27, requesting performance evaluations, internal affairs investigations, employment agreements, severance payments and salary information for McEachern; investigative reports in McEachern’s discrimination case; civil complaints and settlement records, including corresponding case numbers and court locations, filed by and awarded to McEachern; The Journal also requested sheriff’s office emails in the McEachern case.
On Aug. 31, Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office records custodian Wanda Martin responded by providing salary information and settlement details, stating that performance evaluations, employment agreements, severance payments and email correspondence were non-existant and “never seen” before. Martin said the sheriff’s office also opted not to release any internal investigative reports. She didn’t cite a reason as required by state law,
On Sept. 3, attorney Steve Zansberg wrote a letter to the sheriff’s office requesting the documents and stating that the Colorado Supreme Court “made clear that records that discuss the official conduct of sheriff’s deputies are not exempt from disclosure and that the public interest is promoted, not undermined, by the disclosure of information contained in such files.”
Four days later, Nowlin responded, stating that he and attorney Mike Green had reviewed McEachern’s personnel file, found the internal investigation files, and that and a media inspection of available public records would be arranged.
The requested documents, some redacted, were made available on Sept. 17. The sheriff’s office waived research fees but charged The Journal $51.25 for copying fees. About a fifth of the 182 pages that The Journal received were duplicates.