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Suit against sheriff, undersheriff settled

A lawsuit against Archuleta County, Sheriff Pete Gonzalez and Undersheriff John Weiss reached settlement last week in U.S. District Court under Magistrate Judge Kristen Mix.

According to U.S. District Court documents filed May 1, 2008, former Archuleta County Sheriff’s Department Capt. Eugene Reilly and Det. Sgt. Wayne Alexander said Gonzalez and Weiss conspired to orchestrate their demise as retaliation for their support of former Undersheriff Bob Grandchamp in the run-up to the 2006 primary election.

Grandchamp was one of three Republican sheriff’s candidates to compete for the post, running against Gonzalez and Steve Wadley.

As per the settlement, the county’s self-insurance pool will pay Reilly and Alexander $5,000 each. Alexander and Reilly originally sought $350,000.

In exchange for the settlement, the two agreed to release Gonzalez and Weiss from responsibility and the case was dismissed with prejudice. Each side will pay their own attorney fees.

Thomas Rice, of Senter Goldfarb & Rice, LLC, represented Gonzalez and Weiss in the suit. In a phone interview, Rice said the stipulations in the settlement were standard, but that the settlement explicitly states that it is a nuisance value settlement — a factor he adds is unique.

According to the settlement, “Defendants expressly state that the payments made hereunder are a part of a ‘nuisance value’ settlement and that Defendants enter into this Agreement for the sole and exclusive reason of avoiding further expense related to this litigation. This settlement is undertaken by Defendants for purposes of economic efficiency and expediency and for no other reason.”

“The agreement also provides that the claims were ‘disputed,’ that the payments are not to be ‘construed as an admission of liability by the Defendants, and that instead Defendants ‘expressly denied’ any such liability,” Rice wrote in an e-mail.

Rice, as well as Gonzalez and Weiss, felt the momentum of the case turned toward a settlement following a motion of discovery granted by Mix against Alexander that called for the affidavits of two plaintiffs’ witnesses to be stricken and their testimony be prohibited from being entered in trial.

“That was really the turning point of the case as far as I’m concerned,” Rice said.

While no liability was determined in the settlement, Gonzalez said the case reached a proper conclusion.

“The settlement fully vindicates us and exposes the lawsuit for what it was,” Gonzalez said.

“From my standpoint, I’m glad it’s over,” Weiss said, adding, “I know we didn’t do anything wrong.”

The lawsuit alleged friction developed between Reilly and Gonzalez — who was actively campaigning at the time — when Gonzalez, then an investigator for the district attorney’s office, attempted to pressure a detective under Reilly’s supervision into reducing sexual assault charges brought against the son of one of Gonzalez’s staunch supporters.

According to the suit, Reilly denied the request and Reilly claimed Weiss later warned him that he faced a rocky, professional road ahead when Gonzalez was elected.

Alexander, according to the suit, claimed friction developed between him and Gonzalez in May 2006, when campaign activity was in high gear and Alexander denied Gonzalez’s request to spy on Grandchamp and provide information on the department’s internal operations.

Alexander, according to the suit, was a Gonzalez supporter who then shifted his loyalties to Grandchamp after the alleged incident.

The suit then alleged a series of post-election machinations in which sheriff-elect Gonzalez attempted to marginalize, demote or discourage Reilly and Alexander — a course of action which ultimately resulted in Alexander facing termination or the option to resign and Reilly facing a permanent layoff.

At the crux of the suit were claims that Alexander and Reilly’s First Amendment rights were violated because Gonzalez and Weiss retaliated against them for their political support of Grandchamp in Grandchamp’s bid for the sheriff’s office.

Second, Alexander and Reilly claimed their Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were also violated when Gonzalez and Weiss allegedly retaliated against them for their political affiliations. But moreover, Gonzalez and Weiss did not provide a meaningful review of their terminations as required by county policy, Colorado Revised Statutes and the due process requirements of the U.S. Constitution.

Thirdly, the suit charged Gonzalez and Weiss with engineering Alexander and Reilly’s demise, and with manufacturing reasons for their layoff and termination. Furthermore, the suit asserted the conspiracy unfolded solely because of Alexander and Reilly’s political loyalties — again, a violation of their civil rights.

According to county staff in 2008, Gonzalez, Weiss and Archuleta County (through County Clerk June Madrid, the county’s agent) were served with the complaint May 30, 2008.

Michael Lowe, of Bruno, Colin, Jewell & Lowe, P.C., represented Alexander and Reilly in the case and did not return repeated calls by presstime Wednesday.

randi@pagosasun.com