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Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don't

Reformer sheriff praised for no indictments, but complaints are plenty



Depending on who you talk to, Pueblo County Sheriff Dan Corsentino is either a reformer responsible for turning around a second-rate, corrupt department, or he's a womanizing autocrat who fires people arbitrarily and still can't keep his officers in line.

But there's one thing both sides can applaud. After just more than ten years in office, Dan Corsentino, who teaches a class in ethics at the UCCS graduate school of public policy, hasn't been indicted.

That may not sound like much to brag about, but for the Pueblo County Sheriff's office, that's actually an accomplishment. The last four sheriffs before Corsentino were all either indicted of misdemeanors or felonies during, or just after, leaving office.

"It was almost like no one wanted to take the job anymore because you were almost guaranteed a felony," Pueblo city councilman and former prosecutor Patrick Avalos joked during a recent interview.

Even the sheriff department's own Web page touts the fact that Corsentino "succeeded in bringing the sheriff's office from one formerly headed by four indicted sheriffs to national prominence through accreditation in detention, health care and ... law enforcement."

By empowering deputies and middle managers, supporters such as Avalos say, the sheriff has improved morale and professionalism, raising the department from second-rate status to equal par with other county law-enforcement agencies.

"When he came on, the level of professionalism that he brought to the department [resulted in] a 360-degree turnaround," said Avalos, a prosecutor when Corsentino was first elected. "As a prosecutor, I had more faith in the [department's] investigative technique and training."

Disgruntled for good reason

But while some politicians and legal top dogs credit Corsentino with reform, critics paint a very different portrait, one shaded by workplace harassment lawsuits, violations of inmate rights, excessive use of force and a management style that rewards loyalty over professionalism.

During Corsentino's ten-year tenure, the sheriff's department has handed out more than a quarter-million dollars to settle several lawsuits filed by county residents and former department employees. The workers allege they were fired for political reasons or suffered sexual and workplace harassment under Corsentino's administration.

"People will say we're just a bunch of disgruntled former employees, and that's true," said Doug Tihonovich, a former jail manager who sued Corsentino for wrongful termination and then ran an unsuccessful campaign against his former boss for the office of sheriff.

"But we're disgruntled for good reason," added Tihonovich, who ultimately received a $2,500 settlement from the sheriff's office.

Tihonovich was fired along with former jail employee Cynthia Knudtson, who got a $100,000 settlement from Corsentino's department.

According to their lawsuit, Corsentino fired the pair after he learned that Knudtson had gone to the FBI alleging that Corsentino gave conflicting and possibly misleading information to a grand jury.

And there are other lawsuits that have dogged the Pueblo sheriff.

In 1996, the county paid out $50,000 to the sheriff's former secretary, Mary Colarelli, who alleged that Corsentino badgered her for months with sexual and romantic suggestions before she finally quit in disgust.

"He used to call me at home when he knew my husband wasn't around," said Colarelli, who said she returned dozens of gifts and flowers from the sheriff.

"He would always tell me that he had these dreams about me," she said. "He might stop for a while after I complained, then it would start up again. It was all about his sexual feelings toward me. I thought it was disgusting."

The sheriff denied these allegations, calling the Colarelli charges "absolutely" without merit. He said the same about the 1991 Tihonovich and Knudtson claims, adding that the county commissioners settled the personnel lawsuits "against my judgment."

Further, the lawsuits are "old news" that were only coming to light as part of an attack campaign by political opponents such as Tihonovich. "I beat him once and I'll beat him again -- and you can quote me on that," he said.

Still other cases raise questions about department training and workplace atmosphere. In 1997, the county handed a $100,000 settlement to Florence Romero, a former inmate transport officer who claimed she suffered sexual and workplace harassment from a sheriff's deputy.

For his part, Corsentino was adamant that the settlements are not an admission of guilt. "We've decided to settle some cases based on the cost [of defending the case] ... but not to admit guilt or say we're vulnerable or that there's culpability," he said.

Corsentino said it's cheaper in the long run to settle the cases even if the department thinks it could win in court. "Especially if [a lawsuit] is in federal court, it becomes an extremely expensive proposition [to litigate] not knowing what a jury is going to do," Corsentino told the Indy.

"We like to think that facts determine the outcome of a case, but that's not always the case," the sheriff said.

The sheriff's critics note that inmates in Corsentino's jail likely share the sheriff's lack of faith in jury verdicts. They point to studies quoted in the Pueblo Chieftan showing that Corsentino's administration has been the target of more workplace-related suits than other county offices.

But some of Corsentino's colleagues and supporters note that it's not unusual for sheriff departments to settle. "It's very common for local governments to settle," said Dr. Fred Rainguet, an associate dean of UCCS's school of public affairs. "It almost becomes a cost-benefit decision not have the organizational energy go into [fighting a lawsuit]."

And Councilman Avalos, for example, said the personnel suits have to be taken in context. "You have to look at the size of department," he said, and whether the suits "overshadow the purpose for which that official was elected."

Undue force

But not all the suits against Corsentino have to do with internal politics. Several lawsuits raise questions about the use of force by both patrol officers or guards in the county's severely overcrowded jail.

The sheriff is currently being sued in federal court by the family of 43-year-old county inmate Kenneth Bishop, who died while strapped to a restraint chair in Pueblo's jail. Guards say Bishop disobeyed orders; his family says the department violated Bishop's civil rights.

At the same time, the American Civil Liberties Union is appealing a ruling that allowed Corsentino to not release either a policy on use of the restraint chair or a prison videotape that showed Bishop dying while strapped down.

A district judge ruled late last year that the sheriff had the discretion to restrict access to the videotape for reasons of jail security.

Corsentino argued that releasing the tape would violate the privacy of the prisoners' family while releasing the policy would jeopardize jail security. "Where security issues are at stake, these policies are not for public consumption," Corsentino said.

While the tape depicts "secure areas of the jail" that might be compromised by public disclosure, the policy might tip off inmates as to how to avoid and escape restraint, he suggested.

By contrast, the El Paso County Sheriff's Department routinely releases videotapes of cases in which inmate restraint leads to death or controversy.

In September, Bishop's mother filed her own records request to see the video as part of her inquiry into the cause of her son's death. According to Corsentino, the tape is now in the hands of a judge in the case. An autopsy listed heart failure due to use of methamphetamine as the cause of death, but the autopsy also showed that Bishop suffered broken ribs and bruises to his ears and back, according to the Chieftain.

And that's not the only case that raises questions of excessive force. Just last week, the department settled a federal lawsuit filed by an elderly couple who said they were pepper sprayed and manhandled by sheriff's deputies in 1996 as they tried to pick up their teenage grandson for truancy.

Sheriff's deputies mistook a 19-year-old at the home as the truant and tried to arrest him. During a subsequent confrontation, in which deputies said they were assaulted by the 70-plus-year-old grandparents, the couple was pepper sprayed several times.

"I believe the officers were acting in good faith," Corsentino said, adding that the department will pay roughly $50,000 to the family to settle the lawsuit.

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