- County Commissioner Jim Bensberg
We wish we could report that the sordid adventures of elected El Paso County Commissioner Jim Bensberg are finally over. We really do.
Instead, Bensberg, the vice-chairman of the Board of Commissioners who earlier this year was accused of harassing a female employee and who was captured on video camera three weeks ago with what appeared to be a stack of Independent newspapers from the county office building in downtown Colorado Springs, has written his own latest chapter in his unfolding drama.
Two weeks ago, on May 20, Staci Smith, an appraiser who works in the assessor's office, said she was confronted by Bensberg as she was walking into work at the county office building at 27 E. Vermijo. Smith said she gave the elected official a friendly greeting, asking him, "How are you today?" She was shocked when Bensberg responded in what she describes as "an extremely rude and hostile manner," accusing her of repeating what he had thought was a confidential conversation that occurred last summer.
"He blindsided me," said Smith, who further described Bensberg's tone as "confrontational and threatening."
"When I got to work, I was very upset and rattled."
Smith immediately contacted her boss, elected County Assessor John Bass, and told him what had just happened. The two pieced together the series of events that led to the episode.
According to Smith, one day last summer, out of the blue, Bensberg called her on her private line at work.
"He said, 'I need some information, but this has to be confidential, between us girls,'" Smith said. Bensberg, 49, then asked her the marital status of one of her colleagues, and, if single, whether the woman was currently dating anyone special. Smith said she told the commissioner that the woman was not married, but beyond that he would need to take any further inquiries up directly with the employee he was asking about.
""I hung up the phone, shook my head and thought, 'that was odd,'" said Smith. True to her word, she said, she didn't mention the conversation to anyone.
However, a couple of weeks later, Smith's boss, the elected county assessor, said he overheard two female employees -- neither of them Smith -- swapping notes and describing how they had separately been hit on by Bensberg, who is not married.
The women's stories were nearly identical, Bass said. They described Bensberg as having approached them and asked, "Do you know who I am?" Then, he suggested the possibility of getting together for "adult beverages." Bass declined to identify the female employees, citing their privacy, but said each claimed she turned down the elected official's requests for dates. Upon hearing their stories, Bass asked if they felt harassed or wanted him to get involved, but the women declined and concluded the encounters were "just gross."
Fast-forward to February, when another county employee, Shyla Tulley, filed a complaint against Bensberg, claiming that she had been the target of retribution after she rejected his romantic advances. An outside investigation was ordered, during which Bass, the assessor, was asked whether he had any knowledge of any incidents in which Bensberg had ever approached any of his female staffers. Bass recounted that he was indeed aware of at least one such incident, and described what he knew.
Bass's observations, according to several sources, never made it into the investigator's final report. However, they were supplied to Bensberg and his attorneys. And now Bass -- who, like Bensberg, is an elected Republican -- suspects that Bensberg read his statement and assumed that Smith had blown his cover. All of which resulted in the alleged confrontation with Smith two weeks ago.
Immediately after the May 20 encounter, Bass urged Smith to write a letter, which she did, detailing what happened. She subsequently e-mailed the letter to all five members of the Board of County Commissioners, to acting county attorney Bill Louis and to local media outlets [the letter can be read in full at www.csindy.com].
Later that morning, Louis summoned Smith and her direct supervisor, deputy assessor Mark Lowderman, into his office. There, the county attorney told her Bensberg had indicated that he wanted to offer her a formal apology for his actions.
Smith said she told Louis that she would consider the apology -- but was disinclined to accept. "I thought it was more apologizing because he got caught than out of sincere motivation," she said.
Lowderman called the incident "uncalled for and in very poor taste."
"My opinion of the whole thing was, [Bensberg] was out of line," Lowderman said. "I certainly wouldn't do that to any of our employees, and to have an elected official do that, that's just not right."
This week, Bensberg did not return a phone call seeking comment. Louis, the county attorney, confirmed the commissioner's offer of apology was extended through his office. Asked why he got involved, Louis said, "All I can say is we are operating in a very tense and legalistic environment right now and Commissioner Bensberg thought it best to go through the county attorney's office.
"My issue was making sure no violations of law or county policy occurred, and I quickly determined there were none."
Which leads us to point out that, under the county government's current guidelines, when it comes to fair treatment of employees, elected officials are not held to the same standards that apply to other managers and department heads. Louis says the county is currently reworking its policy manual, in an effort to make elected officials more accountable for their actions.
But ultimately, he noted, elected officials are truly accountable only to their own bosses: the voters.
Note: Previous columns involving the disappearing newspapers from the county office building and Bensberg's role in the county's recent investigation can be read online at www.csindy.com.