Politics, Sherrie Peif, Top News, Weld County

Weld County Commissioner puts county on notice of impending lawsuit for whistleblower violations

GREELEY –  Weld County Board of Commissioner Sean Conway notified the county on Dec. 2 that he intends to sue it, and also name the four other members of the board as individual defendants for violating Colorado Whistleblower protection laws.

Notice of impending lawsuit by Anonymous kprzCiZ on Scribd

In an exclusive interview only on Complete Colorado, Conway said since he blew the whistle on unethical and possibly illegal behavior by the other four members of the board, those four members, Barbara Kirkmeyer, Julie Cozad, Steve Moreno and Mike Freeman, have stripped Conway’s constituents of a representative by preventing him from serving as a Weld representative on any board, not assigning him a county department to oversee in 2017, and they stripped him of his role as chairman of the board for 2017.

None of the four named commissioners responded to a request from Complete Colorado for comment by press time. Complete Colorado will update the story at a later date if they respond.

weld-county-commissionersConway believes the retaliations may also be in violation of the Weld County Charter, and added that Kirkmeyer may find more charges against her as she continues to publicly slander Conway, most recently at December’s Weld County Council meeting.

“They continue to say I broke the public’s trust,” Conway said. “But they continue to ignore that what I did was not break the public’s trust. I exposed things that are going on at the county that are not only unethical, but borderline illegal. They continue not to address the real problems.”

Conway told Complete Colorado that he had hoped by exposing a small portion of what was going on the commissioners would stop their actions, but instead they’ve “doubled-down,” he said.

“I really did not think, naively, that they would take it to this extreme,” Conway said. “I knew that they would extract their pound of flesh for what I did. But they still don’t get it why I did it. At what point will these people stop?”

‘ALL OFFICIAL COUNTY BUSINESS GETS DONE IN BARS AND PARKING LOTS’

Instead, Conway claims the other four commissioners are holding non-publicized lunch meetings after board and land use meetings. Conway said he initially would go to lunch with them, but then they started talking business during the luncheons, so he stopped. Conway also claims the board is holding spot-meetings in some of the most unusual places – also without noticing them – including a hotel bar in Colorado Springs and the parking lot of the Eaton Country Club.

“I am legitimately concerned, at the very least this is not very ethical behavior, but it’s bordering on illegal,” Conway said. “If you remain silent, you’re just as guilty as the people doing it. I’m hoping the public will come forward and start having conversations with these commissioners. There is a real problem with the current board in complying with the open meetings law. The new rule is all official county business gets done in bars and parking lots.”

RETALIATION AGAINST CONWAY

Conway said his decision to retain an attorney and pursue legal remedies came after his colleagues proved determined to retaliate against him. He said immediately following the disclosure that he waived attorney client privileged emails, they ordered a technology employee to keep tabs on all his emails, took away all his elected duties, threatened to have criminal charges filed against him, are planning a public censure, and most disturbing, he said, instigated a workforce harassment complaint against him by an employee.

“And the retaliation continues after Barb’s comments Monday night before the County Council,” Conway said in reference to comments made about Conway soliciting money for a school his wife is affiliated with, waiving privilege Kirkmeyer continues to say he did not have the right to do, and violating public trust laws. “Once again, she ignores the actual contents of her statements and behavior.”

Although nothing is official until the board’s Jan. 3 meeting, Conway was told at the annual Colorado Counties Inc. conference a couple weeks ago that he was being removed representing Weld on the Upstate Economic Development Board and the Weld/Greeley Airport Board They allowed him to remain on the North Front Range Metropolitan Planning Organization Board but only because he was selected by the MPO  to represent them on the State Transportation Committee.

On Nov. 29, during the conference, board president Freeman informed Conway that the group wanted to meet after the conference at the hotel. Conway said it was entirely out of order. The meeting, which was held Nov. 30 in the bar at the Hotel Elegante in Colorado Springs, was never noticed to the public, as required by law.

During that meeting each commissioner took turns telling Conway how they didn’t trust him and as far as they were concerned he would have no responsibilities on the board ever again. Kirkmeyer wants to oversee two departments instead, according to Conway.

“I don’t know how you do that,” Conway said. “If you’re doing it correctly, if you’re doing it the right way, there is no way you can coordinate two departments. They all sat there and it was all for one and one for all. It was made very clear to me … that this was a direct result, a direct punishment for what I did.”

They also chose that time to hand him a complaint filed against him by an employee for alleged harassment.

“I was also handed a note from Commissioner Freeman that said I was prohibited from having any conversations with that employee, period,” Conway said.  “It came out of left field.”

He said the while the CCI conference was noticed, during his first seven years on the board, if they met to discuss county business at the conference, that meeting was noticed to the public separately. He said he was blindsided and felt awkward discussing county business in a bar with others wandering around.

“Julie Cozad was the first to speak,” Conway said. “She just said, ‘You know, I just don’t trust you. … I think you’ve tried to embarrass us.”

Conway said Cozad accused him of purposely releasing the Xcel email chain to hurt Kirkmeyer.

“Then Julie said, ‘Because of that, you’re not going to be chair next year,” Conway said. The four decided Cozad would chair and Moreno would be pro tem.

Kirkmeyer told him he willfully and spitefully went after her, that he was the cause of the problems for the Emergency Operations Center issues coming to light, that it was his fault people were upset over Kirkmeyer taking mileage reimbursements.

“She said, ‘I want you to understand it’s specifically because of your release of that email,’” Conway said.

Conway said they threatened to ask the Weld County District Attorney’s Office to file criminal charges against him for violating state laws concerning public trust. However, those laws surround fiduciary duties. They do not cover an elected official acting as a whistle blower.

Emails obtained by Complete Colorado show they also plan to censure Conway. A public censure is usually little more than a public reprimand or slap on the wrist when a body of elected officials doesn’t approve of one or more members of the elected body. In this case, however, the board would be shaming Conway for exposing their unethical behavior, he said.

“They are going to have to outline why they are censuring me,” Conway said. “And I’ll have an opportunity to do answer that, unless they do it while I’m gone, which based on how things have gone that’s a possibility. If they choose to censure me, they do it at great political peril to themselves because I think the citizens of Weld County can see through this. At the end of the day, what they are trying to censure me for is behavior that has been undertaken by my fellow county commissioners.”

Conway said the timing of the “workforce harassment” complaint is the most disturbing. Although his attorney has told him not to discuss specifics of the case, it was filed after he blew the whistle and according to documents shared with Complete Colorado, filed at the request of the commissioners.

Complete Colorado will not identify the employee or the official complaint as they would identify the employee, but the complaint begins with “As requested,” and toward the end includes “after the conversation, I stepped into the employee lunch room for a minute to make a personal call, and further collect my composure, and then went right back to my desk and jumped back into the tasks requiring my attention for the morning. I was later requested by the commissioners to create a written statement which I agreed to do.”

The employee accuses Conway of “yelling” and using profane language. Conway, who admits he can project his voice across a room with little-to-no effort, denies he yelled at the employee or used profanity. He said he was sharp with the employee as he was reprimanding the employee for inconsistent job performance.

In the complaint, the employee noted three other times Conway “verbally accosted” him/her. Two of the three were never officially reported, the employee alleges, while one was supposedly placed in her/his employment file; however, Conway said when he requested the employment file, there were no complaints against him.

In emails shared with Complete Colorado that Conway received as discovery for his case, an email from Kirkmeyer at 9:45 p.m. – just 12 hours after the alleged conversation — , Kirkmeyer makes suppositions about the conversation between Conway and the employee by inferring that Conway planned an intentional attack on the employee.

Emails over Conway’s harassment by Anonymous kprzCiZ on Scribd

“I believe Commissioner Conway called at 9:00am because he expected (name redacted) to be alone at (his/her) desk,” the email reads.

Kirkmeyer continues her account.

“We all witnessed the call and could here (sic) the yelling on the phone,” the email reads. “According to (redacted name) he also cursed at (her/him) using the “f” word.”

Kirkmeyer’s email supports Conway’s claim that the report was filed after the employee was urged to do so.

“Comm Cozad and myself instructed (name redacted) to report the incident to HR.”

Finally, Kirkmeyer orders Barker to investigate the incident ASAP and “a letter of reprimand given to Comm Conway.” She further says he wants him put “on notice,” and that he “will not be under the protection of the county.”

Elected officials don’t have the authority to put other elected officials “on notice.” Nor do they have the authority to determine who is and who is not protected by the county.

The only recourse available to the board is the censure, and that has to be voted on in public to be held.

EMPLOYEES FEAR KIRKMEYER

Two county employees who spoke on the promise of anonymity, said this type of behavior is common, but not from Conway, adding that Kirkmeyer frequently uses the “f” word and regularly yells at employees, threatening their jobs. They said it could be witnessed and verified at any work session or department meeting.

Complete Colorado agreed to their anonymity because the employees fear retaliation that was appropriate considering the retaliation toward Conway, something Conway said was part of the reason he decided to speak out again.

“This is not about the who, this is about the what,” Conway said. “If they are allowed to take this kind of retaliation against a county commissioner, what message does that send to at-will employees. If I lay down and let this retaliation go unanswered, it will have a long term chilling effect. This will be interpreted by a lot of employees who already are very concerned, as ‘I can’t afford to make a commissioner mad. I need this job.’ They don’t have a right to create an atmosphere and send a message to every single one of our employees and department heads that ‘if you cross us, you don’t do what we tell you to do, look what we did to Conway.’”

IT STARTED AFTER THE 2014 ELECTION

Conway said in his eight years as a county commissioner, there has never been such a blatant disregard for public trust. He said there has always been conflicts at times among commissioners, but he believes that prior to now, everything was kept in check and commissioners were able to work together because there were commissioners that acted as a “backstop” to stepping over the line. However, since the 2014 election, things have changed he said.

“If you would talk to former county commissioners that I served with, they would say not only didn’t we do it this way, we took measures so we never put ourselves in this position,” Conway said. “Did we have entities that relocated in the county and came and introduced us? Yes. But we never had work sessions with Noble or Anadarko or any other company to talk about specific projects that would impact our quasi-judicial decision making authority until this last year. Prior to 2015, we had a majority of commissioners that when things like this would come up, they would say, ‘No.’”

BARKER FORCED TO TELL XCEL ‘NO’

Conway said he wanted to make it clear, he was at the Xcel meeting but only after a conversation with attorney Bruce Barker immediately before the meeting saying the board would not discuss what Xcel wanted to discuss. Conway pointed out that the work session request was very specific. In fact, the documents released by Conway to Complete Colorado in October say they want to talk about the North and South Greeley Transmission System expansion.

“The work session was very specific,” Conway said.  “So when I read this wasn’t just Xcel coming in to say, ‘Hi’ or to brief us on operations not specific to Weld County, that’s when I sent the email (asking Barker if the meeting was appropriate). “This meeting was entirely different. It was to talk about potential land use issues that were going to be before the board of county commissioners. I was concerned that was not appropriate. And the county attorney sent an email and said no it was not. It’s not a he said/she said.”

Conway said Xcel came into the meeting with their maps and all their paper work and they were going to give them the entire rundown of the project, but Barker had to tell them they couldn’t.

KIRKMEYER TARGETS COUNTY COUNCIL, JEMIOLA TOO

Conway’s fellow commissioners haven’t stopped the accusations and false claims. And they haven’t targeted just Conway. Conway said shortly after Weld residents started complaining to the council about the commissioners, the board instructed the clerk to the County Council to forward all emails addressed to the County Council to commissioners first.

The County Council is an elected body that is charged with overseeing the commissioners and other elected officials in Weld. Many of the claims that Conway confirmed were initially brought to the council by members of the community who were regularly filing open records requests to keep tabs on the commissioners.

At the November County Council meeting, Council President Jordan Jemiola questioned assistant County Attorney Frank Haug about several things he believes are inappropriate going on in the commissioner’s office. According to emails, Kirkmeyer didn’t approve of Jemiola’s questions.

“While you are at it you should talk to Frank about his treatment at the County Council by Councilman Jemiola. It is also on the web. While we cannot reprimand him. (sic) I would like him put on notice as well,” Kirkmeyer’s email reads.

It is unclear what Kirkmeyer means by “put on notice.”

Complete Colorado video recorded the exchange at that meeting, and Jemiola learned of the email from Complete Colorado.

“I am concerned that I and the rest of the council were not notified of such request by commissioner Kirkmeyer,” Jemiola said. “This may cause a direct conflict of interest with Bruce Barker representing both the County Commissioners and County Council depending on what “put on notice” means to commissioner Kirkmeyer.”

Jemiola said he’s always been concerned that Barker represents both. He believes it’s a conflict of interest. During Monday’s council meeting Barker said if there was an issue between the boards, he would represent the commissioners while the District Attorney’s Office would be put in charge of representing the Council.

That is unsettling for Jemiola.

“It is also cause for concern,” Jemiola said. “Our attorney has attorney/client privilege with both the council and the commissioners. Should a direct conflict occur, all the county’s attorneys should recuse themselves because they hold privilege and internal knowledge of both bodies.”

XCEL DONATES TO VARIOUS BOARDS INVOLVING KIRKMEYER, COZAD, CONWAY

Also at Monday’s County Council meeting, Kirkmeyer and Moreno gave a presentation about the commissioners and what they had accomplished over the past year. Jemiola questioned Kirkmeyer about several stories in Complete Colorado that exposed issues in the commissioner’s office. Kirkmeyer became frustrated and mentioned several incidents about Conway that attempted to discredit him, including one about Conway soliciting money from Xcel Energy for Salida del Sol Academy, a charter school in Greeley that Conway’s wife helped open and remains on the board of directors. The Conway’s were also instrumental in relocating and helping University Schools obtain a charter status.

The Greeley Tribune reported that two weeks after the Xcel meeting exposed by Complete Colorado that Xcel donated $10,000 to Salida del Sol, implying Kirkmeyer’s comments were correct.

“Commissioner Conway breached the public’s trust and breached the board’s trust, and he shouldn’t have done that,” Kirkmeyer’s comment from the meeting as it appeared in The Tribune. “If Commissioner Conway was so concerned about it, why did he go out and solicit funds (from Xcel) for his Salida del Sol foundation?”

“Salida del Sol is a Greeley charter school. Conway’s wife, Rebecca Koppes Conway, is on the board,” The Tribune report read. “A few weeks after the county’s meeting with Xcel, the company donated $10,000 to the school to provide equipment and supplies for the new robotics class.”

However, The Tribune article did not report who confirmed Conway actually solicited the funds.

Complete Colorado obtained records that shows Conway did not have anything to do with the money the school received. Records shows Xcel has donated money to other Weld County entities in the past, including $10,000 to the Boys & Girls Club of Weld County. Barb Kirkmeyer and Julie Cozad both sit on the board of directors for the Boys & Girls Club.

The donation is part of the company’s Education Grant Program. In 2015, the company donated nearly $500,000 to Colorado causes supporting education. The application process began in early 2016.

Ronna Sanchez, a member of the Salida del Sol foundation wrote the grant and supplied Complete Colorado with a copy of the application. Conway had nothing to do with the donation.Xcel Application 2016 by Anonymous kprzCiZ on Scribd

‘I WASN’T GOING TO GET INDICTED FOR THEM’

Kirkmeyer also took issue with Conway waiving privilege to the Xcel email chain.

“Commissioner Kirkmeyer continues to insist they can still refer this to the district attorney for prosecution,” Conway said. “Even though I have done everything legally right. I have conferred with several attorneys It was my privilege to waive. I chose to waive it because I was concerned the county attorney’s legal advice was being ignored. I’ve been threatened both by an email from the county attorney and in person by commissioner Kirkmeyer.”

Conway said after everything that has happened, he believed that a legal answer was the only way he could make his fellow commissioners understand how serious all this is. He also said he would do it all over again.

“I didn’t do it to attack someone personally,” Conway said. “I didn’t do this to embarrass them. I did this because I was at my wits end. I had multiple conversations with them, saying ‘you can’t continue to do this. You are violating the public trust. Stop doing stupid things.’ Those are the type of conversations you can’t have.

At the end of the day, I didn’t do this to embarrass anybody, to personally vilify anybody. But I was getting, quite frankly, very concerned we were bordering on some pretty unethical and potentially illegal things. And I wasn’t going to jail for them. I wasn’t going to get indicted for them.”

 

 

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