I’m a big human being – about 6-4, 230 pounds – and yet I always feel small when standing next to Yolo County Sheriff Ed Prieto.
He is BIG. Imposing. Intimidating. When Prieto walks into a room, you can’t miss him at 6-5 and 280 pounds. His presence is even bigger, his voice booming. Prieto retired as a legend in the California Highway Patrol and then became Yolo sheriff in 1998 – a great success story for a Latino leader uninterested in taking it easy at age 70.
Charming and bold, Prieto has run unopposed in four straight elections – the most recent on June 3. He has friends everywhere – his secret weapon.
But he also throws off a grizzled cop vibe that he easily could put you in a chokehold if necessary – the kind you never get up from.
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Prieto has Yolo County authorities in a figurative chokehold and there doesn’t appear to be much anyone can do about what last week’s grand jury report partly revealed – at least for now.
The allegations are serious: sexual harassment, intimidation, disregarding state labor practices and creating a hostile workforce where some of Prieto’s subordinates – sworn peace officers who carry guns – are afraid to speak against him without the protection of anonymity.
But the allegations against Prieto are not even close to being the worst aspect of this story. Big sections of the grand jury report against Prieto are a joke and Yolo County supervisors, who asked for the report, weren’t happy with the slim results.
It begins with the title: “Yolo County Sheriff: Leadership Practices from the Wild, Wild West.”
Putting aside that this is supposed to be a grand jury report and not some blog followed by 17 people, you had better back up such a provocative title.
Only 11 pages long, this report doesn’t even come close to examining his actions. Most of it centers on allegations of nepotism against Prieto – allegations that are more than a decade old.
This report was driven by Yolo County supervisors concerned that the Sheriff’s Office was eating up more human-resources time than any other county department.
It followed a discrimination lawsuit against Prieto from an African American deputy who said Prieto created a hostile workforce that subjected the deputy to ridicule. It followed a suit by two female subordinates accusing him of touching them or kissing them or making comments to them about their appearance.
The grand jury could not determine whether Prieto had followed state law requiring him to receive periodic ethics training and training detailing state guidelines on harassment.
Some supervisors, such as Matt Rexroad, testified before the grand jury months ago. Yet nearly a year after the report was requested, jury members waited until June 6 – three days after Prieto was re-elected – to release it to the public.
“I find that very puzzling,” said county Supervisor Don Saylor. “The Board of Supervisors is not satisfied with this report.”
By now you’ve probably noticed that you haven’t heard from Prieto – which brings us to the most troubling aspect of this story.
I don’t know if any of the allegations against Prieto are true – he didn’t respond to requests for an interview. But what is undeniable is that Prieto doesn’t have to answer to anybody.
He’s not worried about the media and chooses not to talk to us. Supervisors like Saylor and Rexroad have almost no authority over him.
“We can’t reduce his pay or his budget in a punitive manner,” Rexroad said.
Even in the grand jury report, Prieto is not required to respond in any way. But it gets even more interesting.
Just getting the grand jury report done was a chore because some key figures wanted no part of it.
Saylor and Rexroad wanted Jeff Reisig, the Yolo County district attorney, to investigate Prieto, but they said they soon learned that Reisig took a pass due to his close relationship with Prieto. Reisig was unavailable for comment.
And the original presiding judge recused himself because of his relationship with Prieto, Saylor said.
“Prieto is an amazingly engaging guy,” Rexroad said. “He’s very difficult to go against because he’s a 280-pound guy with a gun and five stars on his collar. … He is a way better retail politician than I could ever hope to be.”
No one thinks Prieto has done anything that would land him in jail.
The issue is that the two sexual-harassment suits against Prieto expose Yolo County legally – and yet there is currently nothing supervisors can do to him. Prieto is so friendly with leading Yolo County legal leaders that supervisors had to rely on a grand jury that clearly whiffed on its assignment – and there is no law-enforcement body with any teeth in place to step in.
That’s a recipe for abuse and corruption, and that’s not a statement against Prieto personally – power corrupts anyone when it is totally unchecked.
“If any one of the allegations against Prieto were true, a normal department head would be fired immediately,” Rexroad said.
“Nobody wants to cross him, but if any one of these allegations are true, Prieto should not be in charge of a department of 270 people.”
Supervisors will ask the grand jury to flesh out the report and clarify what is a finding of fact and what is hearsay. They don’t want a sheriff beyond accepted norms of accountability.
Rexroad said Prieto makes more than $250,000 a year. “Prieto is the highest-paid public employee in Yolo County. If you’re paid that much, you’re expected to be a good manager,” Rexroad said.
Said Saylor: “My hope is that the sheriff emerges as a strong leader and really confronts these issues.”