Investigations

Mad over marijuana and money, this Northern California sheriff may have walked off the job – but is still being paid

In these parts of California, law enforcement is scarce

A shortage of sheriff’s deputies across rural, small town California puts law enforcement and residents at a safety risk as response times take hours after calling 911 in emergencies.
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A shortage of sheriff’s deputies across rural, small town California puts law enforcement and residents at a safety risk as response times take hours after calling 911 in emergencies.

A Northern California sheriff has apparently largely abandoned his job and moved to another state while still collecting his salary, a Sacramento Bee investigation has found.

For months, Trinity County Sheriff Bruce Haney has been living nearly full time six hours away from the jurisdiction where he was elected in 2010, according to interviews and records obtained by The Bee. Haney for much of 2018 has frequently been at an Oregon home he purchased last year, according to a nearby resident in Oregon and Trinity county officials.

Despite what appears to be periods of long-term absences in Trinity, Haney has continued to collect his salary and benefits, according to records obtained by The Bee. Trinity County pay records show Haney has received gross pay of more than $9,000 a month this year.

With benefits and other pay, Haney earns about $160,096 annually, according to the California government salary website Transparent California.

Haney’s calendar shows him as being “off” for 53 regular work days from Monday through Friday – nearly eight weeks – so far this year. Some weekend days also contain the “off” notation.

Terry Mines, a Trinity County Supervisor, said it was unclear whether a sheriff is legally obligated to come to work to do the job voters elected him to do.

“I was wondering a while back, how do you hold this gentleman accountable when he’s an elected official?” Mines said. “How does it work? Can I get elected for a four-year term and just walk away and collect?”

Haney didn’t respond to interview requests made to his office but announced Tuesday he was retiring for medical reasons at the end of the month. His term expires at the end of the year, and he is not seeking re-election.

Trinity County Undersheriff Christopher Compton said in an email that, “The only information I can release to you is Sheriff Bruce Haney is currently on medical leave.” Compton did not respond to an email asking when Haney went on leave.

Haney told the Trinity Journal on Tuesday that his doctor advised him he should “completely separate from the job.”

The Journal reported Haney said it was a decision, “he probably should have made a year ago.”

Haney’s retirement announcement came the day after The Bee obtained documents showing Haney’s absences. Two Trinity County supervisors said Haney likely spent more time than documented outside the county.

SHERIFF HANEY’S CALENDAR

Trinity County Sheriff Bruce Haney’s calendar shows more than 50 days during the business week marked “off” in the first nine months of 2018. Days marked “off” in yellow:
Source: Documents obtained by The Bee

“On occasion I’d heard that he’d come to the county, but I haven’t seen him in six or seven months,” Keith Groves, chairman of the Trinity County Board of Supervisors, told The Bee Wednesday in a phone interview.

Groves said Haney moved to Oregon around May. In a May article in the Trinity Journal, Haney told the newspaper he had been taking time off since March for health reasons. He told the paper he was still in daily contact with his staff and worked remotely.

Haney has been in a bitter dispute with county leadership about his pay, according to records and interviews.

In an email exchange last year with county attorney Margaret Long and the board of supervisors, Haney expressed frustration that the supervisors wanted to lump his salary negotiations into ones involving all county department heads. He wrote that he preferred the county to negotiate with him separately because he was an elected official.

In one exchange, Haney threatened to “park” a county code enforcement effort around marijuana abatement “on the back burner” until his salary negotiations were resolved.

“This is unacceptable and you and the Board Members know it,” Haney wrote in an April 13, 2017 email obtained by The Bee.

EMAIL EXCHANGE

Trinity County Sheriff Bruce Haney threatens to “park” a county code enforcement effort around marijuana until his salary negotiations are completed in this email exchange.
Source: Documents obtained by The Bee

Long said subsequent communications were similar in tone and content. In one May email, Haney said he was “tired of being ignored” and discussed putting an offer on the Oregon property.

“I can pull the plug at any time but I think I’ll stick around a little while longer,” Haney wrote to Long.

Haney and his wife, Laurie Haney, on May 10, 2017 paid $640,000 for a home on 53 acres in the city of Lebanon, Ore., according to online property records and the office of the Linn County, Ore. Assessor & Tax Collector.

Reached by phone Tuesday, a Lebanon resident said Haney had been living at the Oregon home almost full time and had been returning to Trinity County a few days a month. The resident asked not to be identified.

Groves said the code enforcement issue that Haney threatened to “park” was part of a dispute Haney had with the supervisors over how to enforce regulations intended to manage the nearly 4,000 marijuana farms in the sparsely-populated, forested county 200 miles north of Sacramento.

The board preferred enforcing code violations related to pot farming through the civil enforcement process, while Haney’s office sought criminal charges, Groves said.

The issue came to a head a day before the June election when Haney’s office sent a press release saying deputies had executed a search warrant at the Trinity County Planning Department, which also regulates cannabis, after receiving information “officials in top county government were attempting to alter evidence in a criminal investigation.”

The release didn’t have details of the allegations. Groves said they are unfounded.

Acting on tips claiming that Haney had largely stopped coming to work in 2018, The Bee earlier this month filed a request under the California Public Records Act for Haney’s appointment calenders and pay stubs. The sheriff’s office on Tuesday declined to release his pay stubs, citing “personal and private financial information” but released a salary schedule for the county.

Long, the county’s attorney, said Wednesday the pay stubs were public and provided them to The Bee.

Groves said the supervisors had at times discussed whether there was anything they could do about the county’s absentee sheriff.

“We looked at state law,” Groves said. “He doesn’t sit under us, so we really don’t have any authority.”

Groves declined to say whether the county has sought help from the state Attorney General’s Office.

Early in his first term, Haney, 61, attended gatherings with other north state sheriffs aligned with the “Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association,” the official name of the far-right “constitutional sheriffs” movement whose members believe local law enforcement authority trumps federal and state law.

The group’s high-profile members included former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, pardoned by President Donald Trump last year, and former Wisconsin sheriff David Clarke, a frequent Fox News contributor and Trump supporter.

Trinity County is one of California’s most remote, impoverished and least populated counties. Only about 13,600 people live in Trinity County, making it the fourth-smallest county by population in California. But the miles of wilderness between towns challenges law enforcement.

The county only has around 10 deputies to patrol dozens of isolated small towns dotted across its 3,200 square miles of rugged timber lands, according to Groves.

The county is plagued by a high crime rate. The Trinity County Sheriff’s Department saw more violent crimes in 2017 than during any year since 1997, according to the latest figures from the state Department of Justice.

The county has also has suffered from a series of large wildfires the past two summers.

Groves said Haney’s absence this summer was especially felt when those fires moved close to homes, threatening lives and property.

“We are severely understaffed and every body counts,” Groves said.

Under Haney’s tenure, Trinity County faced a high-profile lawsuit over its handling of a 911 call in 2011 when a couple was violently attacked after a deputy asked them to check on a neighbor in their remote town. The deputy was hours away in Weaverville. The case was featured this summer in a Sacramento Bee investigation that uncovered how a dangerous lack of law enforcement staffing was plaguing much of rural California.

Larry Winter, a resident of the small community of Hyampom, said the lack of law enforcement in the county is a longstanding problem.

Last week, a woman he described as mentally ill lit a fire in a neighbor’s yard, he said. The sheriff’s office told callers no deputy was available to investigate, Winter said.

“They couldn’t respond,” Winter said. “They had nobody to respond.”

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