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Yolo grand jury: Sheriff runs office like ‘Wild, Wild West’

A grand jury report Tuesday said Yolo County Sheriff-Coroner Ed Prieto has run his office like the “Wild, Wild West,” finding a years-long record of intimidation, harassment and nepotism.

In its 11-page report, “Yolo County Sheriff: Leadership Practices from the Wild, Wild West,” jurors said their findings stemmed from a complaint accusing Yolo’s top cop of “mismanagement, bad behavior and poor leadership,” as well as ignoring county procedures. The grand jury recommended nine policy changes but stopped short of trying to remove the sheriff from office.

Prieto, 70, won election last week to his fifth term as Yolo County sheriff and was the only candidate in the race.

Yolo County’s Board of Supervisors presented a complaint to the grand jury nearly a year ago, relying on the panel’s subpoena power to compel employees to testify, said Supervisor Matt Rexroad. On Tuesday, Rexroad did not call for Prieto to resign but was deeply critical of the sheriff, saying he “does not uphold Yolo traditions.”

“Just because what was found wasn’t criminal doesn’t mean that it is not wrong,” Rexroad said Tuesday. “It’s wrong in Yolo County and it’s wrong across the state. There’s more than enough (in the report) that every resident of Yolo County should be concerned.”

Prieto did not respond Tuesday to requests for comment. In a prepared statement, Yolo sheriff’s officials said they “appreciate and welcome the opinions of the grand jury,” adding a “thorough inquiry and analysis of evidence based facts will lead to enhanced procedures ... if necessary.”

In a statement Tuesday, county supervisors said they were “deeply concerned” about the grand jury’s findings and what the county’s separate investigations uncovered. The board, however, criticized the findings as unresponsive to employee concerns and “superfluous to the more serious allegations.”

Jane Naekel, forewoman of the 2013-14 Yolo County grand jury, defended her panel’s report by saying jurors decided they could only offer recommendations on what changes should occur at the Sheriff’s Office.

State law enables grand juries to seek an elected official’s removal but requires a finding of misconduct that is “willful or corrupt.” The Yolo panel decided that Prieto did not commit acts that rose to that level.

“The grand jury took this investigation extremely seriously,” Naekel said. “The amount of time and care that went into the investigation was very high. We knew the repercussions might be very great for the sheriff. We wanted to make very sure that nothing was influencing us other than the facts that were presented.”

The jury’s recommendations included: greater oversight by human resources; revisions to the county’s nepotism policies; updates to harassment and ethics training programs; and internal programs to encourage upward mobility within the department ranks.

Prieto has faced two sexual harassment lawsuits since 2012, and the grand jury determined that Prieto targeted any employee who allegedly complained about his behavior. “He would ridicule, accuse the employees of lying and berate them in large group meetings,” the jury found.

“We can’t allow that as a county to happen,” Rexroad said. “We have employees in that environment who deserve to be protected.”

The grand jury also found that Prieto circumvented county hiring laws to provide jobs for family and friends. In one example, the jury determined that Prieto hired an immediate family member in 2001 in violation of nepotism policy. In other instances, Prieto allegedly placed friends and family in temporary positions to avoid a competitive recruitment process and fair hiring practices.

Rexroad said he was less concerned with nepotism findings than an alleged internal competition to avoid negative performance evaluations. “The Game,” as it was called, reportedly used baseball metaphors for evaluations. A felony arrest was a “home run,” while misdemeanors were scored as a “double,” and citations were a “single.”

“Employees reported that along with negatively affecting morale, this also has the potential of placing the public at risk of unfair targeting for the chase of the ‘home run,’ ” the jurors’ findings read.

The report is the latest controversy for the powerful and polarizing Yolo lawman. In October 2012, Prieto was the focus of a federal sexual harassment suit filed by a longtime correctional deputy that accused the sheriff of numerous unwanted advances over a 14-year span. The female deputy called the alleged actions – more than 100 in all – “awkward, unsolicited and unwelcome.”

Less than a year later, in July 2013, Prieto was sued by another female deputy in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, alleging more than a decade of sexual harassment that included unwanted embraces and kisses, sexually suggestive comments and an offer to trade an assignment for oral sex.

The Bee reported at the time that the deputy in the July 2013 case said she was reluctant to complain for fear of retribution and that county human resources had told her that little could be done because Prieto was an elected official.

Cori Sarno, an associate in the Sacramento law firm Angelo, Kilday & Kilduff LLP, which represents Prieto and Yolo County in both cases, declined to comment on the grand jury’s report. She said attorneys expect to depose the plaintiff in the second case next month. A ruling in the first case, Sarno said, has been pending since October of last year.

Prieto is an imposing figure physically and politically, and a biography on the Yolo County Sheriff’s Offfice website speaks to his influence.

“His leadership has impacted every level within the Sheriff’s Office, as well as the community at large,” the bio reads, later describing him as a “lifelong advocate for human rights,” and a co-author of a widely taught police ethics course.

Naekel said as an elected official, Prieto ultimately is “only accountable to the voters. There is nothing that allows any sort of review or oversight or constructive criticism. We found what we found.”

Prieto has not faced an opponent since his first election in 1998.

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