Less than a month before the June 5 primary election, the race for Sacramento County sheriff has taken a caustic turn with accusations that candidate Milo Fitch behaved unethically as a sheriff's department executive, followed by his response that incumbent Scott Jones is conducting a "smear job" against him.
The allegations involve a 2014 department complaint that Fitch, a former chief deputy, steered county contracts to a program run by a woman he later married, according to internal sheriff's department documents obtained by The Bee.
Fitch has denied wrongdoing, saying his efforts to reform the department and his campaign to unseat the two-term incumbent sparked the attacks against him.
The controversy stems from contracts awarded to a nonprofit rehabilitation program for inmates starting in January 2013. The Ascend program was co-founded and is operated by Christine Morse, an attorney Fitch eventually married in April 2015.
An ethics complaint was filed with the sheriff against Fitch on May 29, 2014, according to documents obtained by The Bee. Jones forwarded the complaint on June 17, 2014, to then-Undersheriff James Lewis, asking for a review of the allegations and containing the subject line "MISCONDUCT ALLEGATIONS AGAINST CHIEF DEPUTY MILO FITCH."
Jones wrote that he had received a complaint that Fitch had "used his position" to favor Ascend with contracts and that the effort was "motivated by an intimate relationship that has developed" between Fitch and Morse.
The memo from Jones said the captain who leveled the complaint alleged "violations of criminal statute," although Jones said he did not believe "Fitch's conduct rises to such a level."
Instead, Jones wrote that he wanted an administrative investigation of Fitch as well as findings about the nature of his relationship with Morse and when it developed.
The name of the captain who brought the matter to Jones' attention was blacked out in five references in the document obtained by The Bee, but a sixth reference that was only partially obscured indicates it came from a "Captain Goold."
A Capt. Michael Goold worked for the department for more than two decades before becoming police chief in Rancho Cordova for three years. Goold retired in December 2016 and moved out of California, according to public records.
He could not be reached for comment, but former Undersheriff Lewis, who is now retired, said Monday that he did not know of a relationship between Fitch and Morse until he was asked to investigate the matter.
"It was a complete shock to me," Lewis said, adding that the investigation never took place because Fitch decided to retire less than two months after Jones ordered the review.
"Obviously, it would have been a very difficult complaint to investigate," Lewis said, adding that as chief deputy, Fitch was part of the department's executive staff and directly beneath him in the chain of command. "The fact that he just up and left made it easier."
Fitch said the filing of the complaint convinced him to retire on Aug. 7, 2014, but not because of any wrongdoing.
“There were some rumors that had been brought to Undersheriff Lewis' attention while Scott was back in D.C. that were unfounded and absolutely untrue," Fitch said. "Scott asked me to not retire and I did, though, because I was so uncomfortable with what was going on.”
Fitch said he did not begin his relationship with Morse until January 2014, a full year after the first contract was issued. He said in an interview Tuesday that he did not divulge his relationship with Morse to department officials until he heard about the complaint in June 2014 because he felt no obligation to do so.
"I just didn’t think that anything I was doing rose to their need to know, because I wasn't doing anything to influence any contracts," he said.
Fitch said the first contracts to the Ascend program were issued at the urging of then-Sacramento County Supervisor Jimmie Yee.
An October 2012 Board of Supervisors meeting video shows Yee urging Lewis and Fitch to work with Ascend.
"I'm impressed with the program that Ascend has," Yee said. "I'd like you to sit down and work with them a lot closer."
The total amount of money paid out to Ascend remains unclear. Fitch said the nonprofit program received contracts that paid about $76,000 in 2013, less than half the $180,000 total approved by the Board of Supervisors.
The Bee filed a Public Records Act request with the sheriff's department May 1 seeking the Ascend contracts, but the documents have not yet been provided.
Other internal sheriff's documents reviewed by The Bee indicate that from June 2013 through April 2014, payments of $113,920 were made to Ascend.
"This is a smear job, trumped up by Jones and his people who were threatened by the reforms I was putting in place back in 2014, the same reforms I'll move forward if the people of Sacramento County elect me sheriff," Fitch said in a statement to The Bee. "This is just another case of Jones taking a page from the playbook of his hero Donald Trump: ignore the facts, make things up, and smear your opponents."
But Jones says the accusations "were absolutely true" and that they caused him to lose confidence in Fitch after promoting Fitch twice, first to captain and then to chief deputy.
The two candidates squared off over the matter in a meeting with The Bee's editorial board Friday, and Jones made it plain he believes Fitch acted improperly.
“First of all, they were more than rumors, it was an ethics complaint brought to me by another high-ranking member in the department," Jones said. "As I looked into them, they were not rumors, they were absolutely true.
"They were well-documented and still are well-documented. It was an investigation that I was going to have to start, and Mr. Fitch chose to retire instead of having to be subject of an investigation.”
The sheriff noted that Fitch's decision to retire cost him some of his pension but said he did not want to use the issue as a campaign tool.
“Uniformly, I have not been a negative campaigner," the sheriff said. "But I can tell you that I think Mr. Fitch left before he wanted to leave.
"He left about $5,000 a year on the table for the rest of his life by leaving early, and there’s a reason for that, and it’s not for me to say. But I will tell you that it is not a very well-kept secret.”
Fitch said Jones' estimate of what he lost by leaving after only nine months as deputy chief — rather than after one full year — was "ridiculous."
"I retired when I wanted to retire," Fitch said.
Fitch also noted that Jones continued to use the Ascend program even after he left, signing an amended agreement with the program on Feb. 15, 2015, that also was signed by Morse. Under that contract, Fitch said, Ascend was paid $135,000, much more than when he was with the department.
Fitch says the accusations were retaliation for his efforts to curb abuses at the jail while he was with the department and for his reporting of more than $600,000 in "stand-by" pay for jail medical staff.
"It was paying people for being at home," Fitch said, adding that he reported the issue to the county counsel's office but got nowhere with his complaints. "I thought this was criminal."
At the time Fitch left, there was little inkling that he could some day end up running against Jones. He went on to become the chief of workforce development at the California Prison Industry Authority.
Jones had intended to leave after completing his second term and groomed another sheriff's official, Chief Deputy Kris Palmer, to run this year. But Palmer backed out of the race, and Jones announced he would seek a third term.
In the campaign, Fitch has sought to portray himself as a reformer running with the backing of local Democrats, including Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg. Jones, a Republican, is running as a law-and-order candidate who has reduced crime during his eight years running the department.
Two other candidates, former Deputy Bret Daniels and retired sheriff's Sgt. Donna Cox, are running for sheriff.