With the race for El Paso County sheriff still in its early stages, a bombshell scandal has hit: A file detailing the alleged misdeeds of one of the leading candidates has been reported stolen from a locked cabinet in a locked room at the Sheriff's Office.
When the sheriff investigated, two deputies who support the candidate, Bill Elder, abruptly resigned after being given lie detector tests. Logic suggests Elder supporters stole the file to hide the dirt on their candidate, then resigned when questioned.
But Elder and the two deputies said there is no dirt to hide. Elder said he was never the focus of an Internal Affairs investigation in the 19 years he was at the Sheriff's Office. Instead, he said, his political opponents, who include the sheriff and undersheriff, could have taken the file to frame him - or reported what he calls a "phantom file" that never existed to make him look like a dirty cop and sink his candidacy.
"What better way to discredit me than to fabricate this whole thing and start an investigation?" Elder told The Gazette.
Sheriff Terry Maketa calls this nonsense.
"I have nothing to gain from making up a file and making it disappear except a big headache," he said. "I would rather just release the file and let the public do what they are going to do."
The issue of the file is murky. After more than two dozen interviews with Sheriff's Office staff, former staff, candidates and others, it is unclear whether an Internal Affairs investigation occurred or if the file even existed.
With the election for El Paso County sheriff eight months away, but the caucus in just weeks, the race is mired in accusations, conspiracy theories and shifting alliances among longtime foes. More than dirty politics, a criminal investigation is underway, and the FBI is looking into it.
At the center of the investigation is the three-term sheriff, who can't run in November because of term limits but appears to be trying to protect people and programs he installed in the Sheriff's Office by making deals with a longtime foe, John Anderson, and providing unusual amounts of information about the investigation of the man he does not want to see as sheriff, Elder.
"Bill Elder is a liar and corrupt," Maketa said last week in a text message to his longtime friend and former colleague Teri Goodall. Goodall shared the text conversation with The Gazette. In it, Maketa said he opposes Elder because Elder plans to pool sheriff's resources with regional law enforcement, dismantling the current finances, and added "will bust my butt to insure (sic) he doesn't tear it down."
Elder said the race is contentious because of what's at stake: the jobs of Maketa's allies in the office and control of internal information that could shed light on the terms of Anderson and Maketa.
Maketa dismissed the allegation that he is picking a successor to protect favorite employees or hide secrets, saying he backs Anderson because "we both have a common goal, what is in the best interest of the office and the public we serve."
Missing file in office
The case of the missing file started April 8 when the head of the sheriff's Internal Affairs department, Lt. Cheryl Peck, went into the locked archive room to get a file from a locked drawer.
Internal Affairs investigates misconduct within the Sheriff's Office, so access to the archive room of eight file cabinets is limited to a handful of people: the three IA staff, their commander, a few shift commanders with master keys, the sheriff and the undersheriff.
When Peck opened the drawer, she told The Gazette, she noticed an empty file jacket with the name Bill Elder sticking up. Elder worked for the Sheriff's Office until 1998 and is now deputy chief of the Fountain police. Peck said she called in her sergeants, Rob Stone and Scott Deno.
"The first thing I said was 'Oh, s---,' I mean, we knew this guy was running for sheriff," Deno told The Gazette.
They called their commander, who told them to lock the drawer and notify the undersheriff, Paula Presley.
Presley and Maketa took over the investigation.
Maketa said they dusted for prints and checked electronic key logs of who had entered the IA area, but within a few weeks, they were out of leads. "We had nowhere to go, nothing to go on. So we kept it quiet, waiting to see what would bubble up," Maketa said.
Of the four Internal Affairs employees with keys to the file cabinet, none was given a lie detector test until December.
Letting people like the sheriff who had access to the file run the investigation is a conflict of interest, said Joe Breister, a recently retired Sheriff's Office commander. "I have 20 years in investigations, and this seems wrong. If I was running the investigation, I'd send it to someone outside."
No action was taken in the investigation until late December, according to several current and former deputies.
"The biggest quandary is why they sat on the investigation without moving," said recently retired Sheriff's Office commander Brad Shannon. "Time is an enemy to investigations. As time passes, memory fails, things get lost. If this missing file was such a big deal, why didn't they act?"
Elder not sure file existed
Elder said he is not sure there ever was a file.
He has not been the subject of an Internal Affairs investigation, according to available records, and there is conflicting information about whether a file existed.
In 2010, when Elder applied to work for the Fountain police, Fountain did a background investigation that included requesting all files on Elder from the Sheriff's Office.
"There were no IA investigations where Elder was under investigation," said the background report, obtained by The Gazette through the Colorado Open Records Act.
But two IA employees and Maketa said they saw a file about an inch thick with Elder's name on it in the cabinets in the past few years.
Maketa said he thumbed through the file briefly in late 2012 because he knew the media would eventually request the files of the candidates and he wanted to know what was in Elder's. He said it contained a report of insubordination, two citizen complaints, two traffic accident reports and a sheaf of stapled documents about a 1997 issue with alleged improper recording of overtime.
Elder said he was never in traffic accidents as a deputy.
The Sheriff's Office maintains a database of every Internal Affairs investigation since 1995.
Peck said Elder is not in the database. She said there might have been other personnel papers in his file in the locked cabinet that were not investigations.
"Just because he doesn't have an investigation doesn't mean there wasn't a file," she said.
Presley decides not to run
The heir apparent to Maketa's three-term incumbency was his undersheriff, Presley. In an interview with The Gazette this week, Maketa said Presley was the "best possible candidate" and the only one who knew how everything in the office worked.
For much of 2013, Presley was considering a run for sheriff. She twice asked Maketa's former campaign manager, Wendy Habert, to run her campaign, Habert said. But Habert declined, saying she did not feel Presley had the support of the deputies.
Until November, Presley continued to position herself to run, attending educational meetings for potential candidates put on by the local Republican Party.
But last week, Presley told The Gazette she has decided not to run and that she prefers the "operational side of the Sheriff's Office" and did not want to "get mixed up in the political side."
During the summer, while Presley was considering a run, two other candidates announced their bids: Jim Reid and Elder.
Reid spent 10 years as commander of emergency services at the Sheriff's Office, before leaving in April to take a job as El Paso County's executive director of public services.
Elder worked his way up in the Sheriff's Office to lieutenant in charge of the vice, narcotics and intelligence division, before resigning in 1998 to go into real estate. In 2010, he joined the Fountain police.
In 2013, Elder picked up key endorsements, including District Attorney Dan May, and seemed to have the support of Maketa, too, according to Goodall, Maketa's longtime friend.
"I told him I was supporting Elder, and he said 'I'll probably end up supporting him, too,'?" she said. "That was in September, long after he knew about this missing file. It did not seem to bother him then."
Former Sheriff Anderson also was leaning toward supporting Elder in September and met with Elder and his backers on several occasions, according to Anderson and Elder.
On Oct. 3, Anderson, a two-term sheriff, invited Elder to The Broadmoor to attend the annual One Hundred Club banquet - a fundraiser to support the families of fallen police officers and firefighters.
"He told me it would be good if we were seen together," Elder said.
After the banquet, the two talked about what changes Elder wanted to make if elected. Nothing much, Elder said he told Anderson, but just to make sure there was no financial mismanagement, he wanted to start with a thorough forensic audit of the Sheriff's Office finances.
Within a month of that conversation, interviews show, Anderson started telling people that there was dirt in Elder's past - an investigation of misspending - and he was not a good candidate.
"I'm convinced the sudden split was over the audit," Elder said. "I think Anderson did not want anyone to look at the books."
Anderson said this is not true.
"When Elder brought up the idea of an audit, it did ring very hollow with me. It implies that there is criminal wrongdoing. And I don't have any belief at all there is anything illegal going on," he said. "But the idea I'm opposed to an audit is absolutely false. I welcome an audit."
Maketa said the sheriff's budget is audited by the county each year, and Elder's call for an audit shows his inexperience.
"Every expenditure in that office, even if it is $20, is carefully looked at," Maketa said.
Two of Anderson's comptrollers say Anderson might have reason to keep the financial curtain pulled over his two terms as sheriff, from 1995 to 2003.
Ollie Gray, who was comptroller from 1997 to 1998, said he came across an unusual pattern in the books in 1997 in which chunks of overtime - about 12 hours at a time - were doled out at regular intervals to detectives who had not earned it.
"A lot of people were getting paid that didn't deserve to get paid, to the tune of about $500,000 that year," Gray said.
He said he took the issue to Anderson but is unaware anything was ever done about it.
Anderson said he does not remember the issue and could not comment on it.
Gray also said Anderson spent money irresponsibly. When Gray resigned in 1998, he told Anderson in his letter of resignation, "Out of the 36 people that you are requesting in your 1999 budget, there are only three positions that are remotely justified."
Goodall took over the comptroller position from Gray and served until 2003. She also said Anderson spent recklessly.
"There was a lot of waste in the office," she said.
She said Anderson was notorious for charging lunches to the county, then having deputies with him sign the receipt in an attempt to conceal the practice. Four deputies and former deputies also said they witnessed this.
"I once told him he had run up more than $9,000 in food for the year and it was only September," Goodall said. "He said, 'That's impossible, I always got you guys to sign.'?"
Goodall said Anderson kept a car for personal use and tried to expense a trip to Texas that had been paid for by another organization.
Anderson said all of his personal spending on meals was justified, and he never abused it. In addition, Goodall said, Anderson wasted staff time investigating things she described as "ridiculous."
"You're going to laugh, but this is true," she said. "He wanted the El Paso County Sheriff's Office to be the first Sheriff's Office with a space station, and he had the staff spend hours and hours researching it. We spend thousands of hours researching just crazy stuff."
Anderson said he asked staff to look into whether a satellite could improve radio communications for the office.
"If it had happened, it would have really helped in our operational abilities," he said.
Elder loses support
In October, a few weeks after Elder mentioned the proposed forensic audit to Anderson, Anderson began telling people Elder was not a good candidate, interviews show. Anderson told at least two deputies interviewed by The Gazette that Elder had paid out too much overtime in 1997 and had resigned when it was discovered. The deputies did not want to be identified because they feared retribution. On Nov. 22, he also told Elder's boss, Fountain Police Chief Todd Evans.
"He is making all these accusations. Then he said there is a missing IA file," Evans said. "I say, where is this information coming from, and he won't tell me. He said he couldn't remember. It was baloney, just pure politics."
Around the same time, Maketa went from considering supporting Elder to being against him.
"Past employees from our office in the command ranks were contacting me," Maketa said. "They asked if anyone had looked at his IA file."
He would not say who contacted him.
On Nov. 26, Maketa had a long phone conversation about the race with Goodall, who was his undersheriff in 2007. "All the sudden he was anti-Elder. He talked about how (Elder) was doing the overtime wrong. Then we talked about the idea of Anderson running. (Maketa) said, 'That makes me sick. It would just be an awful mess.'?"
Maketa told The Gazette he decided not to support Elder because Elder seemed inconsistent, making different promises to different groups.
Maketa restarts inquiry
The first week of December, Maketa restarted the dormant investigation of Elder's missing file.
Maketa said it was because he received an anonymous phone call late in November or early in December telling him that details of Elder's past misconduct could be found in the file of Elder's former subordinate, Bill Claspell, who was investigated for the overtime issue in 1998.
Anderson told The Gazette he contacted Maketa around that time and told him of Claspell's file.
"Once we looked at the file and could show there was something actually to go on, that's why we started the investigation again," Maketa said.
Deputies were called into Internal Affairs for lie detector tests in December. Emory Gerhart and Chuck Kull were among the first.
Gerhart had been on the force for 18 years but said he had gotten on the sheriff's bad side in 2013, along with a handful of other employees including Kull, because he was trying to start a police protective association - a union.
Gerhart had also announced his support for Elder. He said during the fall that the sheriff and undersheriff began regularly calling him in on his days off to berate him for what he called "minor issues."
"Eventually the light came on and I realized they wanted to make my life miserable so I would resign," he said.
Presley and Maketa denied harassing Gerhart and Kull, saying both had what he called "performance issues."
The group seeking to form a union held an informational meeting Dec. 3 that attracted 30 people.
Three days later, Gerhart was called in to have a lie detector test. He said he was asked several questions about a missing IA file.
"Flabbergasted is an understatement," he said in an interview.
He had no access to the room where files were kept.
"I had never heard anything about a missing file. You might as well asked me if I lived on Mars," he said.
He left confused but not overly concerned, he said.
A few days later, he said, the sheriff called him again. Gerhart said he had discussed quitting weeks before with his wife. Instead of going in to be yelled at, he said, he resigned.
"I just wanted the abuse to stop," he said. "I never thought I'd be used as a scapegoat Watergate burglar. It's just so outlandish."
Kull resigned the same day. The patrol deputy with 13 years on the force said he had been subject to rants and arbitrary punishments for months and had applied to the Fountain Police Department before he resigned.
A friend of Gerhart, he had helped with the formation of a police protective association and was a supporter of Elder, which, he said, made him a target of Maketa and Presley. Like Gerhart, he had no access to the Internal Affairs files and said he had not heard about a missing file.
He took the lie detector test and said he thought little of it. He said he is a trained operator of the test and looked at the results afterwards, which showed they had been truthful. When called back for questioning a few days later, Kull resigned.
"I knew something was going on," he said. "I was tired of it. I decided my time with the sheriff was done."
Maketa told The Gazette both men's lie detector tests showed deception when they were asked if they knew who stole the file.
"Before we could question them, they resigned," Maketa said. "That raises concerns."
Gerhart and Kull said they had nothing to hide and would willingly submit to independent lie detector tests.
"I am not a liar," Kull said. "I have no idea why I was targeted. I'm just a small fish with a family who wants to be a cop."
FBI gets involved
The Sheriff's Office policy states "internal investigations will be treated in strict confidence. Information will be disseminated and used on a 'need to know' basis."
But Maketa has discussed the missing file repeatedly. In December, he called Scott Trainor, Fountain city manager, and gave him detailed information, Trainor said. In January, Maketa sent an email to everyone in the Sheriff's Office giving even more detailed information on the missing file.
The Sheriff's Office also gave the media 350 pages of background information on Elder, including an Internal Affairs investigation of his subordinate, Claspell, marked "CONFIDENTIAL, DO NOT COPY."
"It is highly unusual to talk about any ongoing investigation," said Ken Moore, who worked for the Sheriff's Office for 21 years, including several running the Internal Affairs department. "Thus my shock that they talked about this investigation publicly, that is just crazy."
Maketa said he wrote the policies, and as sheriff, he is exempt.
In January, as Elder's boss at the Fountain police grew increasingly concerned that there was a criminal investigation against his deputy chief being conducted by a political foe, he contacted May, the district attorney and an Elder supporter. Together, they decided to alert the Attorney General's Office.
The FBI got involved, according to interviews, and has questioned at least two people, Sgt. Rob Stone of Internal Affairs and Evans, of the Fountain Police Department.
The FBI would neither confirm nor deny an investigation. Maketa said he tried to turn the investigation over to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation in January, but the agency declined. The CBI did not respond to requests for confirmation.
Elder: Nothing to hide
On Jan. 30, The Colorado Springs Independent published an article about the file. Just over a week later, on Feb. 6, Elder sat for an interview with The Gazette in his lawyer's office. He denied having anything to do with the file and said that while his past was not perfect, he had nothing to hide.
"Honestly, I don't know what's going on," he said. "But if I had to guess, I think this was all leaked to discredit me and clear the field for Anderson. Watch, John Anderson will announce a run."
On Feb. 6, Anderson had not yet registered as a candidate.
The previous day, Maketa called the other candidate in the race, Reid, with an offer. According to people close to Reid, who wanted to remain anonymous because they work for the Sheriff's Office and fear retribution, Maketa said he would support Reid's run for sheriff if Reid kept key people such as Undersheriff Presley in place and hired Maketa on as a consultant. Reid refused to confirm the details to The Gazette but said Maketa did call offering his endorsement.
"There were conditions," Reid said. "And I was not amenable to them."
Maketa denied setting conditions, saying he just "let him know how I felt."
In a text to Goodall a few days later, though, Maketa said, "Gave Jim an offer that would insure his success but I wanted to see him commit completely and he didn't accept it."
When Reid turned down the offer, Maketa called Anderson to work out an endorsement deal.
Several people with long careers in the Sheriff's Office said Maketa hates Anderson. Maketa did not back Anderson's bid for Congress in 2006, and Anderson actively campaigned against Maketa in 2010, saying the office needed "new blood."
Goodall texted Maketa when she heard of the Anderson endorsement, asking how he could consider such a deal with a foe who had a history of misspending.
"Had a very direct talk with JA and pointed out what he did and he realizes it," Maketa texted back.
Maketa denied setting any conditions when asked by The Gazette.
"We had a talk about the undersheriff, I told him what my feelings were, but that was it," he said.
On Feb. 14, Anderson announced his run.
A few days later, his campaign printed flyers with Maketa's endorsement, saying, "There is only one person who I feel possesses the qualifications and commitment to fulfill the duties and responsibilities of Sheriff." John Anderson.
Since then, Anderson has been pointing to the investigation of the file as evidence of Elder's immorality.
"I tell you there is a level of corruption in the Elder campaign that could make the Gov. (Chris) Christie's bridge scandal pale in comparison," Anderson told The Gazette. "Elder, Todd Evans, and his minions are out to steal this election."
The sheriff's criminal investigation of the Elder file remains open.
Follow Dave Philipps on Twitter: @David_Philipps