Sheriff Terry Maketa should resign and allow the El Paso County Board of Commissioners to appoint a temporary replacement. Voters will choose a full-time successor to Maketa in November.
More than 600,000 residents of El Paso County — Colorado's most populous jurisdiction — depend on the sheriff to defend their lives and liberties, and they deserve a department that's not distracted while immersed in what appears a credible scandal.
Maketa was a hero after his handling of last summer's Black Forest fire. The Gazette praised him for saving the day when the region found itself without a detox facility. Like a majority of voters, we supported his election to three terms in office and his request for an increase in taxes to fund his department.
But locals have heard disturbing rumors for years. Maketa, they've been told, does not run a shop where the best are promoted and taxpayer funds are spent based on performance. They've said he has intimate affairs with employees and shows favoritism with some while threatening those who question his actions. Rumors and innuendoes are cheap and should be discarded by discerning listeners.
What can't be so easily ignored are hundreds of inappropriate text messages from the sheriff's mobile phone that he may have written. Nor can anyone dismiss the public testimonies of ranking law enforcement officials — people who have long worked with Maketa — detailing habitual bad behavior inside his department at the cost of taxpayers.
"I think often about touching kissing and licking every inch of your amazing body," said just one of these messages dated 1:48 a.m. Jan. 4, 2009, from Maketa's phone number. It was sent to sheriff's department comptroller Dorene Cardarelle's phone.
A complaint filed with the El Paso County Board of Commissioners by three department commanders accuses Maketa of sexual impropriety, discrimination, creating a hostile work environment, violations of employee civil rights, and intimidation to keep employees quiet about misdeeds and removal of nearly all oversight of a $60 million annual budget.
An exhaustive investigation by The Gazette's Pulitzer Prize-winning Dave Philipps found abundant documentation that supports claims in the complaint, and more. He unearthed evidence that supports the claims that Maketa has carried on affairs with at least three employees — Cardarelle, Undersheriff Paula Presley, and Tiffany Huntz, the head of training for dispatchers. Philipps also found details to bolster claims Maketa promoted the women to positions that exceeded their qualifications, and that he protected them from performance standards applied to other employees.
The body of evidence makes up a lurid story of a department out of control, in which public employees fear retribution for exposing improprieties of the community's highest-ranking law-enforcement officer.
Suspicious information doesn't always rise to the level of proof, but it's hard to imagine so many reputable professionals speaking out against the leader of a fair and well-run organization. It's even harder to imagine that a long and elaborate trail of texts is somehow grossly misrepresented or misunderstood.
The sheriff is arguably the most powerful public official in a county, charged foremost with upholding the United States Constitution. A good sheriff protects us from crime, but also from legislators, bureaucrats and government executives who might otherwise exceed their authority at a cost of individual liberties this country was founded to protect. Any person with that level of responsibility must exude above-average character, avoiding even the appearance of impropriety. A sheriff must earn enough trust to rise above corroborated reproach by a collection of peers. After Maketa's 11-plus years in office, that's not the case.
The vast majority of law enforcement professionals lead exemplary lives of high integrity. They risk their lives so the rest of us may live in peace. They should not have to question whether their highest-ranking peer will treat them fairly and play by the rules.
Sheriff Maketa, all this smoke won't dissipate soon. In the interest of your constituents and colleagues, step aside and let the community sort this out. In the meantime, our justice system will afford you full benefit of the doubt as it processes mounting evidence that will likely wind up in court.