El Paso County sheriff's candidate Mike Angley says he isn't afraid of a fight - whether it means taking on incumbent Sheriff Bill Elder or local Republican Party officials.
The question remains: Is anyone actually fighting back?
Since declaring his candidacy in August, the retired Air Force colonel and political newcomer has favored confrontation over diplomacy - using his campaign website, Angley4Sheriff.com, to pummel the sheriff with allegations of misconduct and mismanagement. In an interview, Angley, 58, also described a clash with the El Paso County Republican Party that ended with him promising to "embarrass" a party official if they play favorites.
"My first instinct is as a warrior," Angley told The Gazette. "If someone attacks me, I will respond."
Republican officials, meanwhile, deny any attacks - and two representatives accused him of publishing a partly "fictional" account of their interaction, presumably to burnish his tough-talking image.
The drama comes more than six months before a June primary that will determine the next Republican candidate for sheriff, spicing up the campaign still in its early stages and generating fresh allegations about a sheriff's office long steeped in controversy.
Angley, a former contributor to a Breitbart-branded conservative website known for its hawkish tone, says it's all in the name of highlighting differences between him and Elder, a mission he calls "fair game" in a contested election.
On his campaign site, Angley accuses the Sheriff's Office of rewarding a top civilian administrator with a salary normally reserved for sworn officers, among other misdeeds. He said he is exploring claims that Elder has misused money generated by a recent public safety tax initiative.
An email to a sheriff's spokeswoman asking for comment on the allegations went unreturned. El Paso County spokesman Dave Rose later responded to say that he had been asked by the Sheriff's Office to prepare documents addressing the claims, though none were requested. No documents were provided to The Gazette as of Friday evening.
Angley's claims evoke reminders of an anti-Elder website that has dogged the incumbent with anonymously sourced accusations for nearly a year. Angley says he has no affiliation with the site, though he acknowledged keeping tabs on it.
"I don't put any stock into anything on there. I don't consider it a source," he said. "I like to do my own independent research."
He told The Gazette that a Republican Party official sought to link him to the website's operators, however, recounting how a person he identified as a "named officer" accused him of being in league with the website's operators and misusing a party mailing list.
Three party officials familiar with the conflict chalked it up to a miscommunication - and two accused Angley of fabricating part of an account of their conversation.
"Personally, I am not aware of any officer having accused him of this," said El Paso County Republican Party Executive Director Cassandra Sebastian. "The party has no idea who's running the anti-Elder website and (has) no reason to believe that Mike Angley is behind it."
In supporting his claim, Angley provided The Gazette with an email from former state legislator and Republican Party secretary Kit Roupe, in which Roupe cited "claims" that one of Angley's supporters shared a confidential delegate list with operators of the anti-Elder website.
Angley said he took the email as a suggestion that the local party had thrown in with Elder, a violation of its neutrality.
The email does not accuse Angley of leaking the information, said Daniel Cole, a past director of the local GOP who was involved in responding to Angley's complaints that he had been accused of wrongdoing.
"It doesn't look like an accusation to me," Cole said. "It looks like she was repeating for Angley's benefit things that she heard said and wanted to make sure he was aware of it."
Cole and El Paso Republican Party Chairman Joshua Hosler said they called Angley after he complained to apologize for what they called Roupe's "undiplomatic" approach, and to affirm they weren't staking a position. Both said they were caught by surprise when Angley published a blog post of that conversation they said had been embellished for effect.
They flagged a passage in which Angley said he offered a stern warning, calling himself "an operator and a warrior." "My counterattacks rarely will be proportionate to the attack against me," Angley said he told the men during their phone call. "In fact, as a former practitioner of asymmetrical warfare, my responses will likely be brutal."
"That didn't actually happen," Cole said. He called the passage "fictional" and likened it to something Angley wished he had said.
Hosler chuckled when asked about the post: "Let's just say that he did not say that all. 'Fictional' is definitely the way to put it."
Angley said he recalls uttering the words he quoted in his blog post, and said he remains "baffled" they would deny accusations concerning the anti-Elder website.
"That's unfortunate that they're taking that route," he said. He was initially reluctant to share the email from Roupe, saying the conflict had blown over, but changed his mind when he learned of the denials.
Roupe was out of state and wasn't available for comment, Hosler said.
In his interview, Angley also described a testy exchange with Elder at a meeting of El Paso County Republican women in which he said Elder confronted him with a "laundry list" of complaints over his posts on his campaign website, getting "worked up" as he went on. Angley's wife, Evelyn, was close enough to witness the exchange, and became "concerned" about Elder's demeanor, he said.
"She couldn't hear what he was saying but the volume level was going up a little bit," he said. The Sheriff's Office didn't respond when asked about the episode.
Angley said Elder also sent a letter in October that drew on legal language in demanding that certain passages be withdrawn from Angley's website. Angley said the material was based on the public record, including open records requests, and that Elder's actions prove he seeks to intimidate those who criticize him. Angley acknowledged that he made a minor correction to at least one of his posts, but said he had identified and corrected the error before receiving Elder's letter.
Angley said his campaign has been in contact with 300-400 people now serving in the Sheriff's Office - roughly half of the sheriff's staff - furnishing him with an insider's perspective into dysfunction and cronyism within the ranks. He said most of the people he'd spoken with prefer to remain anonymous because they are fearful of retribution, and he maintains that their complaints have gone unheeded, including by the local Republican Party.
"They are supposed to be neutral during primaries," he said. "I know the incumbent - because of who he is, no matter what the race is - will get the nod from the party behind the scenes. It's the person they're comfortable with, I get that."
Hosler said he had no dog in the race as of yet, and said there were no hard feelings.
"My relationship to him is just like it was before," Hosler said. "We understand there are certain tactics to get traction and get media, and that's fine."