If Nez Perce County Prosecutor Justin Coleman had not more fully explained why he fired Nez Perce County Sheriff Joe Rodriguez as a client, this page would have been among the first to chastise him.
Wednesday, the prosecutor — joined by county Commissioners Don Beck, Doug Havens and Doug Zenner — finally shed some light on what amounts to an October surprise in the election contest between the incumbent sheriff and his challenger, former undersheriff Bryce Scrimsher. Until then, Coleman had offered nothing beyond the cryptic terms of his Oct. 1 letter:
l Through his “management and personnel” decisions, Rodriguez had placed Coleman’s office in a conflict of interest between the sheriff and the county commissioners.
l Rodriguez disparaged and ignored the legal advice he was already getting from Coleman’s office as well as insurers and risk managers — presumably the Idaho Counties Risk Management Program.
l Whatever Rodriguez was doing, it continued to create a “substantial risk of liability” for the county.
l And Rodriguez “directs personal attacks, expressed in writing, against other county elected officials as well as individuals and other county employees.”
Context alone demanded Coleman speak up.
For instance, it’s difficult to imagine any two public offices more closely intertwined than the sheriff and the prosecutor. The sheriff prepares criminal cases for prosecution and the prosecutor is the legal backstop against any liability incurred by the county jail. In both of those matters, the two offices will continue to maintain their professional relationship. But this remains a huge rift — and suggests the legal interests of the county and its sheriff have diverged to such an extent that the taxpayers must now pay for two sets of attorneys.
Then there is Rodriguez’s political Achilles’ heel — his personnel management.
Two complaints — including one from Scrimsher — paint the picture of a hostile work enviroment. In June, ICRMP settled a sexual harassment claim a male employee filed against Rodriguez for $68,500.
A year ago, ICRMP threatened to drop its coverage of the sheriff’s office in any personnel dispute.
“Insurance coverage is provided for those accidental happenings that inevitably occur in an uncertain world, but the insurance offerings of ICRMP cannot serve as a funding resource to compensate all who might be harmed as a result of conscious choices by any public official,” Executive Director Timothy L. Osborne wrote at the time.
At the beseeching of county officials, ICRMP settled for a higher-deductible plan. It also agreed to waive the higher deductibles if the sheriff consulted with it before firing or suspending anyone.
Scrimsher’s termination triggered a January 2019 vote of no confidence in Rodriguez from the Nez Perce County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 32. Since then, the rank-and-file has also endorsed Scrimsher.
And it is the sheriff’s personnel management record that is Schrimsher’s case in brief before the voters this fall.
So Wednesday, Coleman confirmed what Scrimsher alleged at Tuesday’s candidate debate, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the LC Valley and the Lewis Clark Valley Chamber of Commerce: The sheriff had divulged the confidential personnel records of “numerous” employees to an unnamed individual who runs the LC Valley Corruption Facebook page.
Given the chance to respond at the debate, Rodriguez did not dispute it.
Coleman did not offer any details about whose or what kind of information was compromised, but he did provide a time line.
On Sept. 10, Beck learned about the matter.
Coleman found out 15 days later.
Before dropping Rodriguez as a client, Coleman spent Sept. 28-30 going over the problems with ICRMP and the county commissioners.
If nothing else, this refutes the farcical explanation Rodriguez offered at the debate: That the prosecutor was merely responding to some kind of new statewide system imposed by ICRMP rather than any wrongdoing on his part — and that “ICRMP is there to help the sheriff’s office with any kind of problems.”
In their release, Coleman and the county commissioners noted the insurance pool was amending its policy to re-impose the series of rapidly escalating deductibles — from $15,000 on the first claim to $60,000 on the fourth and each claim thereafter — filed against Rodriguez’s department.
Rodriguez has invited the public to a question-and-answer session Monday at the Lewiston Community Center. This had better be more than a simple cheerleading exercise. — M.T.