Mud flies in Sheriff’s race
Mud slinging in the campaign for El Dorado County sheriff is burying real issues and dividing the department, according to the incumbent sheriff and other observers.
“We are awash in allegations,” Sheriff Hal Barker said. “There are people going to the grand jury, the paper and people going to other people. The reason we’re awash is because there is so much political strategy.”
“I’ve been in Placerville for 22 years and I’ve never seen anything close to this,” said Placerville police Chief Chris Brown. “I’ve experienced different campaigns and seen different tactics but never to this extent.”
The two candidates, Undersheriff Jeff Neves and Sgt. Larry Hennick, are both longtime members of the Sheriff’s Department but they haven’t been acting like brothers in arms. Hennick accuses Neves’ campaign staff of using illegal tactics, such as threatening business owners who post Hennick posters at their store. Hennick also claims Barker allowed department volunteers to solicit votes for Neves while on the job.
The latter complaint has been filed with the El Dorado County Grand Jury. Foreman Michael Day said, by law, he is not allowed to talk about complaints made to the grand jury.
As for the alleged threats by Neves’ staff, two of the people Hennick said were intimidated denied anything improper took place. Gary Cooper, an owner of G & O Auto Body and Towing in Placerville, said he never reported to police that he had been threatened.
“Basically we hung up a Hennick sign and a person came in and expressed he didn’t like it and he wasn’t going to use us to tow his vehicle if we supported Hennick,” Cooper said. “Someone filed a report with the police, I don’t know who did.”
Cooper said the sign no longer hangs at G & O because he does not want his business to be politicized, not because he’s afraid of retribution.
Barker said his department has hired a private attorney out of Sacramento to conduct an independent investigation of the incident.
“Now if it’s happened, we want to find out who is responsible,” Barker said. “We have a lot a questions and not any answers.”
Coercion or politics?
Another example of Neves’ supporters allegedly threatening Hennick advocates was reported at last month at Runnels Automotive in South Lake Tahoe.
“It was nothing,” said John Runnels. “There was no coercion, no threats — just American, chewing-the-fat politics.”
Hennick on Wednesday said 20 businesses have been threatened by Neves’ campaigners.
“I’ve heard from the people, the people have called me and said they’ve been intimidated,” he said. “The damage has been done. People have been threatened. It’s still continuing today. They are not doing anything to stop it.”
Neves denies the allegations and says he’s instructed his staff never to criticize Hennick while on the job.
“I’m very passionate about that,” Neves said. “I’ve instructed them not to say anything critical about my opponent and I have every confidence they are doing that. If I see an illegal sign, I don’t run to the news media and the grand jury — those are really ugly tactics. But it’s water off my back because I’m too busy being positive and affirming my qualifications.”
Doug Pullen is president of the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, a group that endorsed Hennick last year by a vote of 73 to 50. He said threats are being made but people are too intimidated to talk about it.
“People are afraid to say anything,” Pullen said. “I’m starting to get afraid they’ll come after me, too. We came forward on the issues, but those are all lost now. Everything has become pure character assassination.”
In turn, Neves has made his own claims. He says Hennick doesn’t have the experience to be sheriff because he hasn’t earned a rank higher than sergeant. Hennick and Neves are the same age, 48, and both of them have worked at the Sheriff’s Department for more than 20 years.
“The sheriff’s office is not some mom-and-pop shop, it takes experience to run it,” Neves said. “It would be like taking the lead reporter and making him publisher — it’s a quantum jump.”
Rank is a sensitive issue, especially to Hennick. In spring 2001, Hennick, who has been a sergeant with the department since 1990, filed a complaint with the county Civil Service Commission saying he had been unfairly denied promotion to the rank of lieutenant. Hennick says he was denied a promotion because in 1997 he opposed Barker in a bid to be appointed sheriff. On June 21, 2001, the commission found there was some “bias” involved in the testing process.
Hennick has been placed back on a lieutenant’s list but promotions won’t happen again until the end of the year. Three promotions Neves received in the last two years under Barker illustrates the favoritism that is in ingrained at the department, Hennick said.
“When you see that, you think, ‘Well, he’s on the fast track to sheriff,'” he said. “Well, it’s not Hal Barker’s job to choose the next sheriff.”
More allegations surfaced Wednesday night when the Tribune was faxed a leaked memo that also was sent to the Mountain Democrat in Placerville. The president of Media & Associates, a public relations firm in Sacramento, wrote it.
“Media & Associates has always been proud of its role in helping people gain public office,” wrote Kevin Reikes. “However, it has become abundantly clear that Larry Hennick … has neither the temperament, nor the integrity necessary to serve the community … It is for that reason that Media & Associates has terminated Larry Hennick as a client.”
Hennick said Reikes’ attack is the result of him ending their working relationship in December.
“We sought his services and he didn’t perform. Like any good business decision, I terminated the relationship,” Hennick said. “This an attempt by Kevin Reikes to throw himself in the works 19 days before the election. He’s been a consultant on other campaigns and this is the tactic he tried to use.”
Kevin Reikes said the memo was for his clients only and meant to explain why he no longer would work for the candidate.
“This guy is so bereft of ability to serve the public in an elected capacity,” he said Thursday. “We don’t represent people like that. He finds it difficult to tell the truth.”
With the election days away, Barker said the sheriff’s race has torn the department in three.
“It’s a difficult time in the sheriff’s office — it’s very chaotic,” Barker said. “There are the people who support the undersheriff, people who support the sergeant and people in the middle who are trying to get on with their life. There is no bringing anybody together with this going on.”