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Emotions raw as Lake County sheriff urged to resign

Published: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 at 6:23 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 20, 2013 at 10:40 a.m.

LAKEPORT -- Lake County supervisors voted Tuesday to ask polarizing Sheriff Frank Rivero to resign, but the sheriff vowed he will not bow to their pressure.

"It is a corrupt cabal that has been pushing on me from day one," Rivero said after the unanimous no-confidence vote by the five-member board. "I am going to continue to push back on them."

The vote capped a bitter and emotional three-hour session during which Rivero and his chief critics on the board, Supervisors Rob Brown and Anthony Farrington, traded charges of incompetence, malfeasance and corruption in unusually blunt terms.

"I have never been this embarrassed," said Farrington, who had supported Rivero in the 2010 election. "I believed in you; I trusted you. You have let me down, not as a board member, but as a voter."

Rivero's critics have a long list of complaints, saying that the sheriff has an overly aggressive style and has been a poor manager. He has alienated longtime top commanders, some of whom have quit, and he has sparred with Lake County News, an online news service.

He was so angered by the website's aggressive coverage of him that he refused to supply it with news releases and other information. The owners sued and Rivero recently agreed to a settlement in which he admitted no wrongdoing but restored the flow of information.

The board and the sheriff have battled over a variety of funding issues, particularly the building of a new substation.

Rivero has publicly accused board members of various misdeeds and demanded that Farrington resign after he was hired as a defense attorney for a man facing a marijuana charge. He accused Brown of compromising a murder investigation by prematurely making public the name of a suspect, "recklessly, carelessly and with wanton disregard."

"Now we've moved to the point where we have no relationship with the sheriff," Farrington said.

Board members say the final straw, however, was when a judge ordered the release of a report by District Attorney Don Anderson saying that Rivero had lied to his superiors and investigators looking into a 2008 case in which he shot at, but did not hit, a man. At the time, Rivero was a deputy in the department.

He gave varying statements as to whether he saw that the man was holding a can of pepper spray and whether he thought the object might have been a gun instead, Anderson said. Department policy would not have permitted shooting at a suspect who was holding pepper spray, according to the report.

Anderson said the evidence of deception was so strong that he would be compelled to notify defense attorneys in any case where the sheriff was a material witness that the officer had a history of lying. That designation is known as being on "the Brady list," after the 1963 Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland, which required prosecutors to disclose evidence that could be favorable to a defendant, including when witnesses have a history of lying.

"Being placed on the Brady list is an incredibly serious charge," Supervisor Jim Comstock said.

The supervisors' resolution has no legal effect because the sheriff is an independently elected official. While the board controls the department's budget, it has no direct influence over the sheriff.

Supervisors said they hoped the resolution would be a strong signal of their disapproval to voters who might be considering voting for Rivero again, or even those who might consider recalling him before the next election.

Rivero refused to give ground Tuesday, responding to the board with a lengthy, aggressive indictment of the "old boy" culture that had been a centerpiece of his campaign in 2010. He directed much of his wrath at Anderson, who also ran and won in 2010 as a candidate vowing to shake up the establishment.

Rivero accused Anderson of cutting favorable legal deals for political allies and family members and refusing to prosecute politically connected suspects.

"There is political corruption in this county that allows these things to go on," Rivero said. "It should not be tolerated. In fact, it should be prosecuted."

Anderson denied those charges Tuesday, rising to say that any cases involving friends or family had been reviewed and handled by outside agencies, including the state Attorney General's Office.

He said that his report on the 2008 shooting was not part of a vendetta, as Rivero insists, but rather the result of new statements from another deputy, offered in 2011, that highlighted previously noted inconsistencies in Rivero's account.

"This has caused me nothing but heartache," he said. "This has caused me nothing but political embarrassment; the whole county is embarrassed, but this is my professional obligation."

The meeting was packed with critics and supporters of the sheriff, many of whom rose to speak in blunt terms about their view of the resolution.

Rivero supporter Bruce Forsythe accused the supervisors of hypocrisy, saying they never discussed a motion of no confidence when previous Sheriff Rod Mitchell was the target of lawsuits or news coverage exposing management problems in the department.

"You just sat like stone statues on your plinths of deception," Forsythe said. "Not a finger was raised on 'no confidence.' "

Many of Rivero's supporters said the resolution was simply political theater, designed to humiliate the sheriff in retaliation for his stand against what they called the county's inbred political culture. Supporter Wendy White called Tuesday's debate "one-sided and unjust, like a kangaroo court."

The sheriff's critics, however, rose to complain about the sheriff's behavior and personality, saying it was undermining public confidence.

Former Sheriff's Department Capt. Rob Howe, now the county's chief probation officer, said he had quickly determined that working for Rivero would "require me to forget everything I knew" about honor and leadership, causing him to resign shortly after the election.

"The price of staying was too high," he said.

Clearlake City Councilman Joey Luiz, a former supporter of Rivero, said the sheriff executed his promises of reform "with a machete" and alienated many people.

"The man I have seen him become in office is not the man I supported in the campaign," he said.

So passionate and personal did the debate become that some speakers on both sides appealed for the sheriff and the board, particularly Brown, to come to some kind of accommodation.

Brown insisted that his press for a no-confidence vote was not a personal vendetta, based on his past support of the former sheriff, but a symbol of his passionate love of Lake County, where his family has lived for generations.

Brown offered to resign as supervisor as a symbol of his devotion to the county, provided that Rivero did the same by 5 p.m. Tuesday.

Rivero sharply dismissed Brown's offer after the meeting, saying he was determined not just to stay in office, but to change his mind about not running for re-election in 2014, as he had previously said.

"I'll fight them even more," he said before leaving the council chamber to return to his office through a crowd of supporters.

You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.

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