Deputy Sheriff’s Association lodges complaint with state political watchdog over unreported Rich Colwell properties

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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The Placer County Deputy Sheriff’s Association has filed a complaint with the Fair Political Practices Commission against Placer County’s former No. 2 administrator Rich Colwell. The association’s complaint revolves around what it says is Colwell’s failure since 1999-2000 to disclose reportable real-estate holdings on annual conflict-of-interest filings. But Colwell said the issue is a minor one and the complaint is indicative of negativity emerging between labor and management during difficult fiscal times. A deputy’s association spokesman said this week that the state commission was poised to consider the complaint – filed last April – this month. Andrew Scott, the deputy’s association vice president, said the complaint was the result of an examination by his organization into county finances. The 280-member deputy group is in a protracted dispute over contract adjustments. “We came across something we felt violated the law and referred it to the agency that could investigate it and make a determination,” Scott said. “As soon as we discovered it, we reported it.” Colwell, 53, abruptly resigned from his $243,000-a-year job, submitting his notice Nov. 30. He left his job the same day. In an e-mail response Thursday to the allegations, Colwell said the complaint “is without merit and has been filed by a labor organization that has not been able to reach agreement with the county on a contract for the past three years.” “There is no allegation of conflict of interest, only of non-reporting the properties which are located with the city limits of Lincoln and are not within the unincorporated area of Placer County,” Colwell stated. “I have been in discussions with the FPPC staff and they have indicated that the reporting requirements may not be clear regarding such a situation and they are researching the issue.” Characterizing the issues the deputies group reported as minor, Colwell said it is “unfortunately indicative of the negative environment which tends to emerge between labor and management during difficult fiscal times.” The deputy association’s complaint with the state political watchdog’s enforcement division includes information on seven homes in Lincoln. Backup documentation indicates the properties, described as rental homes, once were or are now held in joint ownership by Colwell or with his wife, Nancy Colwell. Colwell, who has worked for the county since 1989, oversaw county operations in County CEO Tom Miller’s absence and provided policy direction and operational oversight of law enforcement and health services. He was also director of the Redevelopment Agency. Scott confirmed that Colwell was not involved directly in CEO’s Office discussions with his association. He added that the complaint wasn’t made public until now because the deputy’s organization didn’t want to be perceived as politicizing allegations. The properties listed in the association’s complaint are all located in Lincoln. Two are on Navigator Drive. Others are on 4th Street, 6th Street, Santorini Lane, Red Clover Way, and Inverness Drive. Filers are not required to report their personal residence. Colwell is a lifelong Penryn resident. The Deputy Sheriff’s Association list of Colwell properties indicate they were bought between 2000 and 2005. Between 2000 and early 2006, Colwell was director of the county’s Administrative Services Department as well as deputy county executive officer. He was promoted to the newly created position of chief assistant executive officer in early 2006. What the association alleges in its complaint is that Colwell violated provisions of the Political Reform Act by failing to disclose interest in seven rental properties on his FPPC 700 form since the 1999-2000 reporting year. “The 700 forms,” the commission states in its overview for filers, “ alert public officials about their own economic interests and potential areas of conflict in relation to their duties, and provide information to members of the public who may monitor official actions for any conflicts.” The Fair Political Practices Commission filing was new news to at least one county supervisor. District 5 Supervisor Jennifer Montgomery said Thursday that she had heard nothing about it until contacted by the Auburn Journal. She added that Colwell’s retirement wasn’t surprising. He had mentioned his desire to devote more time to his mandarin orchard over the past year, she said. Montgomery added that the timing did take her by surprise, though. Colwell also said in his e-mail that the county is “well-served by Miller and the board in their efforts to protect levels of service while maintaining the fiscal integrity of the budget. “I have been very fortunate to have served this organization for more than 20 years, always working with very talented and dedicated peers and staff,” Colwell said. “I have chosen to retire and direct my efforts toward my mandarin ranch and other family related activities.” Because of vacation and sick pay accruals, Colwell won’t actually leave the county until early spring. After that he will start collecting a state PERS pension estimated at between $92,000 and $102,000 annually. While his duties with the county are already being covered by other managers, Colwell isn’t cutting ties with local government. He is in the third year of his sixth term as a Placer County Board of Education member and was elected Dec. 10 on a 6-0 vote by other trustees to serve as board chairman in 2010. He represents District 2, which takes in Penryn, Loomis and Granite Bay.