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Jefferson County seeks Attorney General’s help to investigate Sheriff’s Department

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The Jefferson County Board of Legislators has called on the Public Integrity Bureau of the state attorney general’s office to investigate the Sheriff’s Department.

The unanimous decision followed a presentation by county attorney David J. Paulsen about the mission of the Public Integrity Bureau, which, according to its website, “investigates and seeks to vindicate the public’s interest in honest government” by handling “complex investigations into government corruption, fraud, and abuse of authority,” and a report about his initial efforts to seek the advice of the attorney general’s office as to how to request such an investigation.

The proceedings followed a special meeting last Tuesday during which the board heard reports from Mr. Paulsen and Sheriff John P. Burns about a Dec. 1 incident in which Deputy Adam B. Hallett was found asleep in his patrol vehicle off County Route 72 in the town of Henderson several hours after he went off duty.

Those reports were released to the public last Wednesday with several names redacted. They revealed that Deputy Hallett, who was unresponsive to the point that he could not raise his arms, had a bottle of Jim Beam Red Stag bourbon whiskey in the center console of his vehicle. After noting that it appeared to have been opened, a fellow deputy threw the bottle into a nearby field, waved off a state police cruiser and ambulance, and ensured that Deputy Hallett was taken home.

Mr. Burns on Dec. 20 launched an internal investigation and on Jan. 10 charged Deputy Hallett with having an open alcoholic beverage container in a vehicle and brought undisclosed disciplinary action against the deputy who threw the bottle into the field.

Mr. Burns gave legislators an update on his investigation in an executive session Jan. 8. At that point, the board agreed to give Mr. Burns a two-week window to complete the investigation before returning with his final report.

After receiving both Mr. Burns’s and Mr. Paulsen’s reports, which contained conflicting information, and following efforts made by the Jefferson County district attorney’s office to distance itself from the investigation and resulting charges, the board unanimously voted to seek an external investigation. It directed Mr. Paulsen to find a suitable investigatory body and draft a resolution asking for its assistance.

After identifying the Public Integrity Bureau as the ideal entity, Mr. Paulsen reached out to Deanna R. Nelson, assistant attorney general in charge of the Watertown regional office, with an informal request to find out how to begin the process.

Mr. Paulsen was told that officials believed the bureau had no primary criminal jurisdiction over the incident and was not able even to act in an advisory role. Mr. Paulsen was advised that the county should seek advice or guidance from outside consultants.

Despite the disappointing response, Mr. Paulsen told the board that he thought the Bureau of Public Integrity was the appropriate choice and recommended to the board that course of action be pursued. He drafted a resolution and a cover letter requesting a response from the bureau by the board’s March 5 meeting.

Legislator Anthony J. Doldo, R-Watertown, asked why the request wasn’t sent directly to Albany.

Legislator Michael F. Astafan, D-Carthage, said that he found the attorney general’s response to be strange and that he has seen the attorney general come in on multiple occasions to investigate incidents in municipalities. He agreed with Mr. Paulsen’s suggestion.

Legislator John D. Peck, R-Great Bend, suggested that members of the board deliver it to the attorney general directly when they are in Albany next week for the New York State Association of Counties annual conference.

Legislature Chairwoman Carolyn D. Fitzpatrick said she agreed with the spirit of Mr. Peck’s comments but she wanted the letter drafted by the board to bear a Jefferson County postmark.

After consulting briefly with Mr. Paulsen, Mrs. Fitzpatrick said there were some other options, but she and Mr. Paulsen wanted to withhold their contingency plans until after they heard back from the attorney general.

Legislator Michael A. Montigelli, R-Black River, asked how long the board would wait. Mr. Paulsen said until the March meeting.

County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III said the March deadline was a reasonable amount of time to wait for a reply. He advised the board that while it might take much longer for the investigation to run its course, the county will know where it stands with the attorney general by March.

Following the meeting, Mrs. Fitzpatrick voiced her disappointment with the response received by Mr. Paulsen and said the board was adamant about seeking the help of the attorney general and the Public Integrity Bureau to bring the investigation of the Deputy Hallett incident to a satisfactory conclusion.

Mr. Hagemann said that the goal of the investigation was to keep similar incidents from happening in the future and that the Public Integrity Bureau brought a great deal of expertise to the area.

Mr. Paulsen said his motivation to go to the attorney general was to find an entity that would be as independent as possible.

Despite several other pending cases of alleged misconduct within the Sheriff’s Department, the board still has not indicated that it will expand the outside investigation beyond the Hallett incident.

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