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Jefferson County finally hears back from the AG’s office about Sheriff investigation

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Jefferson County’s appeal to have the state investigate its Sheriff’s Department has met with little enthusiasm from the Attorney General’s Office.

After the fervor in January surrounding the decision to post a letter asking the Attorney General’s Public Integrity Bureau to investigate the Sheriff’s Department, the county reviewed a very anticlimactic reply Tuesday night.

Stopping short of an outright refusal, the reply, which came from Deanna R. Nelson, the Watertown representative of Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, essentially calls upon the county to handle the matter internally.

“As you are no doubt aware, County Law 209 empowers the County Legislature to ‘conduct an investigation into any subject matter within its jurisdiction, including the conduct and performance of official duties of any officer or employee paid from county funds,’” the letter reads.

It goes on to describe the manner in which this investigation may be carried out, by the full board or by a committee, and the powers the county has in prosecuting the investigation, including issuing subpoenas for individuals as well as any “books, records, papers and documents material or relevant to the investigation.”

The letter also quotes County Law 700, which stipulates that “it shall be the duty of every district attorney to conduct all prosecutions for crimes and offenses cognizable by the courts of the county for which he or she shall have been elected or appointed.”

The attorney general’s office was apparently prepared to become involved only as far as scheduling a meeting with Sheriff John P. Burns to “review policies and procedures in place at the department to handle situations involving employees in the department” and to assist in drafting or revising those policies if requested.

According to the letter, the attorney general’s office, through Ms. Nelson, had scheduled an appointment to meet with Mr. Burns on Feb. 21. That appointment was cancelled by Mr. Burns and rescheduled for March 6.

Carolyn D. Fitzpatrick, chairwoman of the Board of Legislators, said that she had personally made about a dozen calls to various divisions of the Attorney General’s office before being told that the letter from the county had been placed in a correspondence file.

Eventually the county received a phone call indicating that they could expect to receive a reply by Tuesday. The hand delivered letter from Ms. Nelson arrived Monday.

Mrs. Fitzpatrick expressed disappointment with the reply from the attorney general’s office and said “our case is an important one” and that at least one more letter to the attorney general was warranted before the county began looking at plans “B, C and D.”

She said that she was not yet prepared to discuss those plans with the board yet, though she indicated they may involve a special prosecutor appointed by the Legislature.

Pledging to keep communication open with the rest of the board even if it required another special meeting, Mrs. Fitzpatrick promised “we’re not going to stop here.”

The investigation surrounds an incident that occurred Dec. 1 when Deputy Adam B. Hallett was discovered unresponsive with an open bottle of bourbon whiskey in his patrol vehicle several hours after he went off duty. Following an internal investigation by the sheriff and a series of inquires by the Legislature, a pair of reports with some significant contradictions were released by Mr. Burns and by County Attorney David J. Paulsen.

The discrepancies in the reports were enough to convince legislators to vote unanimously to ask for an external investigation. According to Mr. Paulsen, the Public Integrity Bureau of the attorney general’s office was chosen because of its promises of independence from the prejudices of local politics.

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