Recordings, emails, docs all point to tangled web
The Pierce County Finance & Personnel Committee voted after a Jan. 9 closed session meeting to recommend to the full county board a favorable annual review for County Administrator Jason Matthys, along with a 4% wage increase, despite demands for his resignation from a county board supervisor, a Pierce County Sheriff’s Office employee, and several (retired) Sheriff Nancy Hove supporters.
On Tuesday, Jan. 3, District 14 Supervisor Melissa Petersen wrote a letter to Pierce County Chair Jon Aubart, demanding the resignation of Matthys and Corporation Counsel Bradley Lawrence. An affidavit filed by Hove’s attorney Dec. 7 in the county’s civil case against her revealed a recorded phone conversation transcript between now retired Chief Deputy Steve Albarado and Matthys, in which Matthys promises the county will pay for Albarado’s attorney fees resulting from a “hostile work environment” complaint against Hove.
The transcript, Hove affidavit, an affidavit filed by Lawrence, and Dunn County investigation documents (obtained by a FOIA request) detail how Albarado took FMLA leave from his position beginning Oct. 27, 2021 through March 27, 2022 due to stress and anxiety from a hostile working environment he said Hove created. One week after he returned to work on March 28, 2022, Hove placed him on paid administrative leave pending an investigation (conducted by Dunn County) into policy violations, insubordination and misconduct Hove said occurred while she was out of the office recovering from brain cancer. Albarado has denied all allegations and told Dunn County investigators that Hove “had it out for him,” that they used to be good friends, and that she told him before she retired she wanted “to burn every bridge” and “take people down.”
Other sheriff’s office employees told investigators that Hove felt Albarado was teaming up with the county to get her out of office and had had a hand in the county removing the dispatch center from under her jurisdiction, an allegation Albarado vehemently denied. The county said they had decided dispatch was better suited to the emergency management department, headed by Christine McPherson. Hove learned of the change from Albarado on March 17, 2021. He said he had no prior knowledge of the change until told by Matthys, who asked him not to tell Hove due to an expected negative reaction. However, he said he couldn’t withhold that information from her and told her.
Albarado also told investigators that Lawrence advised him to obtain counsel in his hostile work environment complaint filed against Hove and that the county would pay for it.
During the Feb. 3, 2022 phone call, which Albarado “recorded for his own protection” on his sheriff’s office-issued cell phone, he told Matthys that his attorney’s fees hadn’t been paid yet and he was worried they wouldn’t be. Matthys assured him they would be, but that the invoice they had received had too much detail, which might cause Finance Director Julie Brickner to ask questions.
In the conversation, Matthys also said Lawrence knew he had “crossed an ethics line.” He mentioned how getting rid of former Human Services Director Ron Schmidt was “easier” than getting rid of the sheriff because he wasn’t elected. Matthys also promised Albarado that he, Lawrence, then Pierce County Board Chair Jeff Holst and Vice Chair Jon Aubart were in his corner.
When Albarado said he feared Hove would retaliate more, Matthys reassured him she wouldn’t.
“But even if she tried, we find out the biggest way to out her, like that she planted shit, that she this, that she that, which I don’t think you could do,” Matthys said.
In an email dated Jan. 8 to F& P and county board members, Petersen retracted her demand for Matthys’ resignation and asked the committee to table Matthys’ review until a criminal investigation into allegations of misconduct by Albarado stemming from the investigation conducted by Dunn County Sheriff’s Office on behalf of Hove is complete.
The violations Dunn County determined Albarado committed include: Violating policy 200.3.3 by not completing daily logs as ordered by Hove from Jan. 28, 2021 to her return to the office March 8, 2021. During that time he emailed her seven logs. He said she verbally told him he didn’t have to; she denied giving him permission to stop.
Violating Pierce County personnel policy and policy 319.5.6C5 by not sending a copy of Spencer Fobbe’s negative exit review to Hove until weeks after it occurred.
Violating police 319.5.6C5, omitting material information to a supervisor in regards to a job applicant with a negative background check.
Failure to return his squad and equipment when ordered by Hove on Jan. 4, 2022 and Jan. 19, 2022. Lawrence, Matthys and Human Resources Director Allison Preble told Albarado not to return the equipment since he was on FMLA. They ordered Hove to stop asking for it.
Recording conversations without people’s knowledge, violating Pierce County policy 416.5.1. Lawrence allegedly encouraged Albarado to record his conversations with Hove to “protect himself.”
Sending out a survey to sheriff’s office employees not authorized by the sheriff on March 19, 2021, violating policy 202.4, which states, “All surveys made in the name of the office shall be approved by the sheriff, her designee or a lieutenant.
Dunn County found no evidence that Albarado knew about the reclassification of a deputy secretary position or the dispatch oversight change. Investigators did note that Dunn County District Attorney Nodolf said the actions of Lawrence “appear to be very unethical and a complaint should be made to the Office of Lawyer regulation.”
Petersen said she confirmed by a phone call to La Crosse County District Attorney Tim Gruenke that the case has been referred to him for further review.
“I have big concerns regarding the review for Jason Matthys,” Petersen said during public comment Jan. 9. “I have looked into this some myself and I’m concerned about the transcripts of calls that were filed in the Hove case. I’m concerned that things might have been done underhandedly and fraudulently … If this stuff is true, we’re going to have to ask for other things I’m not sure I should say in public. I urge you to get all the facts before you do anything.”
Albarado retired Nov. 2, one day prior to a special F& P meeting that listed a closed session grievance hearing regarding a law enforcement disciplinary complaint. The agenda stated the committee would consider “dismissal, demotion, licensing, or discipline of any public employee or person licensed by a board or commission or the investigation of charges against such person…” However, that meeting was cancelled due to Albarado’s decision to retire. He declined to speak on the record to The Journal about his retirement.
Matthys sent this statement to The Journal by email Jan. 9.
“Following a complaint filed by Chief Deputy Albarado in October 2021 alleging harassment and a hostile work environment created by Sheriff Hove, and because the Sheriff is elected and not subject to discipline by the County, Albarado sought outside counsel to assist and advise him with his employment issues with the Sheriff. The County worked with another outside firm to assist with mediation between Hove and Albarado which later proved unsuccessful. These efforts were necessary to respond to allegations and an attempt to resolve the working relationship between the Chief Deputy and the Sheriff, and the County’s Corporation Counsel has responsibility to represent the County and not staff. Those attorney fees were paid by the County in which invoices were in redacted form to protect the confidential personnel matter as well as Attorney/Client privileged information.
“The allegations being made are false and without merit but seem to be sensationalized by a group in an attempt to intentionally challenge my reputation and character. I will continue to serve the best interests of the County as well its staff as I have for more than two decades.”
The group Matthys spoke of is a Facebook group called Pierce County Board Watch. Member Martin Kretzmann, a town of River Falls resident who ran for Pierce County District 8 Supervisor, started a change.org petition calling for Matthys’ resignation, which had garnered 280 signatures as of midnight Jan. 10.
“The recently dismissed lawsuit (County of Pierce vs. Nancy Hove) against Sheriff Hove appears to have been illegally filed and brought without full County Board authorization, approval and knowledge,” Kretzmann said of a separate issue. “The suit was brought before the board for approval only after it had been already filed and payment arranged. And then it appears a request was made to remove or redact details of the payment to hide what it was for. How is this acceptable and ethical? At a minimum, Corporation Counsel Bradley Lawrence, Board Chair Jon Aubart, and Board Vice-Chair Michael Kahlow along with Mr. Matthys appeared to have had knowledge about it and illegally authorized it as referenced in the transcript of the first hearing (from Nov. 16). I am only one of many many concerned people in Pierce County that require more from our County Board and staff.”
Before the committee convened to closed session for Matthys’ annual review, numerous citizens spoke out. Former Pierce County Board Supervisor John Shafer said he’s concerned about the problems going on in the sheriff’s office for the past decade or more.
“I do want to find out what is truly going on because I think it goes deeper than what’s been said,” Shafer said. “I’ve been concerned about people not giving others the benefit of the doubt. I am asking that we find out the truth what has gone on in the sheriff’s office and district attorney’s office the last 10-20 years minimum.”
He said he finds it “fishy” that people think the county board conducted a witch hunt on Hove when Hove supporters are performing a witch hunt on Matthys.
“As much as some people feel that Nancy is having a witch hunt done to her, she is no angel,” Shafer said. “We need to find out the truth. If some things had been brought out a long time ago, I don’t think Sheriff Hove would have been sheriff as long as she was.”
District 17 Supervisor Mel Pittman said Matthys represents the top person within county administration.
“It’s imperative that we have someone who is a professional and acts as a professional in all matters as he represents Pierce County,” Pittman said. “We need to take a very in-depth look at what is going on and try to remedy that to the best of our abilities.”
Natalie Stockwell, who has worked for PCSO for 41 years in various roles, described the past few years as “torment and torture.” She spoke without her colleagues knowing she was going to do so, she said. She said Matthys’ claims were instrumental in convincing F& P to file a civil suit against Hove Nov. 7, claiming she was violating county personnel policy when attempting to fill vacant positions. She said Matthys “defamed all of Pierce County which include but are not limited to the divisive words unilaterally dismissing the sheriff’s control.”
Stockwell said Matthys’ comments to Albarado in the phone call shows malicious intent to get rid of the sheriff and his “inaccurate insinuation of mistrust to the finance director deserves nothing less than an absolute apology.”
She also demanded the recusal of Aubart and Lawrence from the closed session.
“His unilateral stance and repeated advice to a member of the sheriff’s office that the sheriff was a lame duck indicated the existence of strong collaborative efforts and warrants the recusal and removal of this committee’s chair Jon Aubart and Corp Counsel Brad Lawrence from the closed session due to potential conflict of interest,” Stockwell said. “All of the actions of the administrative coordinator … degrade the reputation of the entire Pierce County administration and substantially diminish the public’s faith to govern respectfully and honorably.”
The Journal will continue to follow this story as it develops.