In an unusual move, Salt Lake City Police Chief Ruben Ortega released protected personnel documents to news media in an apparent attempt to embarrass or retaliate against one of his police officers and president of the local police union.
It was the latest volley in a knock-down, drag-out fight between the chief and Officer Jill Candland, who recently took up the reins at the Salt Lake City Police Association. The union last year voted no confidence in the chief. Last month, Candland sued the department for what she alleges was an unfair transfer from her position in the homicide division back to patrol.
A police department spokesman was quick to deny that Ortega’s release of two letters of reprimand from Candland’s personnel and Internal Affairs file was anything out of the ordinary. But longtime observers of the police department said the practice is not only outside of normal Salt Lake City practices, but unheard of at the police department.
Lt. Phil Kirk said the documents were given to Deseret News reporter Jennifer Dobner and Salt Lake Tribune reporter Michael Vigh after they made formal requests under the Utah Government Records Access Management Act (GRAMA). Kirk said the department was responding to inquiries from reporters following a suit filed in federal court by Candland, alleging unfair treatment and retaliation by the Ortega administration surrounding her transfer from the homicide division.
But Dobner told City Weekly that the letters were offered to her and handed over shortly after she obliged by signing her name to a GRAMA request form. It was suggested to me that they would release them if we would fill out a GRAMA, she said.
The Deseret News reporter had written several stories that put the Ortega administration in a critical light, including preliminary results of an independent management audit showing that about 80 percent of Salt Lake City police officers fear retribution from Ortega if they press management issues. That story was based largely on comments from Candland, as well as information she provided.
He asked if I was going to do any more stories on Jill, Dobner said recalling her conversation with Kirk. I said, I don’t know Ã‰ I didn’t ask him for a response to the lawsuit. I didn’t say, will you give me those documents.
But Kirk characterized the letters as other than protected documents, when pressed by City Weekly. He noted that the release of the documents showed an openness on the part of Ortega when dealing with news media. This is public information, he said of the letters surrounding an Internal Affairs investigation that led to Candland’s transfer out of the homicide unit. Is it a violation of any policy? No. Does it set any precedent? No.
The letters were not released as retaliation, Kirk insisted. To try to paint the picture that this is a smear campaign, that isn’t true, he said.
But an attorney for the Salt Lake City Police Officers Association said Kirk’s statements are disingenuous. Bryon Benevento noted that releasing the protected disciplinary letters was a transparent attempt to retaliate against Candland.
I don’t know how anyone can stand there with a straight face and say those documents are not part of a personnel file or an investigation file. Both are protected under GRAMA, Benevento said. It doesn’t pass the straight-face test.
Making official the GRAMA request with a reporter’s signature for documents they knew nothing about doesn’t fit within proper practices, Benevento said. The problem I have with what the department has done is that they selectively released documents to the media without proper GRAMA and without notification to the officer.
Benevento said the letters were given to reporters to embarrass and retaliate against Candland for discussing with reporters preliminary results of the management audit and filing the lawsuit. Further, documents that back up Candland were not given to reporters, he said.
Candland filed the suit recently in U.S. District Court for Utah, claiming that she was transferred out of the homicide division unfairly. The discipline, she alleges is directly connected to her activities in the union.
According to the suit, in July 1997, Candland helped prepare a formal complaint against Homicide Sgt. Jerry Mendez to the Corradini administration. On Aug. 18, 1997, an Internal Affairs complaint was lodged against then-Homicide Detective Candland for insubordination and mishandling of evidence. On Oct. 24, 1997, Candland was transferred to patrol division.
Candland had served some 8 years in homicide and according to city records had cleared 28 of 31 cases, making her one of the best, if not the best, homicide detective in Salt Lake City.
But according to an Oct. 15, 1997 letter written by Homicide Capt. Judy Dencker and provided to news media, Candland mishandled evidence in an Aug. 9, 1997 homicide case. Your actions in this case show that you have not demonstrated the skills and judgement that an investigator with your experience and tenure is expected to demonstrate, the letter reads. Ã‰ This case could suffer a challenge over the delay in the recovery of this critical evidence. Your lack of timely action has potentially created an unnecessary challenge in this case.
More recently, Ortega told the Deseret News that Candland had botched the case, saying that she did not recover a possible murder weapon for 48 hours because she was busy playing in a golf tournament.
Candland disputes that claim and points out that the weapon in question hasn’t been proven to be the murder weapon. But what is perhaps more interesting is that Ortega spoke publicly about elements and evidence in a homicide case that is soon to be triedsomething also unusual and outside normal police practices.
The botched case claim made by Ortega is not backed up by Deputy District Attorney Cy Castle, who in a letter to the department forwards the thesis that the case is well in hand and was not jeopardized.
For her part, Candland notes that the actions aimed at her are intended to draw attention away from the management audit but only strengthen the notion held by most officers that they will not be treated fairly by Ortega. I didn’t do anything wrong. He’s doing this as a smokescreen, because his officers don’t have any confidence in him.
It’s been more than a year since the Salt Lake City Police Association released its findings of no confidence in the Ortega administration. Ortega dismissed the report as a small group of malcontents using the union to achieve personal agendas.
The soon-to-be released management audit, however, mirrors the union’s earlier no-confidence vote and claim that about 80 percent of Salt Lake City’s finest believe they are treated unfairly and are subject to retaliation for bringing issues to management.
It is against that troubled landscape that recent events have played out, leaving the distinct impresssion that the union and the chief are in a fight to the finish. As one of Ortega’s major antagonists, Candland now finds herself in the chief’s sights.
You have to expect a certain amount of disagreement between two people who occupy those position, Kirk said of the relationship between the chief and union president. But it has gone beyond that because she has filed a lawsuit in retaliation to her transfer.
She has made a number of serious allegations. We think it’s an amazing coincidence that she filed a lawsuit and released information on the audit that she promised not to, Kirk said regarding Candland.
Nonetheless, Ortega has a long-standing reputation of managing with an iron hand. In Novemer 1992, City Weekly (then Private Eye Weekly) profiled the former Phoenix police chief after he had been selected by Corradini to head the SLCPD. We quoted Phoenix New Times editor Michael Lacey: In my opinion, anybody who speaks out publicly against Ruben Ortega takes their life in their hands. I don’t mean as in hit men and physical threats, but I do mean that all of a sudden your life is opened to the kind of review that we associate with regimes in Eastern Europe.