Silt agreed to keep Burris investigation secret
Former Silt Police Chief Levy Burris was paid nearly $35,000 upon his retirement in January, which came after he was on paid leave for four months, a separation agreement between the town and Burris shows.
The town also agreed in the document to do its best to keep secret from the public the results of an investigation conducted while Burris was on leave.
Burris retired effective Jan. 6 after 10 years as Silt police chief. He had been on leave since Sept. 7. The town made no announcement of his departure, and minutes of the Board of Trustees’ meetings show no record of the retirement or the agreement.
Documents obtained by the Post Independent through the Colorado Open Records Act show that Burris was paid $18,871.14 in severance and $16,016.29 for unused leave.
In the agreement, signed by Town Administrator Pamela Woods, Silt pledged “that it will take reasonable action under the attorney-client privilege, work product doctrine and/or the deliberative process privilege to attempt to protect any report, summary and/or substantive communications related to the investigations completed in 2016 by independent investigator, Heather Coogan.
“The Employer may produce such materials upon court order, but shall request the materials be produced subject to a protective order.”
Coogan, a former Littleton police chief and veteran Colorado law officer, now operates a firm called True to Course, whose web page says she conducts internal investigations for public and private organizations.
The town rejected the Post Independent’s request under the open records act for a copy of Coogan’s investigative report or a summary, contending that it was an internal investigation of the police department covered by the Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act, which grants broad discretion to keep investigative records secret.
Lawyers for the Denver law firm responding on Silt’s behalf to the PI’s records requests earlier implied that such a report did not exist.
The Post Independent, in the first of three open records requests on the matter, sought “copies of correspondence and/or reports, including any investigative findings, to the town of Silt, trustees, the mayor or town administrators from the Colorado Intergovernmental Risk Sharing Agency regarding lawsuits filed against the town and/or related to the police department and/or former Chief Levy Burris.”
Attorney Ashley Hernandez-Schlagel responded, “There are no investigative findings from the Colorado Intergovernmental Risk Sharing Agency to the Town, its Trustees, the Mayor or the Town Administrator regarding lawsuits filed against the Town, related to the police department or former Chief Burris during the time frame you requested.”
Given that the investigation was conducted, Hernandez-Schlagel’s response apparently meant that CIRSA, which had been copied in correspondence related to Burris, did not commission Coogan’s investigation. The PI followed up by asking for a report or summary of any investigative report by Coogan, leading to the denial noted above.
Records that were made available show that Coogan on Nov. 1 sent her report to Hernandez-Schlagel and Andy Nathan, another attorney in the firm Nathan Dumm & Mayer. The firm’s website says it practices insurance defense litigation, and news reports from around the state show that CIRSA has hired the firm in the past.
On Nov. 14, according to an inventory of records deemed exempt from the PI’s open records requests, Nathan and Hernandez-Schlagel sent recommendations to the Silt Town Board. Trustees held an executive session at their meeting that night with the attorneys present, board minutes show.
The minutes say no action was taken in the executive session.
A little more than a month later, on Dec. 20, Burris notified Woods of his intention to retire, a decision he described last week to the Post Independent as a “mutual agreement” that it was time for him to move on.
It remains unclear exactly why Burris was put on leave.
The PI last week reported that he went on leave a week after Silt’s mayor formally accused him of “a campaign of harassment and abuse of police power.”
Mayor Rick Aluise and a stepdaughter made the allegations of harassment in a formal “notice of claim” filed with the city Aug. 31.
Burris, however, told the PI his leave wasn’t related to Aluise’s claim, which he said had been debunked. He said he wasn’t free to disclose why he was placed on leave, but said “multiple issues” had come up.
Aluise also has told the PI that other matters were at play.
The log of records excluded from open records responses shows that the town withheld an Aug. 31 email to Woods from a former police officer. The town said it withheld the email because it contained “info relating to investigation carried out pursuant to Police Department policy.”
Contacted by phone, the former officer declined to comment about the email, saying only “it was not a happy time.”
In the letter placing Burris on leave, Woods wrote, “Placing an employee on administrative leave is appropriate when a complaint of misconduct is of a serious nature, such as an allegation of retaliation. You are not to discuss this matter with any other employee except me or the external investigator. Moreover, you are prohibited from taking any action which may be construed as retaliatory.”
The town’s retirement agreement with Burris, in addition to setting the severance payment and promising to try to keep Coogan’s report secret, says Silt will provide Burris with an identification card “indicating Employee is a retired peace officer, and agrees to renew said identification card annually so long as Employee remains a qualified retired law enforcement officer.”
It also allows him to keep his chief’s badge provided “that the badge is preserved in a way in which it is not usable and cannot be construed as an active police badge. For example, the badge may be encased in plastic and used as a paperweight.”
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The Garfield County Coroner identified Silt resident Justin Yenter, 37, as the victim in a drowning at Harvey Gap Reservoir. According to investigators, Yenter was on a boat in the reservoir when a gust of wind knocked him overboard into the water.