Editorial: Sheriff Alex Villanueva is out but leaves behind a deeply damaged department
Alex Villanueva, the former head of the El Paso County Sheriff’s Department, announced a $3.2 million settlement with the department’s employee class action against the agency over alleged retaliation and harassment in the aftermath of the shooting of five county deputies in 2009.
Villanueva was fired from the department just a week before the tragedy after the agency’s top lawyer said he could not have survived a hostile workplace any longer. Villanueva was promoted to deputy sheriff just a year later.
I’ve never been sure what to make of the circumstances surrounding his termination. The settlement with the county was approved by the El Paso County district attorney’s office, but the deal was reached by the local union’s union committee while all of the union’s elected union members were on strike.
The settlement agreement does not specify the exact language of the settlement, but it is known that the County intends to pay a total of $3.2 million to the seven named plaintiffs and a class of about 60 current and ex-employees.
The amount is a “substantial” one for the settlement, said Robert C. Perry, the attorney representing the six county employees who sued the Sheriff’s Office.
Villanueva was the leading figure in an alleged cover-up of the shooting and a series of retaliation campaigns to harass and intimidate his fellow officers into giving up their stories, claims now being tested through a lawsuit that the County filed months after the shooting.
The settlement also includes $9.6 million in potential attorney fees to be split between three attorneys working on the case, Perry said.
By focusing his settlement on the two officers who were hit but survived the shooting, Villanueva risked leaving a larger settlement untouched in order to protect the other six men and women who have endured years of harassment at the hands of Sheriff’s Department brass and their allies in the local union.
A key question in the suit is whether or not all the plaintiffs were actually fired