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Adams County sheriff candidate suspended from county investigator position ahead of election

October 12, 2018

Adams County sheriff candidate Brent York was placed on indefinite paid administrative leave Oct. 10 from his position as an investigator in the Sheriff’s Office.

The suspension is related to alleged inconsistencies in a decade-old case York was involved with. York announced the suspension in his opening statements of the Adams County Sheriff’s forum, also held Oct. 10.

“Today’s been a difficult day for me,” York said. “I was placed on administrative leave from the sheriff’s office this afternoon about 2:30 (p.m.)… I had my lieutenant come to my house, take my badge, my gun, and my car … from a letter I received from our district attorney yesterday afternoon from a 2001 case I was involved in.”

York declined to elaborate on the 2001 case, but an open records request filed Oct. 1 by the Star-Times revealed the case is Vosen v. Warren. York was one of numerous defendants in the case, including former Sheriff Larry Warren, former Undersheriff Kenneth Bitsky, Adams County and Wisconsin County Mutual Insurance Corp.

Steven Vosen accused Bitsky and York of assaulting him while in custody on Feb. 11, 2001, at the Adams County Jail, and accused Bitsky and York of engaging in a cover-up of the assault with the assistance of then Sheriff Warren. Bitsky served federal prison time for witness intimation stemming from the accused assault.

The civil case was settled in 2004, with Vosen and his wife receiving $72,500. As part of the settlement, the defendants did not admit liability.

When asked for comment after the Oct. 10 forum, York said he did not have any additional information.

“The untimeliness of (the suspension)… I’m questioning” York said.

Sheriff Sam Wollin, who is running for re-election against York in the Nov. 6 election, did not mention the suspension during the forum. When questioned about York’s remarks after the forum, Wollin said York was served a Brady notification from the district attorney’s office Oct. 9.

A Brady notice, also known as Brady/Giglio, refers to the duty of prosecutors, under direction from the Supreme Court in the case Brady v. Maryland, to disclose potentially exculpatory evidence. In Giglio v. United States, the exculpatory evidence prosecutors are required to disclose expanded to include evidence that could be used to impeach the credibility of a witness.

“We consulted with outside counsel, and made the decision to place him on administrative leave today,” Wollin said. “Until we can determine the severity of this and determine an appropriate action going forward, I don’t have a time frame.”

Wollin said he had to follow through with the decision, despite how it may look, to suspend his opponent in the sheriff’s race shortly before the election.

“I would agree with him the timing absolutely sucks,” said Wollin. “I was put in a position to address employee job performance and I can’t treat it any differently given the circumstances.”

Deposition resurfaces

Adams County District Attorney Tania Bonnett provided a timeline of events that led to York being placed on administrative leave.

“There is a trail to the timeline from the September date when we found out about the transcript,” Bonnett said. “There were a lot of action steps that began in September as soon as we got this information.”

According to Bonnett, the district attorney’s office “was made aware” of the deposition testimony Sept. 6. It then looked into finding the outside investigator that Adams County officials suggested hiring in October 2003, but were unable to find any evidence that an investigation was completed.

On Sept. 20, Bonnett requested the Wisconsin Department of Justice review the information available. The district attorney’s office received a letter from the DOJ the evening of Oct. 8, two days before the forum, reviewing the information provided about York’s involvement in the Vosen incident and discrepancies between his various accounts of the incident. On Oct. 9, York was provided the Brady notice, and was placed on paid administrative leave Oct. 10.

“The timing isn’t great… but we acted as soon as it was received,” said Bonnett. “If we waited until the day after the forum, then it becomes: You didn’t like the way the forum went so (he was put on leave) then.”

York’s credibility was brought into question in a 2007 letter written by then Adams County District Attorney Mark Thibodeau to then Sheriff Darrell Renner.

Bonnett subsequently reviewed Thibodeau’s concerns and relevant materials. She determined there were “inconsistencies” in York’s statements regarding a 2004 case.

The case involves the treatment of Vosen while in custody of the Adams County Sheriff’s Department, during which time his arm was broken. Vosen was brought into the jail on charges of disorderly conduct, battery and criminal damage to property.

Bonnett said Thibodeau was “of the opinion that potentially exculpatory evidence existed in the form of inconsistent statements from York about what took place.”

“If he had known about (the deposition testimony) his letter would likely have been different,” Bonnett said.

Adams County Administrative Coordinator Casey Bradley said the deposition testimony was found in early September 2018 in the Adams County Personnel Office as records were scanned for digitization. Bradley said Human Resources Director Michelle Waltemath discovered it while scanning personnel files.

“It was listed separately and not with the personnel file,” Bradley said. “It was in the same cabinet, but it was listed as an investigation so it wasn’t in (York’s personnel file).”

Bonnett said York previously had been asked directly about his contradicting accounts of the Vosen incident.

“I would never sit on any Brady/Giglio information,” said Bonnett. “I worked with (York) for seven years and it was never disclosed (by York)… you would hope he would have came forward.”

According to a Wisconsin Department of Justice document, “Thibodeau asked York whether impeachment evidence existed in the Bitsky federal prosecution, and York refused to directly answer.”

A Department of Criminal Investigation agent investigating the Vosen incident contacted York according to her 2003 report. She informed York he was being investigated for obstruction and filing a false police report. York declined an interview with the agent.

Despite his concerns, Thibodeau was unable to review the criminal case during his time as district attorney. The criminal case was sealed by Adams County Judge Charles Pollex.

Although the criminal case was sealed, the civil deposition transcript later was discovered and was reviewed by Bonnett.

Apparent contradictions

The documents reviewed by Bonnett in analyzing York’s credibility include York’s initial report on Vosen’s criminal incident, a joint Department of Criminal Investigation/Waushara County report containing an interview with York, a report by a DCI agent, a 2004 deposition of York and the letter from DA Thibodeau to Sheriff Renner.

York’s initial report describes Vosen’s behavior as aggressive and uncooperative while in the booking area of the Adams County Jail: “(Vosen was) directed by the jail staff to sit down, and at that time STEVEN stated he was not going to. He started coming out from behind the booking counter… (and) appeared he was going to swing at Undersheriff Bitsky, who directed STEVEN to the wall and advised him to stop.”

In contradiction of his initial report, the DCI/Waushara County report states York told investigators “no jailer directed (Vosen) to sit back down.”

York told investigators he saw Vosen “make a fist” and indicate he was about to hit a nearby law enforcement official. York later disclosed he did not witness Vosen make a fist himself, but rather included “statements of other officers that I put in my report.”

York said while he attempted to restrain Vosen in a compliance hold, he heard a loud “pop” noise from Vosen’s elbow, and remembered thinking at the time he “had broken something in Vosen’s arm.”

In a deposition taken of York on Oct. 14, 2004, he gave yet another version of events. He stated then Undersheriff Kenneth Bitsky directed Vosen to sit down while he was at the jail and Vosen complied. York then “observed Bitsky grab Vosen by the shirt collar and pick him up and put him against the wall.” It was during this incident York took hold of Vosen’s arm, resulting in injury to Vosen.

York stated “he never personally saw Vosen make a fist or threaten Bistky (sic) before Bitsky put him up against the wall. He acknowledged that he never told the DCI/Waushara investigators that he did not personally see those things when they asked him about the incident.”

After reviewing the materials, Bonnett concluded York’s inconsistent statements on the Vosen case

“I believe there are several apparent inconsistencies that fall within the Brady/Giglio disclosure mandate,” Bonnett said. “Specifically, there are several points on which York could be impeached for untruthfulness, which constitutes potentially exculpatory evidence in any case where York’s credibility is at issue. Since York is currently an investigator for the Adams County Sheriff’s Office, and often a central witness in the State’s cases, his credibility is material to many cases, past and present.”

Before issuing the Brady disclosure, Bonnett requested a second opinion from the Wisconsin Department of Justice to “be sure this is the correct course of action.”

Assistant Attorney General and Criminal Litigation Unit Director Randall Schneider reviewed relevant materials regarding York’s statements on the Vosen case. He concurred with Bonnett’s conclusion regarding Brady disclosures being required for York going forward.

“Based on the totality of these statements, now in light of York’s testimony on Oct. 14, 2004, a reasonable person could conclude that aspects of York’s original report along with some of the information he provided during his interview on March 29, 2001, were untruthful or made with a reckless disregard for the truth,” Schneider said. “They arguably reflect on York’s character for truthfulness and would constitute a specific instance of conduct that could be used to attack York’s character for truthfulness… this is classic Giglio evidence subject to a prosecutor’s duty to disclose exculpatory evidence.”

The Vosen incident had legal ramifications for Adams County and the officials involved. Bitsky was convicted of intimidating a witness and sentenced to 16 months in federal prison. He is prohibited by law from working in law enforcement again. Adams County also came to a settlement agreement with Vosen and his wife, Loretta, in 2005, paying them about $72,000.

Larry Warren was sheriff at the time of the Vosen incident. Former Sheriff Roberta Sindelar requested an investigation into York. Former Sheriff Darrell Renner received the Thibodeau letter regarding concerns about York’s credibility as a witness.

All three have endorsed York for sheriff, according to York’s campaign website.

York has not shown any signs of dropping from the race.

“I had prepared closing and opening statement days ago, but I had to throw those out the window because my situation has changed,” York said at the Oct. 10 forum. “For 22 years, I’ve dedicated myself to this community and the Adams County sheriff’s office.”

“(I have) the knowledge and work experience to direct the sheriff’s department, to take those cases… (and) investigations and point those in the right direction,” York said. “All I can ask of you is don’t convict me before this is over.”

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