Lawsuit alleges Adams County sheriff forced out top leaders over politics, violated Constitutional rights
Days after taking office in 2019, Adams County Sheriff Richard Reigenborn forced four senior members to resign because they’d supported his opponent in the sheriff’s race — then he filled the positions with his less-qualified friends and supporters, according to a lawsuit filed earlier this month by those four former sheriff’s deputies.
Former Chiefs Timothy James Coates and Gene Claps, along with former Captain Mark Mitchell and former Commander Kevin Currier filed the lawsuit July 1 against Reigenborn and the Adams County Sheriff’s Office, alleging Reigenborn violated their rights to free speech and due process when he told them to resign or be fired one week after he took office after winning in an upset.
“Literally dumped out on the curb after a 29-year career with no explanation, no anything,” Mitchell said in an interview Thursday, describing how he had to call his wife for a ride home from outside the sheriff’s office.
A spokesman for the sheriff’s office declined to comment for this story because of the pending lawsuit.
All four plaintiffs supported Reigenborn’s Republican opponent in the sheriff’s race, incumbent Michael McIntosh, according to the lawsuit, by donating to his campaign and publicly backing him. They also withdrew support from the Fraternal Order of Police Colorado Lodge 1, where Reigenborn served in various leadership roles for years.
In individual meetings on January 15, 2019, Reigenborn, who ran as a Democrat, told the four that he wanted to “take the agency in a different direction” by making “cultural changes” designed to “get the troops in line,” according to the lawsuit, brought through law firm Rathod Mohamedbhai.
He refused to explain what that direction was, Mitchell said, adding that over his career he’d worked for four different sheriffs, both Republicans and Democrats, and “politics never entered the picture.”
“To say that we couldn’t fit with the new direction, without us even knowing what it was, is mind-boggling,” Mitchell said.
All four men resigned from the sheriff’s office in lieu of termination in order to keep their retirement benefits, according to the lawsuit.
“I dedicated my entire life to Adams County,” Coates said, adding later that the forced resignation has created a major financial loss. “It’s very painful to suddenly find yourself on the curb, and in my case I cannot get another police job; I’m too old.”
Reigenborn abolished existing sheriff’s department policies the day he took office and replaced them with his own policies that gave him sole authority to make hiring, promotion and firing decisions, according to the lawsuit. The new sheriff then hired or promoted at least five of his friends and supporters, according to the lawsuit, which alleged the new hires were less qualified for the jobs than those the sheriff ousted.
Michael Bethel was hired as a division chief on Jan. 22, 2019, according to a roster of sheriff’s employees. Bethel was fired from the Pueblo Police Department in 2006 after a sex tape surfaced that included him, his wife and a man with a long-criminal history, The Denver Post reported in 2015. He was acquitted of criminal charges in connection with the sex tape’s discovery and later won $20,000 in a federal lawsuit accusing Pueblo police leadership of discriminating against him because of his sexual preferences.
Bethel later became chief of Rocky Ford, where his son served as an officer despite criminal convictions — some while he was a juvenile — that included use of a gun while drunk, careless driving and possession of drug paraphernalia, according to prior The Denver Post reports.
Division Chief William Dunning was hired in May 2019. He’d previously left the sheriff’s office in the mid-1990s and had been working as a RV salesman before he was hired back into top police leadership by Reigenborn, according to the lawsuit. Dunning was initially hired as a civilian and has since been re-certified as a law enforcement officer, according to the sheriff’s office.
Dunning and Bethel could not be reached for comment Thursday; a spokesman for the sheriff’s office said they could not comment due to the pending litigation.
The lawsuit seeks monetary damages, but Mitchell said he hopes to also ensure others in the department are not deprived of due process in the future.
“I would like a decision to be made that career employees have some type of due process,” he said, “and that an elected official cannot just walk in and do what happened to us.”
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