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Keeping it confidential? Or covering it up?

Brief by Central Staff

Local politics – September 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

This summer, Chaffee County Sheriff Ron Bergmann has proven himself to be a dexterous politician, right up there with the masters of the trade.

Recently Bergmann was charged with a Class 1 Petty Offense for failing to perform a duty imposed upon him by law. The story starts with Dean Schumacher, a 38-year-old Buena Vista man who last year was sentenced to a 90-day and a six-month term in the county jail, to be served concurrently. But the jail staff misunderstood this as consecutive terms, so Schumacher spent an extra eight weeks in jail.

Because Schumacher was on work release, he had to pay $25 dollars a day for his keep. So he not only lost two months of his freedom, but as a result of the error, the county owed Schumacher money.

Everybody makes mistakes, and even Schumacher thought he had been sentenced to nine months in jail, rather than six. But charges against Bergmann stem from the sheriff’s failure to report the discrepancy.

The sheriff says that he intended to report the matter immediately, but when he called on November 19th the judge was out, and then he had several meetings to attend, and the Thanksgiving holidays happened, and then he fell into “playing catchup.”

In short, instead of reporting the matter, Bergmann was contacted by the district attorney and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation in June. To avoid a conflict of interest, Chaffee County authorities referred the matter to Park County, and charges were filed by the Park County Deputy District Attorney.

Now as things stand, Schumacher has been recompensed, Bergmann has been duly charged, Bergmann has apologized to Schumacher and the public, and Berg mann has presumably learned a valuable lesson. Or has he?

In truth, we were disturbed by Bergmann’s public apology. In an open letter to The Mountain Mail on August 14, he said, “I did not make the statement, ‘This conversation never took place.’

“What I did say was to keep the matter quiet and to wait until Dean contacted us. In our office, confidentiality is always an important consideration. My statements were made with the intent of confidentiality, not cover-up.”

But what is a cover-up if it isn’t keeping a matter confidential when it must be reported by law?

And then, further down, in a masterful passage of political doublespeak, Bergmann says:

“As the district attorney said, I am held to a higher standard because I am an elected official. The public has the right to expect that I be held accountable for the actions of the Sheriff’s Office.”

A higher standard? In this case, the sheriff was merely expected to obey the law, something he presumably expects each and every one of us to do.

But the most telling words came in Bergmann’s final apology, “I extend my sincere apologies once again to Dean Schumacher, to everyone involved, and to the public for the problems this situation has created.”

We feel Sheriff Bergmann would do better if he apologized for his actions rather than for the problems they created — since it is no surprise that he is sorry he got caught.

Ron Bergmann has always played square with us, and we do understand that we’re all fallible humans who make mistakes. But Bergmann’s rationalizations are ludicrous.

Personally, we don’t believe in “zero tolerance,” and we don’t think that the law should ever make an example of anyone. As we see it, all citizens should be entitled to fair and equal justice, not punishments intended to impress others. So in this case, we don’t expect or desire draconian measures; we just wish Bergmann would cut it with the facile excuses — or next thing you know he’ll be running for president.