Sheriff Baxter Dunn, under investigation by the FBI for alleged civil rights violations, claims investigators are out to get him - that the high-profile probe is a form of retaliation based on the contention that the popular sheriff had openly criticized and embarrassed two federal offices.
Through a letter released Tuesday, Dunn's lawyer detailed how Dunn accused the FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office of dragging their feet in responding to information on potential terrorist activity in the area - information that Dunn said he provided.
According to the letter, Dunn aired the matter at a meeting attended by law enforcement officials from across the state, detailing delay tactics or alleged indifference on the part of the FBI. And soon after, a local FBI official - the one to whom Dunn provided the alleged evidence of terrorism - abruptly resigned, according to the letter.
"Several months after the resignation, the Sheriff was interviewed by the FBI and shortly after that interview, Dunn was notified of the criminal investigation into alleged violations of civil rights," wrote Dunn's lawyer, Orange County-based attorney Michael Capizzi.
The seven-page letter is dated Sept. 19 and is addressed to the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors.
Months ago, the FBI confirmed agents were looking into Dunn's alleged inappropriate behavior during a 1998 home invasion incident in Manteca.
According to reports, there was a lengthy standoff between SWAT team members and 21-year-old Eric Fuess. Fuess, according to reports, had kidnapped his girlfriend in Livermore and then entered a Manteca house at random. He reportedly battered his girlfriend and two senior citizens who lived there and ended up on the roof. Firefighters blew him off with soapy water and arrested him.
Capizzi said the FBI had looked into the incident years ago and concluded any claim of wrongdoing against Dunn was unfounded.
"(Fuess) made no complaint of injuries sustained during his arrest, and no civil action has resulted from that arrest," Capizzi wrote.
"To this day, Fuess has never complained of excessive use of force or any injuries caused by any of the arresting officers, including myself," Dunn wrote in a statement accompanying the Capizzi letter - only his second public statement since reports of the investigation surfaced months ago.
The FBI will not elaborate on the nature of alleged violations, and at no point has any agency representative said the alleged violations came from injuries sustained by Fuess.
In fact, FBI spokesman Todd Drost said last month that civil rights violations could be anything from a suspect being denied medical treatment to denial of one's free exercise of religion.
In a statement released late Tuesday by the FBI, Special Agent Andrew Mason responded to Dunn's allegations.
"The claims of wrongdoing or questionable conduct in connection with the civil rights investigation are without merit," Mason wrote. "Likewise, any suggestion that this investigation was initiated in retaliation against Sheriff Dunn is completely untrue."
He said the agency cannot respond to specific statements made by Dunn and Capizzi because the civil rights inquiry is ongoing.
Though the investigation has yielded no legal action against Dunn, the county board decided to hire Capizzi - at taxpayer expense - with the caveat that he only deal with the civil rights probe. Throughout the letter, Capizzi argues that the civil rights probe is baseless, and in addition to the terrorism aspect, is based on statements by former, disgruntled sheriff's department employees urging that the sheriff be investigated. "It's important to know that this is a highly unusual investigative effort to look into something that took place four and a half years ago," Capizzi said in a phone interview late Tuesday afternoon.
"We didn't release the letter at first because it was a volatile time with the pending election. It would have generated a lot of publicity that was not necessary at the time," said Capizzi, referring to the recent Nov. 5 election, where the Fifth District Board of Supervisors seat was up for grabs.
Incumbent Lynn Bedford, defeated by challenger Leroy Ornellas, had been tenuously linked to ex-county marshal Monte McFall, a longtime friend of Dunn's who was arrested in early October and charged with 14 counts of public corruption.
McFall's prosecutors have mentioned Dunn and his alleged ties to McFall many times throughout legal affidavits.
A search warrant affidavit released weeks after McFall's arrest details an investigator's belief that Dunn, along with McFall and a state official, had secret dealings with a power company aimed at generating millions of dollars for the three men. The state official resigned his post after reports of the alleged pact were made public. No action has been taken against Dunn.
"We believe the reopening of the civil rights investigation is motivated by other things," Capizzi said.
Dunn also claims, in his statement, that FBI investigators interviewed some 20 deputies about the Fuess case on the one-year Sept. 11 anniversary - the same day Attorney General John Ashcroft had issued an advisory to all law enforcement agencies in regard to terrorist threats. He also claims FBI officials refused to tape-record interviews with senior department personnel despite their requests.
"We have great respect for the men and women of the department, so it is regrettable that we are forced to respond to allegations such as those contained in the statement of Sheriff Dunn," Mason wrote. "The FBI takes seriously its commitment to combat terrorism and its mission to safeguard civil rights."
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