Fallout between sheriff, challenger came after Bumps fundraiser turned into teen party
How a high school fundraising event in 2019 tainted Buglione and DeSalvo's decades long friendship, and ultimately, cost Buglione his job.
Michael Buglione’s failure to chaperone a fundraiser for one of his daughter’s high school clubs in March 2019 not only cost him his job as a deputy, but it also sacked his 40-year friendship with the Pitkin County sheriff he is trying to unseat in the November elections — Joe DiSalvo.
DiSalvo is seeking his fourth four-year term as sheriff. In 2010, he amassed 79.2% of the vote in his first election win, which came against Patrick Leonard, who had law-enforcement experience in Florida and New York. DiSalvo ran unchallenged in 2014, and, in 2018, he easily fended off opponent and then-Aspen police officer Walter Chi by garnering 78.5% of the vote.
Buglione is the third lawman DiSalvo will face in the general sheriff’s election — but the first one who is the sheriff’s former brother in-law. DiSalvo and Buglione met each other 40 years ago in New York, where they grew up and became close friends, later working together at the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office.
They used to see each other at family gatherings over Thanksgiving and Christmas, but, now, the only they time they have scheduled together is at forums and debates ahead of the Nov. 8 election, including at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at an event hosted by the Woody Creek Caucus at the Aspen Community School gymnasium.
“We were buddies,” Buglione said. “We were like brothers. I was like the brother he didn’t have.”
“I really considered Michael blood,” DiSalvo said.
Then came March 7, 2019.
That was the date Buglione said he would have a chaperone-type presence at his daughter Linda Lou’s high school club’s event to raise money for communities in the Fiji Islands.
The fundraiser went on as scheduled at Bumps Restaurant at the base of Buttermilk, but not as envisioned. Buglione did not make it because he was in Golden for law-enforcement training. The other parents who said they would chaperone also didn’t show, according to documents about the incident that The Aspen Times obtained through an open-records request.
About 80 students attended the fundraiser, and “there were supposed to be adult chaperones and a uniformed Pitkin County Sheriff’s Deputy on scene; however no other adults arrived,” according to a deputy’s report of the incident. A Bumps restaurant manager was there but not in a chaperone role.
The manager still did a walkthrough and found an intoxicated girl in the bathroom, while a deputy reporting to the restaurant that night spotted a girl vomiting out of a car window. The girl was issued a ticket for minor in possession. Further inspection showed evidence of cocaine use in the bathrooms and other alcohol use, according to the documents obtained through the open-records request.
It never would have gotten to that point if Buglione had shown up, DiSalvo said, noting that, the next morning, the complaints started rolling in from parents of the students. DiSalvo said he was taking the heat, while Buglione would have none of it.
“How do you expect to be sheriff if you can’t get in front of the community and admit your mistakes?” DiSalvo said.
How he and Buglione understood the chaperone duties became a point of contention and remains one to this day. The Bumps incident led the sheriff to place Buglione on administrative leave and then demote him from sergeant deputy to a jailhouse position, and Buglione to ultimately resign from the Sheriff’s Office, ending his 17 years in local law enforcement.
Buglione said his mistake came when he didn’t let the Sheriff’s Office know he wouldn’t be able to attend the event. For his part, he said because the Sheriff’s Office assigned him to the training session, he thought his chaperone duties were being covered by someone else.
“I said, ‘Joe, if someone calls in sick, whose responsibility is it to get that deputy’s replacement? It’s the Sheriff’s Office, not the sick deputy. So, it wasn’t up to me to get a replacement for Bumps. Besides, there was another couple who were supposed to chaperone, but they went out to dinner and showed up late.”
Buglione said the disciplinary action taken against him was too harsh, and he was not the only person to blame, adding he let his daughter know about a week before the event that he wouldn’t be able to chaperone because of the scheduling conflict.
“I go to the training, and, Friday morning (March 8), Joe called and said, ‘Where are you?’ I said, ‘I’m at training on the Front Range.’ He goes, ‘When you get back here, come by my office. We gotta talk.’”
The sheriff launched an internal investigation into the matter in which he didn’t participate. The findings showed that DiSalvo, after talking to Buglione’s daughter, gave Buglione the go-ahead to work at the event.
“Sheriff DiSalvo and you agreed that you would chaperone the event,” said a report from then-Capt. Jesse Steindler, noting it was Buglione’s responsibility to notify his sergeants of the Bumps commitment and put it on the work schedule. The report was dated March 13, 2019, as supporting documentation for Buglione’s loss of rank and reassignment to the county jail.
Buglione said it was his understanding he would be attending as a parent-chaperone and not in uniform, which wasn’t the impression DiSalvo had.
“Sheriff DiSalvo considered Mr. Buglione’s attendance of the event an employment assignment,” wrote Deputy County Manager Rich Englehart, who was the hearing officer on Buglione’s appeal of the internal investigation’s findings and recommended disciplinary actions in his findings of facts dated April 18, 2019. “Mr. Buglione does not consider his attendance of the event an employment assignment.”
In email correspondence with Englehart, Buglione said, “It was never clear to me that I was required to go to this event as a deputy (whether in uniform or not), and it was not put on my schedule as an assignment. However, my training was.”
Englehart’s findings of fact said Buglione had a responsibility to notify his supervisors of the conflict.
“The only Sheriff’s employee who knew there was a conflict for Mr. Buglione to attend the Training in Denver and the Event was Mr. Buglione,” Englehart’s report said.
DiSalvo said it didn’t matter if Buglione had planned to chaperone out of uniform; he was still required to find a replacement if he couldn’t attend.
“We are never not police officers, whether you are in uniform or not,” DiSalvo said. “I’m sorry, but you’re always on duty.”
Linda Lou Buglione, who is now a senior at the University of Colorado, said she remembers feeling confused about the disciplinary actions taken against her dad, given that he was attending law-enforcement training. She also said DiSalvo gave her permission to have her dad chaperone, either in or out of uniform, but that did not mean he was committing to the event.
“Afterwards, I remember my dad being put on administrative leave due to the circumstances that happened that night,” she said. “I remember being so confused, and I was a senior in high school, and I didn’t understand why my dad was being blamed for the actions of that night when he wasn’t supposed to be there.”
The Bumps issue was too close for DiSalvo, he said.
“(Englehart) investigated and came to the same conclusions: Michael was supposed to be there; he was supposed to be there in uniform. His informal recommendation was a termination. I said, ‘I’m not firing him. I can’t do it.’ Those kids are about to go to CU. Dad needs the money. I can’t fire him. I’m still stuck in this dysfunctional relationship.”
For more information on the sheriff’s race, read our previous coverage:
The race is on for campaign money in Pitkin sheriff, CD3 contests (August 22, 2022)
As election looms, state digs into sheriff’s link to vodka company (September 20, 2022)
With many lingering questions still surrounding the fate of Aspen’s historic Old Powerhouse, City Council decided during Monday’s work session to hold off on providing staff direction on moving the preservation project forward until more information can be presented.