Cash gift proves too costly for ousted Pitkin County deputy
A $400 gift to a school resource officer has cost him his job.
Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo confirmed this week that Paul Hufnagle, the school resource officer at Aspen High for 12 years, is no longer under his employment after the deputy didn’t respond to recent texts, emails, or certified mail from the Sheriff’s Office. He also did not show up for two meetings to discuss his job status. DiSalvo said Hufnagle was essentially terminated Tuesday for abandoning his job.
The decision came after the Sheriff’s Office placed Hufnagle, known casually as “Huff,” on unpaid administrative leave Dec. 4. DiSalvo said he took the action after Hufnagle, 55, misled authorities when they confronted him about accepting a cash payment that was more than six times the amount allowed for public officials under state law. The money came from a parent group and was meant as a show of appreciation.
“Right now we have had no communication with Huff,” DiSalvo said Thursday, “and not for lack of trying.”
After DiSalvo placed Hufnagle on leave, the sheriff said the suspension was not related to the safety or security of students on the campus.
This week, DiSalvo expanded on the reasons behind Hufnagle’s leave and subsequent termination.
“He accepted a gift inappropriately, and there are ethical issues that followed that,” the sheriff said, noting the matter remains under investigation.
Hufnagle has not returned repeated messages from The Aspen Times seeking comment.
And because of the pending probe, Pitkin County on Monday denied an Aspen Times Colorado Open Records Act request made Dec. 18, seeking a summary of the Sheriff’s Office internal investigation into Hufnagle. The request cited House Bill 19-1119, which Gov. Jared Polis signed into law in April giving greater public access to information about the job performance of law enforcement officers in Colorado.
It was another Colorado law that DiSalvo leaned on when it came to disciplining Hufnagle.
Under the Colorado Gift Law, government employees — which “means any employee, including independent contractors, of the state executive branch, the state legislative branch, a state agency, a public institution of higher education, or any local government, except a member of the general assembly or a public officer” — cannot accept anything having more than $65 in value during the calendar year.
As a deputy, Huffnagle was an employee of local government, effectively putting him under the category of employees not eligible to accept such gifts.
In November, he accepted a $400 cash payment from a group of parents who made identical donations to more than 80 employees of the high school as part of a teacher-appreciation luncheon.
The money has been given out on an annual basis for the past four or five years, said Tharyn Mulberry, principal of Aspen High. The money does not come from school coffers but instead a group of philanthropic parents, he said.
“It’s where a cash gift is given to every member of the high school,” Mulberry said Friday. “And it’s done to boost morale.”
The amount has grown from $100 per teacher and other staff members to $400, said Mulberry, who confirmed that Hufnagle accepted payment.
Hufnagle’s acceptance of the money came to DiSalvo’s attention through another deputy, he said. When Hufnagle was asked about the money, he told authorities he had donated it to a local nonprofit, yet further investigation showed that not to be the case, DiSalvo said.
The sheriff said it appears Hufnagle has no desire to discuss the matter further.
“Huff is not commenting, so we have to assume he doesn’t want to work here anymore,” DiSalvo said, adding the Sheriff’s Office “now has reason that he is not in the county, and he may have left the state.”
Mulberry said the last time he saw Hufnagle was Dec. 5 at a holiday event in Snowmass Village. Mulberry said he was not aware that Hufnagle is no longer with the Sheriff’s Office until he was informed of it by a reporter.
“To be fair, I thought he was coming back,” Mulberry said.
Mulberry said Hufnagle made healthy connections with the students over the years.
“He had a lot of relationships with students that were positive,” he said. “And many students asked where he’d been. He was really good at connecting with kids that weren’t in the mainstream. That was his strength.”
For the time being, the high school will be down one SRO, but DiSalvo said Deputy Monique Merritt, who joined at the start of the fall semester, will continue to supervise the program.
“After school starts in January, we’ll decide what the next steps are,” the sheriff said.
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Nearly 100 locally-owned businesses negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic have been awarded grants from a pool of $1.2 million in relief funds from Pitkin County.