Joe DiSalvo cruised to lopsided victories in his previous three runs for sheriff of Pitkin County, but the aftermath of this year’s June primary election has shown an organized and aggressive challenge from candidate Michael Buglione’s campaign.
Whether they are staunch supporters of Bulglione or in disapproval of the sheriff, critics have blasted DiSalvo for his ownership stake in a vodka company started by Lance Armstrong, his rental home in the West End, the political affiliations of some of his campaign donors, and his management style.
There was little campaigning or media coverage of the sheriff’s race leading up to the June open primary that saw Buglione, running as a Democrat, garner 1,917 votes, or 37.4% of the ballots cast. DiSalvo, who is politically unaffiliated, collected 2,912 votes, or 56.8%.
Yet following the June 28 primaries, held less than four weeks after the June 3 death of the wildly popular and former longtime sheriff Bob Braudis, foes of DiSalvo mounted a campaign against him like no opponent has to date.
Also unlike previous races, DiSalvo has been on the defensive in the face of highly charged criticism and allegations. DiSalvo’s acceptance of gifts from people like Armstrong crossed an ethical line, Buglione supporters allege. They argue DiSalvo has a double-standard when it comes to receiving gifts, citing his acceptance of both a 5% stake in the Lift vodka company and a bicycle from Armstrong, all while the sheriff has disciplined deputies for also taking gifts, including longtime school resource officer Paul Hufnagle. Hufnagle’s controversial departure from the sheriff’s office was triggered by a $400 holiday gift he accepted from a school parent group to all Aspen High School staff.
DiSalvo said he only accepts gifts from family and close friends.
“I wouldn’t take a gift from somebody that wasn’t considered my friend or family,” DiSalvo said. “Like I said, I think it’s preposterous that you can’t take something from friends, family, brothers, sisters. That’s not the way I interpret it.”
The Hufnagle incident was an example of how DiSalvo and some of his employees clashed. A number of those were deputies who first worked under Braudis, a famously non-confrontational sheriff who was often said to treat employees like family. Hufnagle was a Braudis hire, as were other former employees, including Buglione, who left the office bitter about DiSalvo. DiSalvo worked under Braudis and the two were good friends and confidants until his death.
While DiSalvo maintained Hufnagle lied to him about the gift and failed to disclose it, Hufnagle said he decided to quit because DiSalvo treated him condescendingly and angrily over the incident.
“I am not a disgruntled ex-employee,” Hufnagle said. “I think the sheriff’s department has many people that are overly qualified and great at their jobs. I just don’t think Joe is the person to lead them.”
Had DiSalvo treated him with respect, Hufnagle said, he would have been willing to explain himself to the sheriff and try to reach an understanding. He said his plan was to donate the money anyway.
Hufnagle, known as “Huff”among the students at Aspen schools, instead quit in December 2018 after DiSalvo confronted him, he said. Hufnagle said he felt like he had become a marked employee because he had previously expressed dissatisfaction about how DiSalvo was administering the SRO program. Hufnagle’s acceptance of the $400 gave the sheriff an excuse to push him out, he said.
Hufnagle, in a recent letter to the editor, said: “Accepting a gift? Seems to me, I know a certain SRO who lost his job for doing exactly that! $400 from the parents of Aspen High School. I would bet that 5% of Lance’s vodka company is worth much more than that monetary wise! What’s the difference? A gift is a gift!”
When DiSalvo initially confronted him about the $400, Hufnagle said he donated it to a church, the sheriff said. Church officials, however, said there was no such donation, DiSalvo said, adding that Hufnagle failed to show to scheduled meetings with the sheriff and didn’t return texts, messages or emails from the sheriff’s office. Hufnagle said once he made up his mind to quit, he cut off all communications with the sheriff’s office.
According to the state of Colorado Constitution’s ethics policy, “No public officer, member of the general assembly, local government official, or government employee, either directly or indirectly as the beneficiary of a gift or thing of value given to such person’s spouse or dependent child, shall solicit, accept or receive any gift or other thing of value having either a fair market value or aggregate actual cost greater” than what is now $65.
There are exceptions to the policy, such as for gifts “given by an individual who is a relative or personal friend of the recipient on a special occasion.”
That is why DiSalvo has said he believes the 5% ownership stake Armstrong gifted him passes muster. There’s not even a contract or any written agreement about his ownership, said DiSalvo, adding that it was a handshake deal.
“If you’ve never been to my house, if we never shared a meal or a drink together, you’re probably not a friend of mine,” DiSalvo said. “That’s the way I look at it.”
John Hickenlooper, now a U.S. senator, was targeted in a complaint for receiving improper gifts in 2018 when he was governor.
In its 2020 ruling, the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission determined that Hickenlooper violated state ethics laws when corporations funded a private jet trip, limousine ride and meals for the governor in 2018. Yet it also said two complimentary trips he received on friends’ private aircraft were permissible because the gifts were exempt under the state’s “friends” and “special occasion” provisions. Hickenlooper said the complaint was politically motivated, and DiSalvo said the same about the complaint made to the state’s liquor enforcement division.
“A gift from a friend on a special occasion is acceptable” under the Colorado Constitution, said Dino Ioannides, executive director of the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission, in an email response to questions from The Aspen Times. “The IEC (Independent Ethics Commission) has interpreted ‘special occasion’ somewhat broadly, but I cannot speculate about how the IEC would rule in specific cases. If a complaint were to come before the IEC, the IEC would consider all the facts and circumstances in evaluating whether the ‘gift to a friend’ exception applied (in other words, the IEC would not accept the statement alone at face value).”
Ioannides would not comment if any ethics complaints have been filed against DiSalvo with the commission. Complaints are kept confidential until “until the IEC determines that a complaint is non-frivolous,” he said.
The Pitkin County Attorney’s Office did not answer questions about DiSalvo and Lift.
Armstrong, whose once-decorated career as seven-time Tour de France winner was capsized by a performance-enhancing-drugs cheating scandal, keeps a home in Aspen where his younger children also attend school.
“I’m wondering how much of this is really about Lance Armstrong,” DiSalvo said.
The Lift probe
DiSalvo’s link to Lift Vodka is being investigated by the state liquor enforcement.
On Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Revenue said the liquor and tobacco enforcement division’s investigation into Lift Vodka and its association with DiSalvo is ongoing. The Times reported in September that the state was collecting the company’s financial and book-keeping records.
“This is still an active investigation, and I don’t have an idea of the timeline for completion,” said Suzanne Karrer, the Colorado Department of Revenue’s communications director.
As well, Tony Marsh, who is the state’s investigator in Grand Junction handling the matter, declined comment this week.
DiSalvo said he wished the investigation would wrap up before the election because he believes he did nothing wrong. He has maintained his 5% stake in Lift Vodka was given to him over Labor Day 2020 by Armstrong ahead of the company’s launch. Armstrong’s gift was a thank-you for DiSalvo’s ideas and advice about starting the company, DiSalvo said. The sheriff also has said he is not involved in the company’s management or daily operations and has not received any compensation since the company started.
Liquor licenses can’t be held by authorities in the following positions, according to state law: auto industry investigators, the Department of Revenue’s executive director and senior director of enforcement, the state’s director of gaming, the state lottery investigator, the director of racing events and eight positions in the state’s attorney general office.
It does not, however, prohibit sheriffs from having a liquor license. Another state law forbids sheriffs from owning or operating a liquor establishment licensed in the same jurisdiction where they are employed. Still, Lift Vodka’s only business presence locally is at its administrative offices at the Aspen Airport Business Center, he said. DiSalvo has said the vodka is made in California with water from Aspen and distributed only in Colorado. Aspen retailers also carry the product, he said. As a 5% owner in Lift, his name is not required on the state-issued liquor license.
More recently, DiSalvo came under criticism over a campaign finance report for the current election. In a report last month on campaign finance reports due Oct. 17 with the Pitkin County Clerk & Recorder’s Office, an Aspen Daily News story noted DiSalvo’s report of contributions and expenditures had not been posted online, unlike Buglione’s, which could be perceived that the sheriff had not submitted the paperwork in a timely manner.
DiSalvo told the Daily News the finance report had been filed with the county clerk’s office but had not been uploaded to its PitkinVotes.com website. His comments prompted a letter to the Aspen newspapers from Ingrid Grueter, the county clerk, who wrote that DiSalvo “in fact, did not file his report to our office until Monday morning,” one day after he spoke to the Daily News.
Grueter told the Aspen Times on Friday she wrote the letter to explain the clerk’s position, and that politics had nothing to do with it.
“He turned it in the next day and we just wanted to make sure that people understood that we are doing what we are supposed to do,” Grueter said. “We immediately post reports online to make sure people are getting the correct information. I didn’t have anything to do with it, and I understand he thought one of his staff had brought it over.
DiSalvo said it was just a misunderstanding. He thought a campaign staffer had submitted the report, and the staffer thought he had done the same. That was the basis for his comments to the Daily News, he said.
The sources of DiSalvo’s campaign contributions also have come under criticism from Buglione supporters, who say that some of his donors are Republicans aligned with Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Silt, a MAGA politician unpopular with Democrats. DiSalvo also rents a home in Aspen’s high-priced West End neighborhood from Tatnall Hillman, a Boebert supporter and major GOP donor. Additionally, Kim Vallario, the wife of conservative Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario, also a Boebert supporter, works for DiSalvo as jail administrator.
DiSalvo said opponents who are using his donors against him are showing “awfully narrow minds. Whether it’s Lou Vallario or my landlord, I am not eliminating people just because I disagree with them. Someone can still vote for Lauren Boebert and still be my friend.”
Critics also have claimed DiSalvo has a sweetheart deal on rent at the West End home. DiSalvo declined to disclose what he pays, but argued whatever he pays is not a crime and the wealthy Hillman should be credited for helping a public servant afford to live in Aspen.
The sheriff said the reaction to his associations with Republicans — who include Thomas Barrack, the billionaire and Trump friend now on trial for allegedly working for the United Arab Emirates as an illegal foreign agent — is indicative of the tribal political behavior enveloping the country.
“I remember when it was almost an insult to ask who you were voting for,” he said. “That was top secret. Now it’s almost that you have to tell and I don’t want to do that. I think Sheriff Vallario, who I often disagree with, I’m not going to cancel him because that is a bad look with the Democrats.”
He added, “I am the people’s sheriff, not the Democrats’, the Republicans’, or the independents’.”
DiSalvo collected 79.2% in his first race for sheriff in 2010, he ran uncontested in 2014, and he drew 78.5% of the vote in his 2018 re-election campaign. Those were all general elections held in November. This year’s election will be decided Tuesday.