Canyon County

Name-calling, fingerpointing, but no sign of crime in investigation of Canyon officials

A patrol car blocks an external kitchen door to the Canyon County jail’s tent facility in December 2016 after an escape.
A patrol car blocks an external kitchen door to the Canyon County jail’s tent facility in December 2016 after an escape. Provided by Canyon County

How bad was the feud last year between the Canyon County sheriff and some members of the Canyon County Commission?

It took an investigator with the Idaho Attorney General’s Office more than 200 pages to document and navigate allegations from both sides over funding, repairs and renovations to the Dale G. Haile Detention Center and its minimum-security tent facility in Caldwell.

The AG’s office found no criminal acts, but discovered long-standing grudges, insults, fingerpointing and at least two accusations of lying among the elected officials.

At the heart of the matter is a jail that has repeatedly drawn the attention of the ACLU for its troubles with overcrowding, and for which voters have repeatedly rejected funding to build a replacement. Nine inmates have escaped the jail tent facility since December 2015. Six had found weaknesses in the structure by Dec. 29, 2016, when Sheriff Kieran Donahue accused two county commissioners of negligence in a complaint to the AG’s Office.

The complaint asked for a criminal investigation into commissioners Steve Rule and Craig Hanson. The pair disagreed with Donahue on the long-term solution to the jail and had repeatedly denied the sheriff’s requests to fund some security upgrades, with their vote outweighing Commissioner Tom Dale, a Donahue supporter. (That dynamic has since changed with the 2016 election of Pam White to replace Hanson.)

Most of the AG’s investigation focused on whether Rule and Hanson deliberately chose not to fix an exterior-access kitchen door used by three inmates in two separate escape attempts.

Sheriff Kieran Donahue

Donahue claimed Rule and Hanson intentionally neglected to implement security precautions at the jail. He also accused them of intimidating Facilities Manager Paul Navarro.

Specifically, Donahue told AG’s investigator Robert Solito that Navarro said the commissioners ordered him not to install a new kitchen door after one of the breakouts, on Oct. 1, 2016.

Donahue accused Rule of then “intimidating a witness” by asking Navarro during a public commissioners’ meeting if the facilities manager ever received that order. Navarro replied that he was never told to not install the door. According to the report, Donahue thought that meant Navarro was either lying to him or to the commissioners.

The door wasn’t Donahue’s only example of what he viewed as deliberate negligence. For instance, he said the commissioners refused to accept a donated recreation yard fence from the Jerome County Sheriff’s Office because Rule and Hanson were pushing an effort to expand the jail, counter to Donahue’s wishes.

Messages left for Donahue this week regarding the report were not returned.

Commissioner Craig Hanson

Hanson, a former captain at the jail, said he was aware of its issues and had participated in inspections.

Hanson told the investigator that he and Donahue have a history of poor communication, mostly blaming Donahue. Hanson alleged that Donahue did not notify the commissioners of escapes and he usually learned about them from the news.

In reference to the kitchen door, Hanson said the commissioners voted to install a new door but he was told installation would need to wait until a new lock system arrived.

“Mr. Hanson knew the sheriff made public comments that the commissioners told Mr. Navarro not to put the new door in,” the report states. “Mr. Hanson said Sheriff Donahue’s comments were totally false.”

Hanson said he believed the complaint was triggered because Donahue was angry that Hanson testified at a council meeting that the tent needed to be a work-release center only. Hanson, whose term in office ended at the start of 2017, described the complaint as “Sheriff Donahue’s last shot at him and Commissioner Rule.”

Messages left for Hanson this week regarding the report were not returned.

Commissioner Steve Rule

Rule told Solito that he agreed with Navarro about the need for a new door and endorsed its purchase. Rule claimed Navarro decided on his own not to install the door, as he was able to adjust the existing one to work properly. Navarro had the authority to make that decision on his own, Rule said.

He claimed Donahue lied to the media about the commissioners telling Navarro not to order a new door. And, he said the commissioners gave Donahue direction on the tent structure, but the sheriff “chooses not to follow their direction.” Rule said he “didn’t know why” Donahue would not listen.

On Monday, Rule told the Statesman that he was never concerned the attorney general would pursue criminal charges.

“This is about (Donahue) being upset with the commission,” he said.

Rule, now a minority on the commission regarding the jail, said he is still confident voters will not approve a bond to build a new jail.

“If they didn’t pass a $15 million bond and they didn’t pass a $50 million bond, they’re not gonna pass a $150 million bond,” he said.

Facilities Director Paul Navarro

Navarro, whose position is supervised by the commissioners, offered perhaps the most actual details to the investigator about what was done with the kitchen door.

He said he was never told how the inmates escaped through the access door on Oct. 1, so he had to troubleshoot it himself. He ordered a new door and related parts after that escape. But when he inspected the existing door, he found it could be fairly easily fixed, he said.

The report suggests Navarro had still intended to replace the door. He told Solito the project “fell through the cracks” after the commissioners later asked him to prep a different part of the jail for minimum-security inmates. The commissioners intended to send the tent facility’s inmates there and return the tent to work-release use; that was later reversed after White joined the commission.

On Dec. 29, 2016, the day after the second escape involving that exit, Navarro installed the new door after talking with Donahue. Navarro added new and stronger hinges and a heavy-duty crash bar and upgraded the magnet lock to 1,200 pounds, according to the AG’s report. The previous magnet power was set at 800 pounds.

When Navarro and staff went to replace the door, they found the fire marshal already there because Donahue had parked a patrol car against the door — a violation of fire code. Navarro called that “grand standing on the part of Sheriff Donahue,” according to the report.

Navarro told Solito that Hanson and Rule never told him not to install the door. The commissioners “were very supportive of doing whatever could be done to improve the situation,” Navarro said.

He told the investigator he felt caught in the middle of the animosity between the two commissioners and Donahue. He said the jail matter was really a “political issue.”

A message to Navarro Wednesday was not returned.

The conclusion

The investigation found much disagreement among Donahue, Rule and Hanson, Deputy Attorney General Paul Panther wrote in an Oct. 12 letter to the sheriff. But, there was not enough evidence to establish that the commissioners “willfully failed to perform their duties or refused or neglected to perform those duties.”

The AG’s Office also found no evidence that Navarro was actually intimidated by Rule’s actions.

Filing charges, Panther wrote, “would be inappropriate.”