Sheriff’s Office dismisses complaint filed by clerk’s office | Western Colorado

Months after Patti Inscho left employment as interim elections manager in the Mesa County Clerk’s Office, Deputy Clerk Belinda Knisley and Elections Manager Stephanie Wenholz filed a criminal complaint with the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office against her, The Daily Sentinel has learned.

In that July 20 complaint, which was quickly deemed to be a non-criminal matter and was closed as a result, Knisley and Wenholz alleged fraud and burglary, saying that Inscho failed to perform all the tasks she was assigned to before leaving the job in early May. They added she should return two-months pay to the county.

But in that report, which redacted Inscho’s name but identifies her through her job title — she was the only person to have that title at the time — Sheriff’s Investigator Robin Martin wrote in a case summary that the assignments Inscho allegedly was supposed to do weren’t even part of her job description, though she did them anyway.

Inscho, who has since been volunteering to collect signatures to recall Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters, said she didn’t even learn about the complaint until three days ago, more than a week after the case was closed, and was never interviewed by investigators.

“This honestly is harassment,” Inscho said in an interview. “She filed this and used her position to pressure the police into investigating. If there was really an issue, it should have been an HR (human resources) issue.”

The complaint alleges that Inscho was assigned duties during the COVID-19 shutdown, when county employees were expected to work from home. One was to verify that voter registrations were being done correctly, and the other was to maintain what is known as the DA Binder. That’s a listing of possible voter fraud cases that are forwarded to District Attorney Dan Rubinstein’s office that can involve anything from ballots cast that did not include a signature, to voters casting more than one ballot.

Inscho said that while she did that work, it wasn’t part of her job description, calling it “data entry.” She said because Peters never wanted her to work at the office in the first place, the clerk did whatever she could to make her not want to work there.

Despite repeated promises to comment for this article, Peters didn’t.

Inscho was initially hired in late February after Peters’ former elections manager, Jessica Empson, resigned about a week after the 2019 fall elections. That was the election when 574 ballots were left in a drop-off box for months because they were never picked up, only being discovered during the February presidential primary when election workers were picking up ballots.

Because of that, the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office sent a special investigator to look into the matter, suggesting that Peters immediately hire a new elections manager, which occurred during the presidential primary.

At the time, the Secretary of State’s Office said that hiring was part of a “collaboration” with Peters’ office, but Knisley told sheriff’s investigators in her complaint that Inscho was “pushed” on them.

“I asked her to explain,” Martin wrote in the case summary. “She (Knisley) stated the elections manager had left, giving two weeks notice, then quit the same day. They needed a person to fill the slot and the Secretary of State was contacted.”

The thing is, Empson had left the office nearly four months earlier, giving Peters plenty of time to find a replacement. She hadn’t, and the Secretary of State’s Office was contacted because of the uncounted ballots, not because of the open position.

At the time of Inscho’s hiring, Peters denied that Inscho was forced upon her, saying, “I have a real good relationship with Patti, and I’m happy to have her aboard.”

Peters, a Republican, said in February that she didn’t care that Inscho was a Democrat, but Inscho said it was clear from the start she wasn’t welcome.

“As soon as that election (presidential primary) was over, she assigned me data entry,” Inscho said. “I did my job. I did as much of my job as I was allowed to do. I was in a position where I could not do what I was hired to do, and I did not want a data entry job.”

Inscho said it’s clear that Peters and her deputy are retaliating against her because she’s upset a recall effort is underway, and Inscho is helping with that effort. Petitions for the recall are due on Monday.

Supporters of the recall say they now have more than 10,000 signatures, but still need at least 12,192 by 5 p.m. Monday to force that recall vote.

Since that effort began nearly two months ago, Peters has done numerous things to combat it, including complaining to the Mesa County Board of Commissioners that the person they hired to oversee it — state law required them to hire an outside special election official — is a Democrat and therefore biased. Peters even filed a complaint with the state against that person, Eagle County Treasurer Teak Simonton.

Peters also has turned to social media groups to defend herself, and called on fellow Republicans in the county to stand with her against the effort, asking them to post messages of their own and write letters to the editor.

She and her office even has attacked former clerk and now Mesa County Treasurer Sheila Reiner, a fellow Republican. In a press release issued on Wednesday, Knisley took credit for revealing a wanted person for using the identity of a deceased voter. That actually came from a story first reported by The Daily Sentinel.

But in that release, Knisley said Peters has focused on “overcoming her predecessor’s legacy of lack of experienced staff, long wait lines and poor customer service.” There is no evidence to support any of those claims, and none of the issues that have occurred during Peters’ tenure happened in the eight years Reiner was clerk, or the eight years before that when now state Rep. Janice Rich, R-Grand Junction, held that job.

In a letter to the editor published earlier this week, Bobby Gross, who lost against Peters in 2018 for the GOP nomination for the job, said Peters is blaming her, too, for the recall effort. Gross said she has nothing to do with it.

“It is her own incompetence that has infuriated the people of this county,” Gross wrote in the letter. “I did not disenfranchise voters by leaving uncounted ballots in the box just outside her office. (Neither) I, nor any innocent citizen she had tried to blame, had anything to do with flying ballots. I did not make extravagant purchases to furnish her office.”

It also isn’t the first time Knisley has gone after Inscho. About a week after the June primaries, Knisley filed an election law complaint against Inscho, who was working as an election watcher for the Mesa County Democratic Party.

In that complaint, which the Secretary of State’s Office dismissed as unactionable, Knisley said Inscho was seen talking to election judges during the primaries. Inscho said they were old friends, and they only said, “Hi,” to her.

The recall effort was started, in part, because of those uncounted ballots, which Peters didn’t ask a judge to allow her to tabulate after they were found — only Peters had the legal authority to do so — saying they would not have altered the results of the 2019 election.

The group also said it started its effort because of the uncounted ballots and an unusually high turnover rate in Peters’ office since she took the job in 2018. About 80% of her staff have come and gone in that time, including numerous top election officials. Last month, one more left, Rebecca White, who worked there since before Peters took office.

In the county’s monthly position reports, which lists all county workers and their titles, White was listed as a customer service specialist in the Division of Motor Vehicles. Prior to last month, however, White’s title was elections coordinator.

Upon learning that The Daily Sentinel had a copy of the complaint, Knisley sent an email to Mesa County Sheriff Matt Lewis, County Attorney Patrick Coleman and others, including the Sentinel, identifying Inscho as the subject of the complaint and complaining that only her name was redacted.

She said the names of others included in the report, including White and Wenholz, also should have been redacted to protect their privacy, even though Wenholz is listed along with Knisley as a “reporting party.”

The Sheriff’s Office said that, by law, the identity of individuals who are subjects of complaints that are not substantiated must be redacted. Though her name is blanked out in each reference in the report, she easily can be identified based on her unique job title and time of the alleged incidents.

The Mesa County Attorney’s Office said there’s nothing illegal about Knisley releasing Inscho’s name.

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