Edward Vela Investigation Report 'Substantiates Allegations' and Cost Taxpayers $10K
Description: The City of La Junta Tax Payers Covered The $10,000 Attorney’s Fee to Attain Legal Services to Investigate the Allegations Against Councilman Vela. After reviewing the Following Investigative Report from Investigations Law Group, LLC. Council Unanimously Voted to Censure Councilman Vela during an Administrative Session on September 5, 2023. Complete Report, Video and Exhibit Gallery Below.
Ed Vela Investigation Results
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY REPORT City of La Junta, Vela Matter August 18, 2023
Investigation Report by Anne Rooney McCord
Investigations Law Group, LLC ("ILG") was retained by Phil Malouff, Esq., ("Counsel") City Attorney for the City of La Junta ("Client" or "City"), on May 26, 2023, to conduct an investigation for the City. ILG was hired to investigate claims raised by two community members, Amy Salazar and Sarah Mahoney ("the parties" or "complainant(s)") on April 3 and 13, 2023, via email letter. In the letters, the parties documented concerns about Council Member Ed Vela's behavior before a February 21, 2023, Council Meeting (detailed below), and during a visit to Ms. Mahoney's place of employment on March 26, 2023.
Ms. Salazar and Ms. Mahoney attended the City Council Meeting on February 21, 2023, to introduce the Synchronicity Dance Productions group and upcoming performance to the Council. Ms. Salazar's daughter is a dancer with the group and Ms. Mahoney is the founder and director of the group. Prior to the meeting, some of the dancers were changing into their dance clothes in a locked office with Ms. Salazar and Ms. Mahoney. Mr. Vela attempted to enter the office, at which time Ms. Salazar opened the door thinking it was a dancer attempting to enter. Ms. Salazar then informed Mr. Vela that girls were changing clothes in the office. Mr. Vela asked for a tissue and Ms. Salazar passed a box of tissues through the cracked door.
After the meeting, Ms. Salazar and Ms. Mahoney shared concerns about Mr. Vela's interruption and conduct with one another and others, specifically that he appeared to look into the office at the girls changing. Less than two months later, complaint letters were emailed to Paula Mahoney, Secretary for Rick Klein, City Manager for La Junta.
Ms. Salazar reported the following concern about Mr. Vela's conduct on February 21, 2023, in her letter to Council:
Synchronicity Dance Productions was invited to City Council to talk about their upcoming production during their meeting held on 02/21/2023. The dancers needed to change into their costumes and used an office next to the chamber room.
Several dancers were undressing to get into their costumes. There were at least 4-5 female dancers in addition to myself and the director. I was standing at the door to make sure no one just walked in while they were dressing. Someone knocked on the door, and thinking it may be another dancer, I opened it and saw that it was Ed Vela. I immediately advised that the girls are dressing and that he cannot enter. He did not seem deterred in the slightest and advised that he needed tissue while looking past me into the room I closed the door asap. After grabbing the tissue, I opened the door as little possible and passed the tissue as fast as I could and saw that he did not make any attempt to avert his eyes. I was surprised that he still wanted the tissue after I made it clear that the girls were changing.
I thought his behavior was odd and did not appreciate the fact that he still attempted to look in after he was aware that girls were dressing. I do not feel that this is normal or acceptable behavior from a grown man, let alone a man on our council.
Ms. Mahoney documented her concerns about Mr. Vela's behavior during a visit to her place of employment, the Koshare museum, on March 26, 2023.
During the afternoon on Sunday, March 26th, Ed Vela and his wife came to the Koshare Museum, where I work. After asking about a few things in the trading post, he asked me if I remembered when my dancers came to the city building to talk about our upcoming show during the city council meeting. I told him yes. He began asking me several questions about when my dancers were changing in the office. He asked if all of my dancers were in the office. I told him only a few were. He asked if David Eckhart was in the office. I told him no. He told me the dancers were just putting costumes over their clothes. I told him no, they had to change out of their street clothes into their costumes. He then asked if I remembered when he asked for tissues and how the door was opened barely a crack. I told him I don't know about that and I didn't think so. He then, very pointedly, told me yes you do, you know. I didn't respond.
He and his wife then proceeded to look around the museum and trading post for some time. As they left, he loudly stated that he should leave a donation or I will tell my mom.' I felt very much that he was insinuating something then. I felt uncomfortable with him being at my place of work. It felt like he was trying to press me to change my story about what happened the day of the council meeting. His comment as he was leaving felt like it was meant to intimidate me.
After receiving the letters from Ms. Salazar and Ms. Mahoney, City Council voted on April 17, 2023, to engage an impartial third party to investigate the concerns raised.
ILG was hired to investigate two scope items: 1) Whether Mr. Vela attempted to look into the office once he was aware that girls were changing; and 2) Whether or not Mr. Vela attempted to influence the investigation, intimidate witnesses or otherwise interfere with the investigation.
B. Methodology, Impartiality and Standard of Review
ILG was retained to begin work on this project on May 26, 2023. I interviewed seven (7) witnesses for the investigation, including the complainants, respondent, and witnesses, including people who attended the February 21, 2023, meeting and others who were party to conversations about the incidents. Except for Mr. Vela, all interviews were conducted via telephone. I interviewed Mr. Vela in person with his attorney, Daniel Horton present. While visiting La Junta, my colleague, Jennifer Volmer, toured City Hall including Council Chambers, the office where the girls were changing and the facilities on that floor. I concluded my interviews and field work on July 31, 2023, and submitted this report on the date listed above.
The investigation was delayed for a few reasons. First, I was selected to serve on a week-long jury June 26, 2023, which required me to reschedule an interview with Mr. Vela. Next, due to the July 4th holiday and other scheduling conflicts, I was unable to meet with Mr. Vela until July 12, 2023. After meeting with Mr. Vela, I conducted follow up interviews with some of the parties. An eighth potential witness was referred to me around this time, who I attempted to contact. However, that witness did not agree to an interview. Finally, Mr. Vela's attorney sent requested information on July 31, 2023, at which time I concluded the field work for the investigation.
I also reviewed the following documents that were relevant to the investigation. It included:
• Materials reviewed in this investigation
YouTube videos of City Council meetings:
February 21, 2023
April 17, 2023 (Watch the Video)
May 15, 2023 (Watch the Video)
Chapter 6: "Ethical Conduct in Local Government," By Robert Widner, Widner Juran LLP
Text messages between different parties of the investigation
A threatening letter sent to Mayor Joseph Ayala
Email sent to Council members containing the complaint letters
A business card from a Private Investigator working on behalf of Mr. Vela²
Photographs of Town Hall, Council Chambers and the offices and facilities that surround the Chambers
I interviewed enough people and reviewed enough documentary data to reach firm findings in this case.
The last interview took place on July 20, 2023, and the investigation data collection closed on July 31, 2023. I weighed and considered evidence on both sides of each issue, which I briefly summarize below. I do not include a full and detailed description of all of the evidence I assessed or a full description of any credibility assessments I made. I considered all of the evidence gathered and include a description of the most material facts here.
Consistent with my role as an impartial third-party investigator, I determined the list of witnesses, the documents, and any other data required to complete this investigation. No one at the City or Counsel attempted to, or in fact did, influence or steer the fact-finding or preparation of this Executive Summary Report. I received access to all people and documents that I requested. The City has agreed to pay for the investigation regardless of its outcome. I conducted this investigation and reached my factual findings independent of any outside influence.
In reaching findings of fact, I used a preponderance of the evidence standard. In making any necessary credibility assessments, I used ILG's objective credibility assessment rubric, which relies upon factors suggested by the EEOC, recognized as reliable by our industry, and developed over the many years of my practice in this field. Credibility assessments are based on a constellation of evidence and rarely rely upon only one factor.
In this Executive Summary Report, I do not offer legal advice, reach legal conclusions, or make recommendations for personnel action.
D. Statement of Credible Material Evidence
I found the following facts to be important and relevant to the issues within the scope of this investigation. In compiling this list of material evidence, I weighed data on both sides of each important event and gave weight to the version of events that is more likely than not to be true, based on my critical analysis. These material facts provide the context and factual basis for my analysis and findings, which follow in Section E.
February 21, 2023, incident
Mayor Ayala invited dancers from the Synchronicity Dance Productions group to speak at the Council meeting on the evening of February 21, 2023, to promote their troop and upcoming productions. In preparation for the presentation, several of the girls, ages 14 to 20, were changing out of street clothes into their dance costumes in a locked office with Ms. Salazar and Ms. Mahoney.
Mr. Vela was in the back of Council Chambers by the coffee when he walked over to the locked office and attempted to open the door. At this time, a witness (hereafter referred to as "witness 2") who had been standing by Mr. Vela informed another witness (hereafter referred to as "witness 1"), whose office was being used, that Mr. Vela was "trying to get into the office where the girls" were changing. Witness 2 said that Mr. Vela "beelined to the office when he heard the girls were changing in there." Witness 1 walked into the hall and saw Mr. Vela "rattle" the locked door handle.
Inside the office, Ms. Salazar heard what she thought was a knock on the door. Believing it was another girl trying to get into the office to change, Ms. Salazar cracked open the door. When Ms. Salazar saw it was Mr. Vela, she informed him that girls were changing in the office at which time he asked for a tissue. Ms. Salazar then shut the door. Ms. Salazar told Ms. Mahoney that Mr. Vela asked for a tissue, and then opened the door wide enough to pass through a full sized box of tissue and shut the door.
Ms. Salazar reported that Mr. Vela did not avert his eyes when she opened the door either time, which is corroborated by witness 1 who was walking towards Mr. Vela as he was at the door. Ms. Mahoney said, "I saw him [Mr. Vela] try to poke his head in the door after she [Ms. Salazar] said there were kids changing in there." She went on to say that she and Ms. Salazar "exchanged faces at each other" when Mr. Vela asked for the tissue, but were not able to talk about it until later.
Witness 1 said that they followed Mr. Vela and saw him "strain to look over [Ms. Salazar] when she opened the door." Witness 1 said that Mr. Vela "waved the box of Kleenex" at them as he walked back to Chambers.
In his interview, Mr. Vela said that when the door to the office was opened, he saw "a little Hispanic gal. She had a tiny head with a crown on it. And she must have been 16 or 17 years old." He also said that when he "knocked" on the door, someone said "we're changing."
After Ms. Salazar came out of the office, she informed witness 1 that Mr. Vela "tried to look at the girls" when she opened the door. Later, she and Ms. Mahoney discussed the incident.
Witness 1, witness 2, and another witness said that there were other tissue options for Mr. Vela to use that night, including napkins that were at the counter where coffee is served³ and toilet paper in the bathroom that is adjacent to the Council Chambers. Mr. Vela acknowledged that both options were available on the night of the 21st, but said he "always go[es] for a Kleenex to [witness 1]'s office.
Two witnesses, including witness 1 and another witness said that Mr. Vela's medical condition described in his statement [below] was not a known condition and that they were not aware of his frequent use of tissue. Witness 1, who Mr. Vela said would give him tissue on occasion, did not recall providing Mr. Vela tissue previously. The other witness said that Mr. Vela occasionally asked for tissue, but that it was not a regular occurrence. ILG reviewed some of the video footage of Council meetings on February 21, April 17 and May 15 and did not observe Mr. Vela using a tissue during those meetings. Witness 1 said that after the incident on February 21, Mr. Vela would occasionally grab a tissue and wave it towards them and witness 2, as if he were taunting them.
Initial report of the concern and the City's response
After the meeting, Ms. Salazar and Ms. Mahoney discussed Mr. Vela's conduct with one another, witness 1 and others. City Manager, Rick Klein, was informed about the incident the next day, February 22, 20235, by witness 1 and witness 2. The Mayor and City Attorney were also informed around that time.
On March 6, 2023, Mayor Ayala and Mr. Malouff spoke to Mr. Vela about the accusations after a meeting. Mayor Ayala said that Mr. Malouff told Mr. Vela "basically everything" that was ultimately in Ms. Salazar's complaint letter, including "the door jiggling, and you [Mr. Vela] didn't avert your eyes." Mayor Ayala said, and Mr. Vela confirmed, that he denied the accusations during that conversation. Mr. Vela said, "this is baloney" and tried to tell Mayor Ayala and the City Attorney his side of the story. Mayor Ayala said that Mr. Vela said, "bring it on, this is a hoax," after which Mr. Malouff left the room. After that meeting, Mr. Vela sent a text to Mayor Ayala calling Ms. Salazar's allegation a "totally false accusation."
Mr. Vela's visit to the Koshare Museum, Ms. Mahoney's place of work
On March 26, 2023, Mr. Vela went to Ms. Mahoney's place of work, the Koshare Museum. During his visit, Mr. Vela spoke to Ms. Mahoney about what happened on the evening of February 21st. Ms. Mahoney's account of the visit is detailed in her complaint, above, highlights her concern that Mr. Vela was attempting to "pressure me to change my story about what happened the day of the council meeting. His comment as he was leaving felt like it was meant to intimidate me." Mr. Vela said he visited the museum because "nobody would tell me anything about the event." He said he hoped "she'd [Ms. Mahoney] be honest with me, in asking her [about the allegations] but I never pressured her. [I only asked] questions about that night. I never pressured her." When he was leaving, Mr. Vela confirmed that he said, "I guess I'd better put some money in here, this Koshare [donation container]. And if I don't, you're going to tell your mother, and she'll never speak to me again. And we walked out. But I was forced to, because nobody would tell me, I was forced to ask somebody who's credible and has warmth with me and straight with me."
Mr. Vela denied that he was trying to influence Ms. Mahoney's recollection of the February 21st incident, “Never, ever. I would not do that. I'm an honest person with integrity and she has to know that."
Submission of formal complaints and April 17, 2023, Council Meeting
On April 3, 2023, Ms. Mahoney submitted her compliant letter' via email to witness 1. She stated in her interview:
I knew I wanted to report what had happened. I knew [Ms. Salazar] had already addressed some things, or wrote about it. I was a bit confused; I didn't quite understand what constituted an investigation or not. I thought he [Mr. Vela] crossed some boundaries, since he was questioning me. I was unsure how to go about that. I spoke with [witness 1], she said if I want to file a complaint, I needed to put it in writing. So I wrote it and maybe turned it in a week after that incident [Mr. Vela's visit to the Koshare museum]. I emailed that letter in.
On April 13, 2021,8 Ms. Salazar sent her complaint letter via email to witness 1, "after thinking about it" a lot. Ms. Salazar said that she was concerned about bringing any undue attention to herself or her family and was hesitant to file a formal complaint.
Mr. Vela intimated during our interview that Ms. Salazar did not write her complaint and, instead, witness 1 did so. Mr. Vela said he was informed by someone that Ms. Salazar called witness 1 directly and verbally told witness 1 the complaint which witness 1 typed and sent to the Mayor: "[witness 1] typed away as supposedly [Ms. Salazar] disclosed to her what the violation was. Okay, and [witness 1] would put that on email and emailed it to the mayor. We don't have that information." Mr. Vela also suggested that because Ms. Salazar and Ms. Mahoney's letters were not signed, they may not be legitimate: "And also, [Mayor Ayala] said when he got his [complaint] letter[s] [from the complainants], he said, I showed it to Rick, and Rick says, is it signed? Rick and [Mayor Ayala] said, no, forget about it. The letters that [Ms. Salazar] and [Ms. Mahoney] introduced as evidence, those are not signed. They're unsigned. Their name is there, but [name redacted] could have been the guy that did that."
Both Ms. Salazar and Ms. Mahoney said that they were not encouraged to send formal complaints to the Council, that they made the decision on their own, and emailed the complaints to witness 1. Email documentation supports their contention.
On April 17, 2023, the La Junta City Council discussed the complaint letters that had been emailed to council members prior to the meeting. In response to the written complaints, Mr. Vela stated: This is a big lie. The purpose of my going back to the, [witness 1]'s office. Well first of all, the mayor invited these kids down here to perform, supposedly. But nobody ever performs here because there's no room. What happened was, they all huddled into [witness 1]'s office, and that's a small space. And there's got to be at least ten people in there, I guess. But they should have gone in the utility board room. And I ask the mayor in the future, please have those people go back to the back. We've got to be responsible, if we're the invitees, if we're the inviters, to these kids to go back there. Why would you have been asked to go back? I'm not taking questions, Elaine, so don't interrupt me. Just keep your mouth shut. I was just confused. [Don't] interrupt me because I didn't interrupt you or anybody else that was speaking.
But what happened was, this box here, it's the same box. It took me 25 seconds to go from my chair here around the corner because this door was locked. Rick was on vacation. Took me 25 seconds to go back there, knock on the door, ask for a Kleenex. Somebody opened the door about that much, the width of a Kleenex box. And that's exactly what happened. The door was open, I asked for a Kleenex, they closed the door. It only opened about the width of this. They opened it and they said okay. I came back and I said it over here. And that's exactly 25 seconds. I did not have time, nor did I have. any interest in seeing dress or undress because that is not what happened.
Because of the medications that I take per day, sometimes I'll have a clear mucus running down my nose and those medications are the result of my military service and I don't have any interest in going to see some kids who just opened the door like that. I mean people are thinking in your mind perhaps, they opened the door wide because everybody was dressed. No that isn't the case. They opened it that wide. I grabbed the Kleenex, came back here and took my meds.
I don't know who those people were, but I am not afraid to tell the truth. That's gospel. Twenty-five seconds from here to [witness 1]'s office and back. That's what I got.
But I always go into Rick's office first to grab the Kleenex because there's never any up here. And if there's not any there, I'll go to [witness 1]'s office. [Witness 1]'s always accommodating to give me that information. Now, when this first came out, Dean, and he took the mayor as a witness back there to the utility room, and they held me in there, and they told me what the complaint was verbally. They didn't have it documented like you folks have it now. And they didn't have it documented, and I told them, well, why don't you hear it my side?
Because I know better than to do things like that what I'm accused of. It's no different than, Paul, when you were in, actively working in the State Patrol, you pull somebody over in your 20 plus years that you've been a State Patrolman, right? You pull somebody over, and I'm sure in those 20 years, the skirts on women that you pull over have gotten higher. The collars on there have gotten lower too. And you could be accused of the same thing. And there was a lady at the, I'm not going to say her name, but there was a lady who was in this room who rubbed her derriere across my back at the St. Patrick's dinner from one side to the other. That's sexual harassment. I didn't do it. That didn't happen. Why wasn't, and I reported that to Dean. And I said, I would reserve right to bring that up too. And I'm bringing that up here. But don't try to pull this slime on me, because I ain't gonna put up with it. I can tell you that much. That's all I have for now.
At the conclusion of the meeting, City Council voted 4-2 with one abstaining vote, to commence an investigation.
Allegations that Mr. Vela threatened Mayor Ayala and intimidated Ms. Salazar and Ms. Mahoney
Before the May 15, 2023, Council meeting, Mr. Vela spoke to the City Attorney and asked that he tell the Mayor to encourage Ms. Salazar "retract" her statement and then allegedly threatened to Mayor Ayala bring out disparaging information about the Mayor if Ms. Salazar did not do so. stated that he was informed by Mr. Malouff that Mr. Vela "wants to work out a deal, he is thinking of taking a leave of absence, if he apologizes can we stop investigation. I said open to hearing it. Let me know. Then I didn't hear anything. [Next] he [Mr. Vela] said "a Leave of Absence is off table. He [Mr. Vela] said he wants [Ms. Salazar] to apologize for misunderstanding him. If she doesn't do it, he [Mr. Vela] will release damning information about you." In his interview, Mr. Vela confirmed that he asked to have Ms. Salazar recant her statement.
Yeah, I suggested that she do it [recant her statement] because ... If I'm here talking to you and somebody walks by there or a car drops by there, I'll go like that [looking out the window watching someone walk by], you know. That's perfectly human interaction. the behavior rather. It's human behavior just to look at that. And that's what I was referencing.
When first asked if he had threatened to extort Mayor Ayala, Mr. Vela did not directly address the question. Instead, he presented a copy of an anonymous letter¹¹ he said he received around April 20, 2023, which said:
Do you really think the City is going to pay $10,000 for an investigation and the outside people will find nothing? They will find you as having acted in an inappropriate manner and you will be forced to become a registered sex offender. That will stick with you for the rest of your life!
RESIGN YOUR POSITION ON COUNCIL NOW!!! GET OUT WHILE YOU CAN!!! [emphasis in original]
Mr. Vela said he believed Mayor Ayala sent the letter to him because "he [Mayor Ayala] uses that kind of language." He went on to say that that the comment in the letter: "that will stick with you the rest of your life and you'll have to be a registered sex offender," is something "he [Mayor Ayala] would say ... and he would also say "resign or your position on counsel."
Mr. Vela referred to a threatening letter Mayor Ayala apparently received and posted on Facebook as the genesis of Mayor Ayala's allegation that Mr. Vela threatened to blackmail him. Mr. Vela denied that he made any threats against Mayor Ayala, but admitted that he said to Mr. Malouff, "I am sure that I did say to him things would not work out very good [if Ms. Salazar did not recant her statement]. Something like that."
On May 15, 2023, during the City Council meeting, Mayor Ayala reported what he heard from the City Attorney about Mr. Vela's request to have Ms. Salazar recant her statement or damaging information would be released about him:
I received a call last Tuesday from Dean saying he needed to talk to me about a proposal from Mr. Vela. And that proposal was, Mrs. Salazar was to recant her story, or there would be damning information released about the mayor from it. And I don't understand that. I'm not involved in this situation at all, other than this report was made to me, okay? I do not have anything to do with what Mr. Vela did. I'm trying to keep myself out of it. That way I can be given the situation to make my decision off of that. I've told Mr. Vela this. He says, you're not talking to me. I told him I talked about anything except for that situation. I'm not gonna be threatened with things that I may or may not have done. I'm an honest man. I'm a family man, and I care about this community. And I run a business. I can't have these kinds of things being put out there like that, okay? I do this because I wanna help La Junta to grow. At one point, I actually supported Mr. Vela to be mayor many years ago, okay? But I'm not gonna be threatened with information being held over me or things like that. That's not how I operate. We're all adults here. And if you're saying that you didn't talk to Mr. Maloff about that, someone's miscommunicating the information.
Mr. Vela responded to Mayor Ayala's statement during the meeting:
Well, your comment that we had discussed the woman who made that accusation against me to recant, no. She just has to understand human behavior, period. And I'm not going to give a whole bunch of information because all of this is still pending. [emphasis added]
And he [City Attorney] never got back to me. That was to understand human behavior. I wanted them to understand human behavior. Her perception of what my activity was during the time I was back there is improper. It's not correct. Because you know yourself, anytime you're here in a conversation with somebody, and somebody walks by, you're distracted like that. But just momentarily, when she took it out of context, apparently, whoops.
On June 26, 2023, Ms. Salazar reached out to ILG about a private investigator ("PI") who approached community members attempting to locate her. Ms. Salazar wanted to know if this individual was working on behalf of the investigation endorsed by City Council. During her phone call on the topic, Ms. Salazar said the PI "went everywhere looking for me. He went to my former employer. A girl there, also named Amy, said [the PI] said, "we need to talk to you about Ed Vela." They said, "you need to answer these questions," she said no I am not Salazar. The same day she sent ILG the picture of the PI's ID.
Mr. Vela confirmed that a PI was hired on his behalf. In his interview he said the PI was hired "just to check the honesty and the decency of all those involved. OK. And the fairness and equity, if there was any. OK." Mr. Vela said he had "no idea" whether or not Ms. Salzar would have felt threatened when the PI was asking about her and asked her to meet with him.
Finally, as Ms. Mahoney described in her complaint letter, she felt intimidated and pressured by Mr. Vela when he visited her place of work and questioned her about the events on February 21, 2023.
Mr. Vela's perspective on why the investigation was launched:
Where appropriate above, Mr. Vela's perspective is incorporated into the narrative. However, during our interview Mr. Vela asserted what he believed was motivating the current investigation. Mr. Vela said that there was a "scheme" against him:
They were blaming me for sales tax failure last year. Okay. And they were hard. They were heavy on that. The administration, meaning the City Manager, Assistant City Manager, and the City Attorney. Those guys are thick as thieves.
Yeah, it was voted on by the people. And I voted to send it forward. I said, well, let's see what the people think. And it failed significantly.
How did that fall on your shoulders?
[They] blame me. They think that I did it because it because it failed and I never advocated for it. I see. A lot of business people didn't like it either. And guess what they did it again this year.
Mr. Vela said nothing was said to him directly in a Council meeting about the failure of the tax proposal, but it was inferred that he was responsible for it.
Analysis and Findings
The following rules, excerpted in relevant part, guided my interpretation of these facts:
Mr. Malouf sent City Council members Chapter 6 "Ethical Conduct in Local Government," By Robert Widner, Widner Juran LLP, in the packet announcing the investigation into the allegations against Mr. Vela. In the introductory paragraph, Mr. Widner writes: "Citizens have a right to expect ethical behavior from local government officials. In the municipal context, "ethical behavior" generally means the conduct of public business in a manner that will preserve or restore the public's trust in government"
Further the Colorado Constitution provides a second standard that is relevant here, particularly given that the Council has cited to this precise constitutional section regarding it's authorities:
Colorado Constitution Article XXIX Ethics I Government, which states in relevant part:
A. The people of the state of Colorado hereby find and declare that:
a. The conduct of public officers, members of the general assembly, local government officials, and government employees must hold the respect and confidence of the people;
b. They shall carry out their duties for the benefit of the people of the state;
c. They shall, therefore, avoid conduct that is in violation of their public trust or that creates a justifiable impression among members of the public that such trust is being violated.
(1) Investigation Finding: Did Mr. Vela intentionally look into the office where girls were changing clothes? Substantiated.
The data that tends to support the allegation that Mr. Vela intentionally looked into the office after he learned there were girls changing is more compelling for a few reasons: 1) Complainants and supporting witnesses have been consistent and credible in their account of events; 2) Mr. Vela's response to the allegations and statements in his interview are deflective and essentially corroborate the allegations; and Mr. Vela's allegation that the investigation is a "scheme" to punish him is not credible.
First, Ms. Salazar, Ms. Mahoney, witness 1 and witness 2 all provide consistent and credible accounts of what happened on the evening of February 21st. Both Ms. Salazar and Ms. Mahoney were in the office where the girls were changing and saw Mr. Vela peer into the office when Ms. Salazar opened the door. All of these people and Mr. Vela recall Ms. Salazar informing him that girls were changing in the room. It could be understandable that Mr. Vela would inadvertently look into the room when the door was first opened, but once he was informed the girls were changing clothes, his gaze should have shifted. More appropriate still, he should have left and found a tissue elsewhere. Instead, Ms. Salazar, Ms. Mahoney, witness 1 and even Mr. Vela provided statements that support a conclusion that he intentionally continued to look into the office. Mr. Vela's description of the clothing one dancer was wearing including the crown on her head, is further evidence in support of Ms. Salazar's allegation.
Next, Mr. Vela never denied that he looked into the office, instead he gave reasons why his behavior should have been excused. During the Council meeting on April 17th he said women's "skirts... have gotten higher and... collars have gotten lower" seemingly as evidence that he could not be held accountable for the "human behavior" of looking in the office. Mr. Vela's perspective here is flawed as it places the blame on the other parties, namely Ms. Salazar, Ms. Mahoney, and the girls in the office.
Furthermore, during the May 15th Council meeting when Mr. Vela addressed his demand that Ms. Salazar recant her complaint, he did not deny looking into the office. Instead, he said that Ms. Salazar just "has to understand human behavior," which he echoed during his interview for this investigation. The scientific debate about whether or not Mr. Vela's behavior on February 21st is part of the human condition has no place in this report. The question to be answered here is if his conduct upheld the ethical standards of an elected official and whether or not public trust was violated.
Finally, Mr. Vela's contention that this investigation, approved by Council, was a "scheme" against him because of the failed tax proposal does not hold water. In his interview he alleged that the City Attorney, City Manager and Assistant City Manager were "thick as thieves" against him, yet none of those individuals had a vote as to whether or not this investigation was approved and there was no evidence uncovered in the investigation that supported Mr. Vela's allegation. Instead, this appeared to be an attempt to deflect responsibility for his actions and place blame elsewhere.
Mr. Vela's actions on February 21st and his statements and actions after that contrast with the ethical standards under the Colorado Constitution that directs public officials to "avoid conduct that is in violation of their public trust or that creates a justifiable impression among members of the public that such trust is being violated." Ms. Salazar and Ms. Mahoney, both members of the public, clearly state that Mr. Vela's conduct violated their trust in an elected official and the evidence collected in this investigation supports the allegations.
For these reasons, using the preponderance of the evidence standard, I am substantiating that Mr. Vela more likely than not intentionally looked into the office after being informed that girls were changing clothes.
(2) Investigation Finding: Did Mr. Vela attempt to influence the investigation, intimidate witnesses or otherwise interfere with the investigation? Substantiated.
The data collected in the investigation tends to support the allegation that Mr. Vela's attempted to influence witnesses, the complainants and public officials through intimidation and threats and may have caused a chilling effect on participation in the investigation. The most compelling data that supports this allegation is Ms. Mahoney's account of Mr. Vela's visit to her place of work and his engagement of a Private Investigator who sought out Ms. Salazar.
Ms. Mahoney recounts in her complaint letter that Mr. Vela's line of questioning while at her place of work made her feel "uncomfortable" and "like he was trying to press me to change my story about what happened the day of the council meeting. His comment as he was leaving felt like it was meant to intimidate me." Mr. Vela's explanation for visiting Ms. Mahoney was not credible or supported by other witnesses. He said that he knew "nothing" about the complaints made by the "parent," so he went to the Koshare Museum to find out more about the complaint lodged against him. However, Ms. Mahoney's account of what was said and other witnesses statements about what Mr. Vela had been told about the account do not support his explanation for the visit.
As an initial point, Mayor Ayala said that Mr. Malouff told Mr. Vela "basically everything" that was ultimately in Ms. Salazar's complaint letter, including "the door jiggling, and you [Mr. Vela] didn't avert your eyes." Mr. Vela's statement during the April 17th Council meeting supports Mayor Ayala's account of that meeting: "when this [the concern about February 21st] first came out, Dean, and he took the Mayor as a witness back there to the utility room, and they held me in there, and they told me what the complaint was verbally." [emphasis added] For Mr. Vela to contend that he visited the Koshare museum to hear about the complaint is refuted by his own public statement on the matter.
The engagement of a Private Investigator is further evidence that he attempted to influence the investigation and intimidate witnesses. While he asserts that he did so to determine the "honesty and the decency of all those involved," the impact of having a PI asking questions about someone in the community, especially a small town like La Junta, understandably concerned Ms. Salazar. As stated above, Ms. Salazar was already hesitant to bring forward the concern as she did not want undue attention on herself or her family. Having a PI asking about her and seeking her out was known in the community and brought additional attention to her and the situation At the same time, this put other community members on notice that Mr. Vela was willing to go to extreme measures in the investigation.
Finally, it is disputed what was actually said by Mr. Vela about Mayor Ayala and whether or not he threatened to blackmail him. However, in his interview Mr. Vela admitted to telling the City Attorney that he wanted Ms. Salazar to recant her statement or things may "not work out good" for the Mayor.
The totality of the evidence supports a finding that Mr. Vela attempted to influence complainants and City officials with intimidation tactics and threats before and during the course of the investigation. These tactics could have had a chilling effect on participation of the complainants and other witnesses. For these reasons, I am substantiating this allegation.
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