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Possible ethics violations stopped sheriff’s deputy ski patrol at Purgatory Resort

La Plata County canceled program over gift clause in Colorado Amendment 41
A skier makes some powder turns at Purgatory Resort in December. (Courtesy of Christian Ridings/Purgatory Resort)

For more than 15 years, deputies with La Plata County Sheriff’s Office could be seen making turns on the slopes at Purgatory Resort.

They wore jackets with a badge sewn to the front and “Sheriff” emblazoned on the back. During the early years, they had red vests that said “Ski deputy.”

Deputies usually made small talk with guests, but on rare occasions would be seen speaking with Purgatory staff members about a “theft of service” – e.g. a stolen or borrowed pass – or some other petty offense, said Sheriff’s Office spokesman Chris Burke, who participated in the program.

“It was good community relations, and I think it was a win-win,” he said. “... The interactions were positive, and hopefully we can implement the program again.”

The program began in 2002 but ended in 2019 after the county attorney’s office raised concerns about a potential ethics violation.

Specifically, county attorneys were concerned the Sheriff’s Office was accepting free gifts – in this case free season passes in exchange for patrols. That could violate Section 3 of Colorado Amendment 41, which prohibits public officials, politicians and government employees from accepting gifts, money, favors or other items valued at $50 or more without a lawful and equivalent exchange of value.

To be fair, the Sheriff’s Office provided a service in exchange for the passes, Burke said. Purgatory required deputies to complete eight seven-hour shifts per season. The Sheriff’s Office calculates the cost of extra patrol services at $65 an hour, he said.

Sheryl Rogers, county attorney, declined to discuss the situation, citing attorney-client privilege. She referred The Durango Herald to Section 3 of Colorado Amendment 41.

Rogers also pointed to Colorado Revised Statutes Title 24, which reiterates that public and government officials and employees cannot accept gifts of “substantial value” or benefits “tantamount to gifts of substantial value.”

Burke said when the county attorney’s office brought concerns forward about a possible ethics violation, Purgatory Resort reached out to the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission, the agency that addresses matters regarding Amendment 41.

Dave Rathbun, general manager at Purgatory Resort, did not respond to a request for comment.

“Hopefully, Purgatory has heard from the ethics commission and we can reimplement the program,” Burke said.

The deputy ski program was organized by Purgatory Resort and longtime Deputy Hollis Holland, who died in 2012 from a heart attack while snowmobiling southeast of Molas Pass.

When the program first started, about 10 deputies participated, Burke said. But interest waned slightly over the years, he said.

“We’ve had up to nine or 10 deputies involved in the program,” he said. “... The deputy would work and would receive a season pass for that.”

La Plata County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Rob McLaughlin drives to Purgatory Resort for a call in 2016. He typically responded twice a month to assist in patrols or act as a ski deputy. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Burke said having deputies on the slopes sometimes prevented other deputies from having to respond to the ski resort, which removed them from their regular patrols.

For the most part, deputies were able to enjoy the ski day. They performed law enforcement duties only when called upon, Burke said. They weren’t there to patrol for out-of-control skiers or people using illicit substances on the chairlift, he said.

“That was more mountain safety that would do that. People skiing out of bounds, people that were skiing reckless – that was all mountain safety. ... We’re not blowing the whistle for somebody jumping a head wall or something like that,” he said.

If someone were using marijuana on the chairlift, the incident would be referred to the U.S. Forest Service, which also had a deputy ski program, Burke said.

Other ski resorts such as Vail and Beaver Creek have similar mountain patrol programs involving law enforcement, Burke said.

“We’re basically backup and safety ambassadors,” he said.

He said the Sheriff’s Office hopes to reimplement the deputy ski patrol program without violating Colorado Amendment 41. COVID-19 has complicated efforts to restructure or reassess the program, Burke said.

Ideally, the Sheriff’s Office would like to have one deputy at the resort every day during the winter season, he said.

“The program was something that we always looked forward to when winter came around, and I’m hopeful that we can do it again once things get back to what we called normal,” he said.

cburney@durangoherald.com

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