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Wednesday, July 17, 2024 | Back issues
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Whistle-Blower Sues Idaho Sheriff

POCATELLO, Idaho (CN) - A woman was driven from her job for reporting a sheriff's misuse of public funds, including spending it on lunch at Hooters and to pay for his wife's cell phone, the former clerk claims in court.

Andrea M. Lee sued Jefferson County, its Sheriff's Department, and Sheriff Blair Olsen, in Federal Court. Jefferson County, whose seat is Rigby, is northeast of Idaho Falls.

Lee began working as a driver's license clerk for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department in 1993. She became the driver's license supervisor in 1997 and was given additional responsibility as the sheriff's department bookkeeper in 2005.

She first saw warning signs relating to Sheriff Blair Olsen's character beginning in 2007 when he issued a memorandum requiring "certain female employees to wear a 'skirt' to work, one day a week," according to the complaint. "This policy did not apply to all of the women in the office, nor was there a corresponding policy relating to male employees," she adds.

Lee said she was one of the women singled out and became the object of "ogling" and "inappropriate comments" by Olsen and other male employees.

In December 2011, Lee claims, she discovered Olsen was misusing public funds.

"It came to Ms. Lee's attention that Sheriff Olsen had issued a cellular phone to his wife, in Ms. Lee's name," the complaint states. "Ms. Lee has reviewed cellular phone bills dating back to at least 2004 indicating that Mrs. Olsen had been using a county cellular phone for at least eight years."

Lee claims the county never gave her a cell phone and that the issue was investigated by a local newspaper, the Jefferson Star. The newspaper asked her if she had ever been issued a cell phone by the county and she said "truthfully" that it had not.

"Sheriff Olsen retaliated by ordering her to sign an 'Acknowledgment of Receipt of Jefferson County Sheriff's Office News Media Relations Policy' adopted July 30, 2012," according to the complaint.

Lee initially refused to sign the new policy, but continued harassment "and fear of losing her job" forced her to do so, she says.

Lee claims the cell phone ordeal was not the sheriff's only misuse of county funds. She says Olsen used a public gasoline card for his personal use, on one occasion using it to gas up his tractor. She claims Olsen used a department vehicle, but submitted mileage/fuel reimbursement requests as if he had been using his personal vehicle. He and his deputies also used public money to buy meals at restaurants such as Hooters, Stockman's, Jakers and New Star, according to the complaint.

Waitresses at Hooters are attractive young women called "Hooter Girls," whose revealing outfits aim to pull men to the restaurant.

Lee claims Olsen also used public money to pay for his membership in the National Rifle Association and used jail funds to pay for a Christmas party that served alcohol.

And she says she suspects Olsen may have been maintaining "an improper secret account of funds received from undercover narcotics investigations."

"After the discovery of the illicit issuance of the cellular phone, and after Ms. Lee began expressing concerns about Sheriff Olsen's misuse of public funds and unequal treatment of employees, Sheriff Olsen began to illegally retaliate against Ms. Lee," the complaint states.

Lee says Olsen stripped her of duties and responsibilities, barred her from helping commissioners with the county budget, circumvented her authority over her employees, attempted to take away her comp time and created a stressful and hostile working environment.

"Ms. Lee attempted on numerous occasions to communicate with Sheriff Olsen regarding her bookkeeping duties, Sheriff Olsen refusing to respond or communicate with her," according to the complaint. "Sheriff Olsen's failure to communicate directly resulted in a "NSF' check issued by the county for $17,000. Because Ms. Lee was the bookkeeper, this reflected poorly on her."

As a result, she says, Olsen threatened to install a video camera in her office.

She tried to explain the situation and the reason for Olsen's retaliation to the defendant County Commission, but they did not respond, leaving her with no choice but to resign, Lee says.

"Because the commissioners failed to act on Ms. Lee's behalf and due to Sheriff Olsen's continued hostile and retaliatory behavior, Ms. Lee was forced to resign on Dec. 31, 2012. This constituted a constructive discharge of Ms. Lee's Employment."

She seeks compensatory and punitive damages for wrongful discharge, violation of the Public Employee Protection Act, and the state and federal constitutions.

She is represented by Kevin Dinius, of Nampa.

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