The Rock County Board should censure Sheriff Robert Spoden for interfering in a police investigation and for his failure to acknowledge using poor judgement.
If Spoden had shown regret and explained how he should have conducted himself differently, the case for censuring him would be weaker. But as it stands, Spoden claims he did nothing wrong in trying to derail an investigation into an August underage drinking party that his son attended.
We still might know nothing of Spoden’s conduct if not for District Attorney David O’Leary, who did the right thing by forwarding his concerns to the state Department of Justice, which found no criminal wrongdoing because Spoden didn’t have authority over the Janesville Police Department.
But documents from the state Division of Criminal Investigation reveal Spoden acted unethically and flirted with abuse of power. A Janesville police officer investigating the case reported Spoden “suggested I excuse myself from the case because of the prominent people involved and the problems it could cause for me and my family.” Furthermore, Spoden reiterated his position in speaking with Police Chief Dave Moore, telling Moore “all of the kids involved come from good families and there was no need for an investigation.” Spoden’s apparent obliviousness to the seriousness of his meddling is nearly as disturbing as the meddling itself.
That Spoden, 54, has otherwise excelled at his post since his election in 2007 has little bearing on the censure question because of the severity of Spoden’s conduct, which—it’s worth repeating—he has defended. His failure to admit mistakes leaves one to wonder whether Spoden is fit to navigate through other ethical dilemmas, particularly those involving conflicts of interest.
Nobody’s perfect, and Spoden’s attempt to influence the investigation was understandable, if still unfortunate, from the perspective of a parent seeking to protect his child from unpleasantness. But a competent leader cannot allow his emotions to create a problem even larger than the one he wanted to avoid.
Spoden’s view of his actions as ethical reveals a blind spot in his leadership: He thought his status as sheriff justified him trying to influence the police investigation when, in fact, the opposite was true.
No government body should take lightly a censure resolution, even though censure is largely a symbolic action. We encourage board members to openly discuss their feelings on this situation and to not rush the process or keep it from public view.
Board member Rick Richard said he introduced the resolution after a constituent asked him about the county taking action against Spoden, but we’d be shocked if this constituent is alone in his or her concerns.
The voters will ultimately decide Spoden’s fate in the 2018 election, assuming Spoden decides to run. But that doesn’t mean the county board should wait for the election to serve as a referendum on Spoden’s behavior. The board, after all, allocates money to the sheriff’s office and has a stake in how the sheriff conducts himself.
When an elected official such as Spoken violates the public trust and then fails to realize it, a governing body shouldn’t sit silently and wait for others to speak up. It arguably has an ethical obligation to take action and censure that official.