EL PASO, Texas - The Dona Ana County Sheriff has come under scrutiny for hiring a controversial chief of staff.
"My job is to run the sheriffs office the best way I think I need to and that's what I'm trying to do," said Sheriff Todd Garrison in a recent interview.
Garrison said he's trying to leave the department in better shape than he found it and properly train future supervisors. That's why the Sheriff said he created a chief of staff position, hiring Rick Seeberger.
The sheriff didn't post the temporary position or interview anyone else for the job. County temporary positions do not require posting. "The position that is a temporary county position doesn't have to be posted. I chose the best person who could help us with that," said Garrison.
Garrison and Seeberger met at a border training conference a few years ago. ABC-7 confirmed Seeberger provided leadership training at the local D.E.A. office two years ago plus continued supervisor training with City of El Paso. In Las Cruces, he's come under fire.
Las Cruces Sun-News columnist Peter Goodman has written columns questioning Seeberger's position, in part because Seeberger has no law enforcement experience or a degree. "If I run into a sheriff's person in uniform or out - all kinds of people from the department will sudden be next to me and say thank you for shedding some light on this," Goodman said.
"I don't think that a college experience by itself qualifies someone. I have over twenty years of experience in the kind of work that I've done," said Seeberger in a recent interview.
Goodman has also questioned Seeberger for lawsuits and two bankruptcies.
"Anyone can sue you for anything, because someone sues you for something or someone alleges something does not make it true," said Seeberger.
Seeberger admits he's currently tangled in five separate financial lawsuits.
According to a Los Angeles Times article, Seeberger, in the mid 80's owned a company that managed a school fundraiser. Hundreds of children went door to door selling products to raise money for school supplies. According to the article, the children's parents and school accused Seeberger's company of not paying the children any of the $17,000 they earned.
"The last thing I'd ever do is take a dime for a school," said Seeberger.
Seeberger blames the incident on merging his company with another one that imploded and wrote bad checks. Though he was the president of the company, he said he was not paid by his then partner and went personally bankrupt.
"We didn't have any money. We had two small children and my wife was literally going thought my coat pockets trying to find milk for our children - that's how desperate the situation was for us. Do I feel bad? Absolutely. Those things happen and we tried to do everything we can to rectify that situation - it was just not possible."
When asked if he resents the characterization by recent articles of him as a shady corporate con, he said he'd have to be numb not to let if affect him. "Do I like it? Of course not. Is that who I am? No that's not who I am."
ABC-7 asked Sheriff Garrison if Seeberger's checkered legal past raised any eyebrows. "All I can say is that everything Mr. Seeberger has said he'd do for us he's done. I got the service that I asked for and I've had no problems."
About two dozen Dona Ana County Sheriff's employees have approached ABC-7 with concerns about Seeberger but not one has been willing to speak on the record. Goodman said he's had the same experience. "People seem to be extremely concerned about retaliation. They certainly seen to perceive Mr. Seeberger as the kind of person you don't want to mess with, you don't want to cross. I don't think it's normal to leave a lot of people in your trail who feel that way."
Garrison said he has not forbidden anyone from speaking out on the issue or threatened retaliation in any way. "Retaliation is illegal. That is something the county manager doesn't put up with."
Seeberger and the Sheriff said the resistance stems from their efforts to change the culture at the Sheriff's Department, including redefining the the roles and responsibilities of every single position and increasing accountability. With growth, comes growing pains, they said.
"I'm not trying to not be liked but my job is to help the department go through this process of change. Who I am is someone who really cares and wants to make a difference," said Seeberger.
He and the Sheriff also blame the backlash on politics, though Garrison can't run for Sheriff again and Seeberger's position will end when the sheriff finishes his term at the end of the year.
KVIA sued Seeberger's wife, Susan, and her business, "Build a Strong Future" for unpaid advertising. She countersued KVIA for breach of contract. Rick Seeberger is not named in the suit but he has acted as a representative of "Build a Strong Future."