After eight months of rumors and allegations, the Payson Town Council Thursday unanimously upheld the demotion of Lt. Donald Garvin down to sergeant.
Police Chief Don Engler had imposed the demotion after concluding that Garvin had exercised poor judgment and bad leadership as a result of his brief affair with the wife of a top Department of Public Safety officer and his exchange of sexually explicit messages with a woman applying for a job as an officer.
An independent hearing officer had supported those allegations, but dismissed other claims of misbehavior regarding Garvin’s off-duty encounters in local bars and his alleged use of a town cell phone to exchange sexually explicit messages.
The demotion reduces Garvin’s pay by about $9,000 a year and makes him sergeant instead of the department’s second in command.
Garvin appealed his demotion, saying that he had done nothing to damage the department as a result of his off-duty actions and relationships.
On Thursday, his attorney, Martin Bihn, pleaded with the town council to reinstate Garvin, a 20-year veteran of the force.
“This is not a clear-cut case with overwhelming evidence,” said Bihn. “The hearing officer made a mistake. They haven’t proven their case.”
Bihn insisted the town had not followed its own procedures properly, included many false allegations, and demoted Garvin for things that had nothing to do with his job performance.
“Good luck hiring police officers if this is the standard,” standard,” said Bihn of the investigation into the unmarried Garvin’s sexual and personal relationships.
However, Attorney Kim Alvarado, representing the Town of Payson, said Garvin repeatedly misled Engler and ignored the chief’s official and unofficial warnings to avoid certain off-duty behaviors — including an explicit warning to not have an affair with the wife of a DPS officer.
“We’re not here to run Mr. Garvin through the mud,” said Alvarado. The case turns on a series of actions by Garvin starting in 2009 “that eroded the chief’s trust in him,” due to Garvin’s “lies of omission” to the chief.
The independent hearing officer spent several days calling witnesses to sort through a welter of allegations and incidents described in 100 pages of interviews and reports on which Engler based the demotion.
The findings of the hearing officer included:
• Finding One: The “uncontested evidence and Garvin’s admission of an extramarital affair with the wife of a DPS officer,” constituted a violation of the town’s personnel policy concerning “ethical standards for town employees.”
• Finding Two: Garvin’s relationship with a woman while she was an applicant and being considered for either a police officer position or a dispatcher position combined with Garvin’s capacity as a decision maker in that hiring process violated the personnel manual’s ethical standards section as well as several Payson Police Department policies.
The hearing officer dismissed as not conclusively proven or not in violation of explicit town policies a long list of other allegations included in Engler’s own summary of the basis for Garvin’s demotion.
That included several incidents involving the exchange of sexually explicit messages and the disputed receipt of the partially nude photos of several women on a cell phone for which the town paid a portion of the bill. Although the investigation of those allegations included contradictory accounts of whether the “sexting” included nude photos and took place during work hours, the hearing officer concluded that the claims were not proven by “a preponderance of evidence” and that the town had no clear policy on the personal use of cell phones for which the town paid a portion of the monthly bill.
Garvin’s attorney disputed the allegations. He said that Garvin started the affair with the wife of a DPS officer after she had separated from her husband because she said she intended to divorce him. The woman’s husband at that time had a girlfriend of his own, said the attorney. Garvin and the woman were together sexually twice, by which time Garvin concluded she wasn’t going to go through with the divorce. After that, he broke off the affair.
Garvin admitted that he lied to the woman’s husband when the DPS officer came to his home to confront him about the affair. The officer had apparently conducted his own investigation and later told Engler he had video tape from the casino and phone records to prove the affair had taken place.
Alvarado countered that Garvin had assured Engler that he and the woman were “just friends” and did not tell Engler when the relationship changed, thereby telling a “lie of omission” and damaging the department’s relationship with DPS and the Gila County Attorney’s office, since the woman’s father-in-law was a top investigator for the county attorney.
Bihn also disputed the allegations concerning Garvin’s relationship with the woman who was applying for a job with the department.
The hearing officer concluded Garvin had violated town policy and ethical codes by developing a relationship with a woman applying for a job as a police officer, since he would play a role in any hiring decisions. However, Bihn said that the woman told Garvin she’d withdrawn her application before he started seeing her. Bihn said the “relationship” consisted of two times when they’d watched a movie together at his home and a number of phone calls and text messages.
In interviews, the woman told Engler that she had “sexted” Garvin with sexually explicit messages and that she’d given him sexually revealing photos of herself, which didn’t expose any “private parts.”
She said that she never felt pressured and didn’t feel that Garvin had ever taken advantage of his position and that the relationship was entirely voluntary on her part.
The council meeting discussion Thursday centered on the complications spurred by the woman’s withdrawal of her application and her resubmission of that application several weeks later. Garvin said that his relationship with the woman took place entirely within that interval, but the personnel file had no date stamps for the withdrawal to determine whether she was actually applying for a job at the time of her relationship with Garvin.
Alvarado said it came down to the way in which Garvin’s actions and his lack of candor, despite many warnings by Engler, had fatally damaged the chief’s trust in him and Garvin’s leadership position in the department.
“The chief has not sought to ruin Mr. Garvin’s law enforcement career,” said Alvarado, “but this clearly is not the person he wants to be in the number two spot in the department.
In the end, the council backed the chief and voted unanimously to uphold the demotion and accept the hearing officer’s recommendation.
After the meeting, Bihn said he would have to review the record to determine whether Garvin has a basis for an appeal based on the town’s failure to follow some key rules in the disciplinary process.