Sunday, March 2, 2014

Questions About a Surprising Hire by the County Sheriff

Dona Aňa County Sheriff Todd Garrison must figure no one cares what he does, since he's near the end of his term, but hiring an apparent con man as Chief of Staff seems a little much. 
 It's also spectacularly unpopular within DASO.

First Garrison forced officers to attend “training sessions” run by one Rick Seeberger. 

Officers complained that Seeberger's training included religion, which would be improper at a mandatory gathering of public employees. (HR Director Deborah Weir denied the complaints, reportedly ruling that (1) Garrison did tell people they'd get fired if they didn't attend, but wouldn't really have fired anyone and (2) The inspirational talks featured Jesus, but in a historical sense, not a religious sense. 
Background research quickly triggers an avalanche of embarrassing details about Seeberger.

Possibly Garrison thought Seeberger's leadership was exemplified by the string of bankruptcies, complaints, lawsuits, broken friendships, and contempt of court orders Seeberger has left trailing behind him like muddy footprints.

Public records show he's created at least ten companies, most “not in good standing” or bankrupt. Seeberger filed for personal bankruptcy in 1985 and in 2006 – and people who know him say he may well do so again fairly soon. One of his corporations has filed for bankruptcy three times – each time shortly after a judge issued an order against Seeberger . 
According to a May1985 story in the Los Angeles Times, a PTA Fundraiser involved first-graders selling chocolate Santas and such for a company called “Community Fundraisers, Inc.” The kids brought in more than $17,000 in less than three weeks. CFI never paid the school a nickel.

“I think it's terrible that anyone could do this to the school and children,” said one parent. 
CFI did provide an unsigned check that wasn't any good, and a worthless promissory note. The company also offered the “incredulous” PTA officials another fundraiser in which CFI would donate its share of the profits.

Rick Seeberger was the contact with the school; he was the CEO, CFO, and director of CFI. CFI was his California corporation. Nevertheless, Seeberger reportedly told the PTA he'd left the company because it couldn't pay his salary, causing him to file personal bankruptcy. 
This is the man Garrison brought in (we paid) to teach leadership to (and reportedly pray with) DASO officers. Then the Sheriff created a new and unnecessary position, chief of staff, for Seeberger. With our tax dollars. (Garrison tried to give the guy $70,000 per year, but settled for close to $60,000.)

Seeberger runs numerous enterprises out of his home. One lawsuit involves three different entities which the court says “conduct businesses out of the home of Rick Seeberger.” Another, his ORSA Institute, LLC has declared bankruptcy – or tried to. He also has Businesses for Christ International, Inc., Community Fundraisers, Inc., the 20-20 Leadership Foundation, Rjs & Associates, Bfc International, Inc., and BFCI Learning Systems, Ltd. 20-20 Leadership filed for bankruptcy in Texas, then withdrew the filing when the bankruptcy judge made an order Seeberger didn't like; then Seeberger filed bankruptcy for 20-20 in New Mexico, but the court wouldn't have it. Near as I can tell, 20-20 has filed bankruptcy three times. Most recently, Mr. Seeberger created BASF (Build A Strong Future) in Irving, TX.

You gotta wonder why one man needs quite so many corporations. 

Why would we hire as DASO “Chief of Staff” a fellow with little or no relevant experience and this appalling trail of inactive corporations, bankruptcies, and fraud allegations? Garrison reportedly announced that no one would report directly to Seeberger, then published a flow chart that seems to have everyone reporting to one captain who reports to Seeberger, who reports only to Garrison.

Seeberger has a high-school diploma and attended Arizona State University for six months. He's talked his way into a host of business deals and training gigs, but so far I haven't found a deal that didn't go sour or a business partner who'll describe him in words we can print. He has several lawsuits going. That alone ought to have sparked concern. 
Instead, Seeberger (now a county employee) is reportedly selling the county “EduKits” at $29.95 a throw, and is publishing plans for the county to endorse him as a consultant to sheriffs' departments around the country. 
I tried to ask Garrison about this. He delegated Undersheriff Eddie Lerma to call me back; but Lerma, who hadn't been involved in the decisions I questioned, didn't really have a lot of answers. (I hope to speak with Sheriff Garrison soon.)

You gotta wonder at Seeberger's eloquence and articulateness; but even so, you gotta wonder how nobody at the county questioned the guy's background. 
And you gotta wonder whether Todd Garrison could look those L.A. schoolkids and parents in the eye and explain this move to them.

[Note: this is the first of two columns that will deal with this situation. The second will explain why what's going on may be significantly worse than this column makes it seem.]

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 2 March.  It represents my opinions, and not necessarily those of the Sun-NewsI'm continuing to investigate the subject.  The column and the further comments below represent my opinion at this point.]

As the column notes, I had tried for days to reach Sheriff Garrison.  (I absolutely do not mean to imply that he was ducking me.  After I'd sent in the finished column, he reached out to me and spent well over an hour with me on Friday, probably closer to two, and had Mr. Seeberger with us.) 
Had we met earlier, how would the column be different?   I would certainly have included some of the things Garrison and Seeberger said in response to my questions, and I'll try to summarize some of that below.  Mr. Seeberger corrected or tried to explain several facts, many of them minor:
-- that BASF was technically started by his wife, not by him;
--that he was working only a 30-hour week (and thus receiving a pro-rated part of the "close to $60,000 I'd been told);
-- that a Jerry Thiesen (or the failure of a company Thiesen and Seeberger had invested in) was really ultimately at fault for the failure to pay the L.A. grade-school PTA;
-- that a Ronald Woods was really responsible for the ORSA bankruptcy, because (according to Mr. Seeberger) Woods owed ORSA $150,000 and decided not to pay it;
-- that the three times 20-20 declared bankruptcy then withdrew the filing were each connected to settlement discussions; and
-- that the $200,000 judgment against his companies in one case had actually been stipulated to or agreed to.

But he didn't really dispute the major points.  Some of his corrections he seemed to contradict moments later.  For example, when I referred to Orsa as his corporation (or LLC), he quickly stated, "I'm a member of Orsa"; but moments later, when he stated that "we" decided to put the company into bankruptcy and I asked who the "we" was, he replied, "My wife and I."  That seemed to evidence the kind of control that I'd thought he had, and that the "member" reference appeared designed to contradict. 

Has the basic opinion expressed in my column changed?  Not yet.  Mr. Seeberger still has a record that would not encourage me to hire him; each incident may be explainable, but I think I'd have pressed harder than Sheriff Garrison did to hear those explanations, and then I'd have investigated them.   It's clear that corporations controlled largely or wholly by the Seebergers left a lot of people short a lot of money; it's clear that at least some of those situations have resulted in judgments against his companies, while I know from my own research that other people express deep fear of him.

I think Sheriff Garrison and Mr. Seeberger underestimate the negative feelings Seeberger's appointment has caused within the DASO, where morale may have tanked; and Mr. Garrison's passionate defense of the hiring, which I think was sincere, hasn't yet persuaded me.

Interestingly, although Seeberger appeared to suggest that blame for several incidents really belonged elsewhere, he conceded that aspects of his record looked bad; but he also said he and his wife had written a book in 2012 that 'fessed up to some mistakes and problems but showed how he had learned from those mistakes and was a better teacher of leadership because of what he'd learned from mistakes.  He also said he'd fully disclosed everything to Sheriff Garrison.  He promised to provide me a copy of the book, and I promised to read it.

The two men estimated that we had spent $28,000 on Mr. Seeberger's training and planning efforts prior to the hiring of him as Chief of Staff.  The contract was with his wife's new company, BASF.   At least some who attended the training session were very unimpressed.

Regarding formal complaints that he'd mixed religion in his lectures (improperly at an event that was mandatory for DASO public officers, Seeberger declined to offer his side of the facts.  He denied he'd done anything improper.  He said an independent private investigating firm had decided he hadn't done anything improper.  (I'd thought County HR Director Deborah Weir had made the decision, and I still think so, but I haven't seen it.)  I'd run across Ms. Weir in watching the Granados trial, and told Mr. Seeberger that I didn't assume her decision was correct -- just as he doesn't agree with judge's adverse decisions in legal cases -- and would like his account of the actual facts, such as whether and how he mentioned Jesus in his training and whether or not there were religious books in the back of the room or quotes from Jesus on the wall.  He said he'd been cleared by an investigator and he wouldn't talk about it.

(I should note that I have nothing against the words of Jesus.  They're great!  I think highly of most or all of them.  I just don't think a mandatory county event can properly preach any religion, and I've been told that the training sessions violated DASO policies.)

Garrison's defense of the hiring is summarized well in James Staley's Saturday morning article in the Las Cruces Sun-News.   I still have questions, and so should county commissioners.  Garrison says the DASO officers are great at law enforcement and perform well, and that there are no real problems; but they don't always fill out forms as well as they might or communicate as well as they might, or they're not well-trained as leaders, and sometimes they're not unified in their approach to something, and sometimes one of them asks Garrison a question, then another does, and it would be more efficient to answer the question only once.  Garrison says Seeberger will remedy these problems, facilitate communications in DASO meetings, and facilitate communications with other county departments.  Although Sheriff Garrison seemed very sincere and passionate, I'm not yet seeing these problems as justifying the expense here.  I'd also opine, based on the record, that the County will ultimately regret working with Mr. Seeberger.  
But I look forward to reading his book.

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