COLORADO SPRINGS — Our News 5 team first uncovered possible nepotism at the El Paso County Sheriff's Office in a report that aired earlier this month.
We obtained records showing the office had bought K-9 food from the chief of staff's private business---which appears to be in violation of county policy under page 30 of the policy manual.
Now, the chief of staff's husband is firing back---claiming our report led the El Paso County Sheriff's Office to cut ties with their business.
His wife, Janet, remains employed at the Sheriff's Office as the Chief of Staff.
In November 2020, the Huffors took ownership of Furry Friends, a pet store in Colorado Springs. Shortly after, we received a news tip that the sheriff's office stopped purchasing dog food from Big R and started purchasing dog food from the Huffors.
"I reached out to the supervisor of the K-9 unit and I said what kind of food do you feed (the k-9's) and he told me," Huffor explained. "I said what do you pay for it and he tells me. I said I'll match it and give you a discount."
However, receipts provided by the county using the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) show Huffor's invoice was higher than the previous three invoices for dog food purchased from Big R in 2020.
In May 2020, Big R billed the sheriff's office $359.92 for 8 bags of Victor High Pro + dog food.
Invoices from Big R for July and September 2020 show the same amount of dog food purchased, this time at a reduced rate of $351.92.
Then in November 2020, the Sheriff's Office purchased the same amount of dog food from Huffor's business---this time paying just under $380.
Huffor doesn't dispute the invoices we showed him related to the costs, but he says there's more to the story.
"If you would have dug and done a little more research you would have understood that Big R's prices went up just like ours go up and down," Huffor said. "You would have seen that their quote is more than what I charged."
Huffor told us that we should ask for the K-9 dog food "quotes" to verify his story.
"You'll see that I saved them (EPSO and taxpayers) money," Huffor said.
There's just one problem: No quotes exist.
We asked both the county procurement office and El Paso County Sheriff's Office for any quotes, commonly known as a request for proposal (RFP) for K-9 dog food.
"We found no records responsive to your request," Mike Madsen with the county's Public Information Office said.
Jacqueline Reed, the media relations manager for the El Paso County Sheriff's Office sent News 5 a similar response.
"There are no Requests for Proposal, as the amount spent nowhere near reaches the threshold of needing one," Reed said. "The invoice you already have in your possession from Furry Friends is all the documentation the Sheriff's Office has."
Setting the invoices aside, there's still the conflict of interest raised about the Sheriff's Office doing business with the chief of staff's private business.
Ross asked Huffor, "Do you not see anything wrong with that?"
"I'll give you the conflict of interest piece," Huffor said. "But let me ask you this: If you reported the truth and they (EPSO) actually saved money, all you have left is a conflict of interest. If you're saving taxpayer money, then I'm not sure what the problem is."
The problem remains that there is no documentation to show quotes for dog food purchased in Nov. 2020.
"After speaking with the Sergeant who purchased the food, there was a verbal conversation he had with Big R, where they stated they would be raising their prices in 2021," Reed said.
Based on that statement, it appears the alleged "upcoming" price hike would not have impacted the 2020 purchase.
The difference in cost would be about $5 per bag, according to Reed.
At the time of publication, Big R has its dog food 40-lb. bags listed at $49.99. Furry Friends has their price set at $50.99. However, it's important to note that these prices do not reflect any tax incentives or discounts EPSO may receive from either business.
Huffor believes our original story calling out a conflict of interest between he and his wife's private business venture and the sheriff's office is a non-story that was initiated by people who do not like them.
"If people have legitimate concerns, they should put their name on it," Huffor said. "Be an adult and say, 'My name is so and so and I think this is wrong. Can you look into this?' But they don't."
Huffor says our story resulted in the sheriff's office not doing business with him anymore.
He then went on social media using the hash tag #DOGFOODGATE2021 and claimed the sheriff's office won't even accept donations from citizens because of us.
News 5 found this statement to be misleading.
"There have been no attempts to donate K-9 food at the Office of the Sheriff," Reed said. "There have been no citizens turned away who have shown up with donations of K-9 food."
K-9's eat specific dog food and Reed says if citizens want to donate to the Sheriff's Office K-9's, they can donate at any time through the official Sheriff's Office Foundation. You can access that portal here.
FAQ's and Transparency report:
Q: Your original story aired two weeks ago, why did it take this long for an update?
A: Some updates can take anywhere from one day to a few months to follow up on leads. In this case, Mr. Huffor made allegations that required further research to validate. The biggest issue Huffor had with our original broadcast had to do with the cost of dog food. He was adamant that if we got the quotes for dog food, it would show that he offered the sheriff's office a lower, discounted rate than what Big R was offering with the Nov. 2020 purchase. Upon receiving this information, we asked the county procurement office for the quotes and was told no records exist. As an added safety guard, we also checked with the El Paso County Sheriff's Office to see whether such records existed within their office---and we were told they don't.
Q: Just because "no records exist", doesn't mean Mr. Huffor is being untruthful. Why did you not just take his word for it when he said his quote for dog food was less than Big R's?
A: Mr. Huffor told us to "do our homework" and "get the quote" from the county, likely knowing that no quote would be produced. In daily news coverage, we often do take people for their word. However, most of our investigations deal with documents and public records which help us tell more complicated stories. People can always put their "spin" on a story, but records typically fill in the gaps and offer factual insight into a particular situation. Regardless of whether quotes had existed, it would not have eliminated the conflict of interest in this case.
Q: How did you determine this story to be "newsworthy"?
A: Most government agencies have policies and procedures in place to eliminate conflicts of interest and nepotism. When records confirmed that the sheriff's office had done business with a private business belonging to the current chief of staff and her husband who is an ex-Lieutenant with the sheriff's office, it raises questions over nepotism.
Q: By airing this story, does KOAA not support local businesses?
A: We absolutely support local businesses and in fact, we give many businesses "free" advertising during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our "Rebound Colorado" series and "We're Open" initiatives feature community stories and people who are making a difference in our region. Story ideas for either segment can be emailed to Rebound@KOAA.com or News@KOAA.com. The issue in this story has nothing to do with shopping local, but rather a conflict of interest.
Q: Will you make your records gathered for this story available for the public to review?
A: Absolutely! Within 30 days of publication, we can make copies of our research and make them available to you. All you need to do is email us.
Q: Mr. Huffor was upset that this story originated from an anonymous source. Can you clarify your policy on using anonymous sources or hiding identities?
A: As a general rule, our News 5 Investigates team does not hide identities for on-camera interviews unless we're interviewing a crime victim. A good example would be interviewing a sexual assault survivor who does not want their face shown on TV. Regarding the use of anonymous sources---sometimes they aren't anonymous and we know who they are behind the scenes. However, we never use anonymous information and simply run with it as a news story. If we receive an anonymous tip, there's a vetting process that occurs. Typically this begins with filing a series of open records requests if the tip involves a government agency. To learn more about our research and vetting process, feel free to send your questions to News5Investigates@KOAA.com.