Retired jail captain spars with sheriff's office over abrupt departure, inmate-built gazebo

In early June, with no warning, Amy Le, who started her career in the county in 1989, was ordered to hand over her badge

By Robert Salonga
The Mercury News

SAN JOSE, Calif. — One could be forgiven for thinking the abrupt exit of Amy Le, a jail captain with nearly three decades of service in Santa Clara County, is all about a gazebo.

That is partly because Le herself contends that her only significant clash with brass in the Sheriff’s Office — which operates the county jails — had to do with a privately funded gazebo and accompanying garden that she had inmates build.

Le said the gazebo “was something good for the morale of staff.”

“I know how hard my staff works,” Le said. “I wanted to create a place where they can take a break from their hectic work schedules.”

In early June, with no warning, Le, who started her career in the county in 1989, was ordered to hand over her badge. She was walked off the job and placed on administrative leave, after the office charged her with instances of dishonesty, one of which asserts that she was evasive about disclosing donations she collected to build the gazebo, according to an internal affairs letter Le provided to this news organization.

Le said she retired on June 12 because she felt the deck was unfairly stacked against her, and she wanted to tell her side of the story without being shackled by privacy restrictions.

“I spent 30 years, more than half of my life, working from a law enforcement clerk, a civilian, to move up to correctional officer, sergeant, lieutenant, to captain,” she said. “For them to make up an allegation and walk me out like I committed a felony crime, it is very disappointing for the department to go to that extreme.”

About a week after she was escorted off duty, Le was sent an amended letter adding a third allegation: that she had asked a jail employee to delete files from a computer she used on the job, according to sources and documents obtained by this news organization. Le said the first she heard of the new letter was when she was told about it by a Mercury News reporter.

The Sheriff’s Office declined to comment in detail about the allegations against Le.

“Everyone is entitled to make up their own opinion, but as peace officers sworn by oath, no one is entitled to make up their own facts,” Sheriff spokesman Deputy Michael Low wrote in a statement. “We hope Ms. Le will spend her time separated from the Sheriff’s Office reflecting upon her entire career. We cannot comment further on the facts around this incident because of personnel matters.”

Law-enforcement sources familiar with Le’s case say dissatisfaction with her performance as a captain — a role she was promoted to just last December — went beyond the reasons cited in the letters. She was not holding her staff accountable for conduct issues, as she had been ordered to do, they said, and was slow in shedding her instincts as the recent former president of the correctional officers’ union.

Le was also ensnared in a controversy during Sheriff Laurie Smith’s re-election bid last fall when the Board of Supervisors questioned why the Sheriff’s Office was routinely spending more than twice its overtime budget. Le was shown to have been the top overtime earner in 2017, earning $175,000, to nearly double her base salary.

Le attributes that to a thinly stretched staff working around the clock. She was rebuffed when she asked for more personnel, she said. Some Sheriff’s officials grumbled about whether her union work was taking up her non-overtime hours. Sources said the gazebo controversy tried the patience of Sheriff’s office brass to a tipping point.

Oddly enough, Sheriff’s insiders — who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to talk about Le’s departure — mostly agree with Le on the facts of the gazebo dispute. Le said that after learning she couldn’t use any of the jail budget to build the structure, her husband, a county correctional deputy, donated about $6,000. About $2,500 came from her former union — captains are not represented — along with $500 apiece from the union’s legal counsel, a jail lieutenant, and another jail deputy.

The “gratitude garden,” as Le calls the gazebo area, was located at the Elmwood jail complex in Milpitas, where minimum- and medium-security male inmates and most female inmates are housed. Le touted the fact that female inmates helped build the garden, which featured a wooden overhang, picnic-style benches and a barbecue area.

“They want to have more programs like this,” Le said. “We want to teach inmates to work with their hands and have the opportunity to be humane and do something outside and productive, and give back to others.”

Le furnished a video of female inmates she said worked on the construction.

“Usually you come to jail and you’re sitting here,” one inmate said on the video. “This actually gave us an opportunity to see things differently and learn new things, to make us actually want to get out and do things different.”

Still, Sheriff’s jail officials saw it as an overstep that pitted their protocols against Le’s union-honed advocacy. They clashed over the gazebo’s safety, and it was red-tagged before it was ultimately dismantled. Then came the allegation — the first of the three used to justify her administrative leave — that she lied to her superiors about where the money came from. A Sheriff’s source added that the department grew concerned that she had solicited one donation — though a nominal one — from a person in a position to bid for assorted construction and vendor contracts with the agency.

Le said she was in no way trying to hide the garden’s benefactors, and in fact was having plaques made up to recognize their contributions.

Another allegation was that she was dishonest about an instance in which she picked up her husband’s badge from an office in his stead, a policy violation, although Le said her husband consented to it. She said she gladly would have refrained if she’d been told not to, and that the incident was an example of her bosses suddenly becoming heavy-handed over minor matters.

“Shock” is the word Le used repeatedly to describe how she suddenly went from what she thought were the sheriff’s good graces to, as she describes it, “being walked out like I was a criminal suspect.” She noted that she spent hours of her personal time supporting Smith during her last re-election bid, whom the union endorsed after backing her opponent in 2014.

Le said she believes her insistence on speaking her mind signaled to Sheriff’s brass that she “wouldn’t fall in line,” as major changes to the jail system get underway in the next few years, including the construction of a new jail wing and a litany of reforms mandated by a federal consent decree fueled in part by the Tyree murder.

For now, Le said, she is conducting damage control for her image, both in the public’s mind and that of San Jose’s Vietnamese-American community, where she stood out as one of the most prominent law-enforcement figures, especially after becoming the correctional union’s first female and first Vietnamese-American president.

“I’m speaking up,” she said, “to clear my name, get my reputation back, and so that my staff isn’t in fear.”

©2019 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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