Gov. Jared Polis on Wednesday said personnel matters in the state should be handled without interference from his office, marking the first public comments the Democrat has made since a Denver Post investigation outlined multiple suspensions and aggressive, intimidating behavior from the man leading Colorado’s emergency responses.
“Our department heads handle these matters according to our procedures — fairly,” Polis said at a news conference Wednesday, responding to a question from a Post reporter about when he was made aware of the allegations against emergency management director Mike Willis and whether he would be taking any action against him. “They follow appropriate procedures. There’s not interference from the governor’s office.”
The governor added that he’s glad the Colorado Department of Public Safety, which houses the state’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, is hiring an outside consultant to “evaluate their culture issues that might exist there and their effectiveness.”
The governor, who’s up for reelection in November, had remained quiet on the matter since The Post’s investigation, published July 25, found Willis had been suspended twice over the past 18 months for berating female employees, intimidating workers and yelling to the point people thought things might get physical.
The Post also found the state did not investigate an employee’s claim to human resources in 2019 that Willis was intoxicated during the response to the STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting. Kevin Klein, who runs Colorado’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, only initiated an inquiry last month after The Post began conducting interviews for the story.
Klein did not substantiate that allegation, casting doubt in his report on the intentions of agency whistleblowers.
A Polis spokesperson previously declined multiple times to answer questions about whether the governor had been made aware of Willis’s behavior and suspensions. The governor himself on Wednesday also sidestepped those questions.
His office’s only statement before Wednesday came from Lisa Kaufmann, Polis’s chief of staff, who said they were grateful for Willis’ service during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If there are personnel issues we trust our agency leaders to follow our policies and procedures to ensure a safe and productive workplace,” Kaufmann said in her statement.
Polis’s office said it had no records of any communication between Kaufmann and the Department of Public Safety about Willis’s behavior, though a 2019 report by The Post found some government agencies delete employees’ emails after as little as 30 days despite the fact they are public records.
Willis, Klein and Stan Hilkey, the head of the Department of Public Safety, all declined interviews for The Post’s initial story, instead answering emailed questions.
Willis, who’s run the department since 2017 and played a critical role as the state’s joint incident commander at the onset of the pandemic, said in one of those emails that he’s working on his affect and delivery, admitting that he “can be intimidating on occasion.”
The state’s Republican party, its candidate for governor and the national Republican Governors Association have taken the opportunity to condemn Polis for not acting after the director’s behavior came to light.
Reporter Nick Coltrain contributed to this report.
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