, , , , ,

Chippewa County sheriff investigated for sexual harassment, selling weapons during work hours

Sheriff Travis Hakes claims investigation politically motivated, county board members considering removing him from office

Police cruiser siren
Matty Ring (CC-BY)

Chippewa County’s Sheriff Travis Hakes is under investigation following a sexual harassment complaint and allegations he sold guns, knives and real estate to employees and others during work hours.

The investigation was launched in May after a new dispatcher in the Chippewa County Sheriff’s Office filed a complaint with the county after she received several personal text messages from Hakes inviting her to join him while fishing, hunting and attending law enforcement events.

The county human resources officer and county administrator hired a third-party investigator with law firm Von Briesen & Roper of Madison to look into the complaint and other concerns raised during the county’s initial review. Hakes reportedly ignored three opportunities to provide input during the investigation.

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

The Von Briesen report, issued in September, concluded that Hakes’ text messages to the dispatcher were “unequivocally sexual in nature” and included an “ethnically-charged” meme that included a racist stereotype about Asian people. After Hakes was made aware of the investigation, he told county officials he was simply trying to make the new dispatcher feel welcome.

The report said that explanation was “not credible” because no other new employees within the department had received personal text messages or invitations from the Sheriff.

As the scope of the investigation widened, the Von Briesen report said, other potential violations of county and sheriff’s department policies and state law were uncovered. In particular, the report found evidence that Hakes sold guns, knives, mugs and real estate at work. During interviews, “the majority of experienced Department members and leadership” regarded Sheriff Hakes as “lacking in training, leadership, integrity and competence.”

During the Chippewa County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday evening, members were set to consider a resolution to begin “removal proceedings” for Hakes. While the county board doesn’t have authority to remove a duly elected sheriff, they can ask Gov. Tony Evers to do so.

Several members of the public from the within Chippewa County and beyond spoke in support of Hakes while others called for county government to “lead by example.” Chippewa Falls City Council member Heather Martell said she’s been contacted by constituents upset about Hakes’ text messages to his female subordinate. Martell said she and most other women have faced sexual harassment in the workplace.

“There is no context that this (Hakes’ messages) can be taken out of,” Martell said. “It is what it is. And I want to thank each and every one of you on this board for standing up and saying that women in the workforce matter, that if we’re going to back the blue, that means our female law enforcement, too.”

One of the last speakers during the public comment period was Scott Bolstad, the state outreach director for Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson. Bolstad told the board that initiating a removal proceeding now would be premature because Hakes has not been charged with a crime.

“If you vote to remove the sheriff, knowing my governor (Evers), he will accommodate you. Guaranteed,” Bolstad said. “Because he sees the chance to replace a Republican sheriff with a Democrat one. He will do that.”

Bolstad said not only would removing Hakes overturn the will of voters who elected him in November, it would also lead to the county losing “several million dollars” from a wrongful termination lawsuit, “which you will lose.”

Before board members went into closed session to consider the Sheriff’s future, Hakes was given 12 minutes to defend himself. He said the investigation was filled with “overreaching accusations” driven by “an obviously biased attorney from Madison.”

Hakes restated that his text messages to the female employee were only aimed at making her feel welcome.

“While I do not believe these text messages were sexual in any way, I can understand how some may find them to be too personal for (an) employment base setting,” Hakes said. “And I have learned from this experience.”

The sheriff also denied claims that he sold guns, knives and real estate to employees during work hours. He said the investigative report was full of “hearsay and conjecture based on the comments of a few employees and county officials.”

“I find it troubling that an 87-page report full of provable inaccuracies and deception is what has been used against me to claim I’m not trustworthy,” Hakes said.

Following a closed session, which lasted nearly two hours, the 20 Chippewa County Board members voted unanimously to continue the investigation of Sheriff Hakes. A motion was also approved by the board thanking members of the Chippewa County Sheriff’s Office for its service amid the investigation.