Critics call for more oversight after investigation reveals Colorado court bureaucrats tried to abuse taxpayer money

An independent investigation into the Colorado Judicial Department that laid bare significant misconduct by top administrators has added fuel to reform efforts and calls for oversight since it was made public last week.

The eight-month investigation examined the circumstances around a $2.75 million contract given to a former top Judicial Department official as she left her job, and found that the contract was an ill-advised abuse of taxpayer money, though it was not specifically designed to keep the official, then-Chief of Staff Mindy Masias, from speaking out about judges’ misconduct, as previously alleged.

Some observers have been left with lingering doubts about the investigation’s findings and skepticism of its portrayal of then-Colorado Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Coats’ role in the deal.

The investigators, former U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer and ex-Denver Independent Monitor Nick Mitchell, found that the controversial contract was not awarded in order to stop Masias from speaking out about past judicial misconduct in large part because the contract was first considered three months before the threat of a tell-all lawsuit was made, and because that threat, when made, did not motivate Coats to give Masias the contract — he’d already decided to do so.

“I’m not sure if they really got at all the information they needed to make the conclusion that the so-called ‘dirt’ did not motivate (Coats’) thinking at that time,” said Tristan Gorman, policy director for the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar. “…They’re basically trying to get inside of his mind without any direct evidence. They’re saying that the contract was not awarded to cover up allegations of judicial misconduct while at the same time admitting it was an abuse of taxpayer resources. We’re supposed to be satisfied that Chief Justice Coats was merely abusing taxpayer resources, including multimillion-dollar contracts, and be glad he supposedly wasn’t trying to cover anything up? I don’t buy it.”

An attorney for Coats, John Gleason, said the former justice would not comment until an additional investigation into the scandal is finished later this summer.

Sen. Jennifer Bacon, D-Denver, a member of the committee of state lawmakers who are this summer considering how to reform the discipline process for judges in the wake of the scandal, said she too would like more information on Coats’ actions.

“I want to understand what kind of world he set up by way of expectations, to figure out what kind of excuses he made and whether they are justifiable or not,” she said, adding that she repeatedly rolled her eyes as she went through the investigation report, which she said read like “some TV show version of government.”

“For as much as people talk about ethics and judges, I think the mirror is really coming off,” she said. “These are regular people sometimes. We all need to play a role in rebuilding confidence in people who are making such important decisions on people’s lives… I just can’t imagine for any neighbor of ours reading this and being like, ‘You want me to go to court over a parking ticket now?!’”

Sen. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, who is chairing the committee, emphasized that the lawmakers’ focus is different from the investigation’s focus, though he expressed concern over its findings.

“What came through clearly to me was the level of managerial ineptitude, incompetence in the Judicial Department, that there was insufficient oversight, insufficient controls, inadequate overarching management of the State Court Administrator’s Office,” he said. “That came through loud and clear to me, and no one can feel good about that.”

As much as the issue of disciplining judges did come up in the investigation, the committee can take it on, Lee added. The investigators found a toxic, dysfunctional culture within the State Court Administrator’s Office in which employees viewed Masias as having the ability to bury complaints about judges’ bad behavior, and that she was perceived as a “fixer” for the Judicial Department.

“If that is the perception of the employees — that it is not going to do any good to complain because there isn’t going to be anything done — that was created by the structure and the system,” Lee said.

The Commission on Judicial Discipline, which is supposed to handle complaints against judges, was “marginalized and ignored; disabled from doing its job,” he said, and that is within the purview of the summer committee to address, he said. The next committee’s next public hearing is scheduled for July 12.

Chris Forsyth, executive director of The Judicial Integrity Project, which has long called for reforming the state’s secretive system for disciplining judges, said the perception that complaining about judges’ misconduct is pointless goes well beyond the Colorado Judicial Department.

“That same perception flows throughout the bar,” he said. “‘Why complain against a judge? Nothing is going to be done and what could happen is you’ll be retaliated against.’ If attorneys are not filing complaints, the code of judicial conduct is not enforced as it is written.”

He added that the investigators’ inability to speak with three key officials in the State Court Administrator’s Office — Masias, then-Human Resources Director Eric Brown and then-State Court Administrator Chris Ryan — was “problematic” and may have pushed the investigators to conclusions that painted those who did agree to interviews in the best light.

While many of the named employees involved in the contract have resigned or left the Judicial Department, Terri Morrison, chief legal counsel for the State Court Administrator’s Office, remains on the job.

The investigators found she knew Brown and Ryan thought the contract being offered to Masias was needed to stop “the public revelation of… ‘dirt,’” and although she objected to that motive several times, she did not stop the contract from being awarded.

Investigators also found she falsely claimed a confidentiality provision barred her from sharing Masias’ resignation agreement with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office. Her false claim blocked the office from finding out about a secret recording Masias had made of a conversation with then-Supreme Court Chief Justice Nancy Rice.

Jon Sarche, a spokesman for the Judicial Department, declined to say Tuesday whether Morrison faced any internal discipline. She has been with the department since 1995.

Gorman, with the defense bar, on Tuesday called for more significant systemic change and oversight within the Colorado Judicial Department, saying the effort to reform judicial discipline is a good start but falls short of the kind of change needed to restore public confidence in the department.

“This is one of our major branches of state government, and basically what I’m seeing here is they can’t be trusted,” she said. “They literally sit in judgment of everyone else and have no one watching over them.”

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