DA candidates turn down rancor in debate
October 17, 2016
In contrast to much of the discourse this political season, Monday's debate between district attorney candidates featured no name-calling, little rancor and much talk about the issues.
Republican candidate Jeff Cheney of New Castle criticized incumbent Sherry Caloia, a Democrat coming to the end of her first term, for favoring offenders over victims, cultivating poor relations with law enforcement in the district and spending nearly $1 million to renovate her Glenwood Springs office.
"I'm hearing … from one end to the other of this judicial district that we need a change," Cheney said. "DAs should put aside petty conflicts and work together with law enforcement."
Caloia, on the other hand, defended her office as pragmatic about both the cases she chooses to prosecute and the investigative work by police agencies she must approve. Her four years in office have been "relatively free of controversy," and marked by quality work by her staff and a 75 percent trial conviction rate.
"I think I've done a good job," she said. "Why do we need to change it now?"
Carbondale defense attorney Chip McCrory, running as an independent, also exhibited a strong streak of pragmatism about the criminal justice system and a lack of tolerance for "political rhetoric" that has crept into the race for 9th Judicial District attorney. McCrory emphasized his lengthy experience as both a prosecutor and a defense attorney while criticizing Caloia for what he called a high attorney turnover rate and a backlog of cases set for trial.
"I have more experience," he said. "I understand how the system works."
Cheney particularly hammered Caloia on her relationship with local law enforcement. Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario is supporting Cheney, while Caloia and Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo recently feuded over the release of a video showing an inmate vandalizing the Pitkin County Jail.
"The DA's job is to have a good relationship with law enforcement," Cheney said.
Caloia's attitude is to not sign search warrants or arrest warrants written by police or sheriff's deputies or dismiss cases she believes were overcharged by police to prove a point to law enforcement, he said.
"(She says,) 'We're just going to show the police who's boss,'" Cheney said. "That creates animosity."
Caloia said that wasn't true.
"I'm looking at what we can prove," she said. "I'm not looking to prove a point."
Still, Caloia didn't deny that conflicts with police can arise, which she said is a good thing.
"If people don't disagree, you don't get a good product," she said. "I hold police to a higher standard. Someone's going to jail."
However, Caloia said politics rarely get in the way of getting the job done, and that her lawyers sign 95 percent of the search warrants and arrest warrants they receive.
"Nobody likes to be told 'no,'" she said. "Sometimes we tell the police, 'That's not enough,' and they don't like that."
McCrory struck a similar tone, saying law enforcement can react differently when the DA's Office sends a case back for more investigation.
"You can get conflict when you kick it back to a police agency," he said. "Some accept it, some don't."
McCrory also debunked criticism he's heard leveled at Caloia's office that 70 percent of charges filed have been dismissed. When a person agrees to plead to a particular charge or charges, often other charges are dismissed as part of the plea deal, he said.
"These allegations about charges are nothing more than political rhetoric," McCrory said.
Caloia, Cheney and McCrory all disagreed over a question about prosecutorial discretion, which was provoked by Caloia's admission that she doesn't feel the need to file charges in all cases.
She gave an example of a 19-year-old who gives his 17-year-old girlfriend a beer in the park and is charged with felony contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
"That's not a felony charge and I don't charge those," Caloia said. "I look for what's just."
Cheney disagreed, saying the Legislature creates the laws and Caloia's job is to enforce them.
"When the DA ignores the Legislature, it breaches the separation of powers," he said.
Cheney also said Caloia failed to view the case from the victim's point of view, which in her example could include the 17-year-old girl's father. It was an echo of a point he made earlier when he said Caloia cares more about offenders than victims.
McCrory said a district attorney possesses "almost unbridled discretion" about how to charge cases that can only really be corrected by voters. However, while Caloia's example might not rise to the felony level, a misdemeanor charge like providing alcohol to a minor might be appropriate, he said.
Cheney also criticized Caloia for spending "nearly $1 million" to renovate her offices in Glenwood Springs, and then turning around and complaining about her budget. Caloia admitted to the renovation, but said Garfield County commissioners offered to pay for it using county funds and that it didn't impact her budget.
The 9th Judicial District covers Pitkin, Garfield and Rio Blanco counties. Monday's debate, held in the new community room at the Pitkin County Library, was sponsored by Aspen Public Radio and moderated by APR News Director Carolyn Sackariason.