Lawyer: Aspen DA turnover harming citizens
Turnover at the Aspen District Attorney’s Office is leading to charging mistakes that are harming upper Roaring Fork Valley residents, a defense attorney said Wednesday.
“I have expressed my displeasure to (DA) Jeff Cheney about the pattern of cases I see developing where the office is shooting first and aiming later,” Aspen lawyer Ryan Kalamaya said. “Turmoil in (the) Aspen (DA’s Office) is becoming a problem for the citizens of Pitkin County.”
Cheney, however, said the reduction in charges or dismissals are, on the contrary, evidence of his office continually evaluating changing evidence and acting ethically.
“I think he’s the last person with situational awareness of what goes on in a prosecutor’s office,” Cheney said. “(The charging changes) is evidence of responsibility.”
Earlier this week, the DA’s Office “significantly” reduced a computer crime fraud/theft charge filed in December against Gregg Mackey, owner of Red Eagle Roofing in Basalt, Kalamaya said. The original charge, which was on par with second-degree murder, alleged $1 million in thefts from Umbrella Roofing, while the amended charge alleges between $5,000 and $20,000 in thefts, he said.
On Wednesday, District Judge Chris Seldin reduced Mackey’s bond from $25,000 to $2,500.
“This is the second case in the last month where they have significantly reduced the charge or dismissed it,” Kalamaya said.
Last month, Cheney dismissed a cocaine distribution charge filed against an Aspen bartender after he said his office encountered “proof problems.” On Wednesday, he said the witness in the case changed his story about buying the drug from the on-duty bartender, so the office dismissed the charge.
“We’re not clairvoyant,” Cheney said. “We can’t predict the future.”
As for the case against Mackey, prosecutors have continued to evaluate evolving financial evidence and have tweaked the charges in response, he said. Evidence in financial cases often takes time to gather and analyze, so it’s not unusual to alter the charges based on expert analysis, Cheney said.
Currently, the DA’s Office does not have a permanent felony prosecutor or a permanent misdemeanor and traffic prosecutor based in Aspen. The former occupants of those positions left for other jobs around the end of January.
That turnover makes it difficult for defense attorneys to know who to talk to about a case and who to negotiate with, which leads to mistakes, Kalamaya said. He also cited a long-pending misdemeanor DUI charge against another of his clients that was dismissed in December just before it was to go to trial because the prosecutor determined he couldn’t prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, he said.
Cheney said the cases cited by Kalamaya have nothing to do with the turnover. Senior prosecutors in the office have been covering for the employees who left, continuing to evaluate cases moving through the system and not allowing criticism to affect their decisions, he said.
Further, Cheney said he has hired a replacement prosecutor for District Court and may be ready to make a public announcement about the person as soon as today. The vacancy in Pitkin County Court will soon be addressed and may be filled by a current member of his staff, he said.