No. 1: Colleen Truden
December 15, 2005
There really was no question about who was this year’s top newsmaker.From hiring her husband as a contract worker to a string of employees who quit to fiery meetings with county commissioners over her budget, the disintegration of District Attorney Colleen Truden’s office was the longest-running spectacle of the year.Then, in a Dec. 13 election, voters in Pitkin and Garfield counties made Truden the first district attorney in Colorado’s 130-year history to be recalled from office. And they did so in an overwhelming manner, by a margin of 80 to 20 percent. The recall failed in Rio Blanco County, but that had little effect on the overall outcome.
There was talk before the election that downvalley conservatives would take the recall effort as a liberal Aspen plot, and vote to protect Truden, but the opposite happened. The charges of mismanagement, nepotism and poor relations with her employees – as well as her refusal to admit a single mistake – proved too much for Truden to overcome.With opponents repeatedly hammering her integrity and honesty, Truden’s main defense – that she had created a better working relationship with law enforcement, resulting in more filings and convictions – stood little chance. And few citizens believed that the recall effort was the work of a disgruntled few or a media plot to sell more free newspapers.Justice was being harmed, critics said. And that proved enough for the majority of voters in the 9th Judicial District.When Aspen Deputy District Attorney Gail Nichols, a former head of the criminal division of the New Jersey U.S. attorney’s office, was unceremoniously ushered out in early April after resigning, Truden was brusque.She said she had heard “rumors, stories and characterizations” about the incident, and said “it’s someone’s characterization of what happened yesterday – but it was her last day, and she left.”
Diplomacy was not her style. The fallout began when deputy prosecutor Jeff Cheney followed Nichols’ lead and quit. Cheney, too, offered to stay for a couple of weeks, but was also told to pack his things shortly after quitting.Truden said, months later, that she wanted people who shared her philosophical bent, employees she could trust. But instead of simply explaining her actions to county commissioners, she minced words and denied the former employees’ versions of the story.The half-truths continued when she was queried about her husband. It was not a work of reportorial genius to call the office and ask the secretary if Fred Truden worked there. When the secretary said yes, but Fred Truden later said he did “absolutely nothing” for the office, journalists became more curious.”My husband is not an employee on the payroll of the office of the district attorney,” she said during a meeting with Pitkin County leaders at the end of April.But she added that “he does provide some services [in the office] and does some volunteer work.” She did not acknowledge that he was hired as a “stopgap” for emergency computer work until a May 3 meeting with Garfield County commissioners. Even then, according to a report in The Aspen Times, she refused to estimate when her husband worked on her office’s computer system, for how long or what he was paid.
An open-records request would later show that Fred Truden was paid $6,000 for six weeks of work.Mistakes, accusations and continuing resignations of prosecutors and administrative staffers continued to dominate the front pages of local newspapers. The office was awash in paranoia, former employees said. An “enemies’ list” was allegedly kept, and one former employee filed an ethics complaint against Truden, claiming her prosecutors were told to give better plea deals to defense attorneys friendly with the office. That matter remains under investigation by the Colorado Supreme Court.Truden issued denial after denial; she blamed the media and her critics of running a smear campaign. But there was no denying the will of voters on election day.And there is no denying who most impacted the news in 2005.