Troubled times at DA’s office? | AspenTimes.com

Troubled times at DA’s office?

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times

Ninth Judicial District Attorney Sherry Caloia has come under heavy behind-the-scenes criticism in recent months over a number of issues, including a perceived slur against people of the Jewish faith, continued turnover in her office and a leadership style some describe as micro-management.

During a meeting with assistant and deputy district attorneys on the morning of Sept. 26, Caloia used an expression that some individuals inside and outside of her office found inappropriate, according to sources who spoke with The Aspen Times. The exact quote could not be ascertained, but she reportedly compared defense attorneys' bargaining tactics to Jewish stereotypes when talking to her staff about criminal case plea negotiations.

Caloia apologized for the remark in an email sent to her attorneys on the same day.

"I apologize for my statement at the meeting today and it will not happen again," she wrote.

Caloia told the Aspen Times that she is not anti-Semitic and her misstatement was not intended to offend, nor was it said with malice. She declined to supply the exact quote, saying, "I don't want to get into it."

"It's one of those sayings that we all grew up with," Caloia said. Some common expressions learned from childhood, she said, can be "hard habits to break."

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Longtime prosecutor Tony Hershey left the District Attorney's Office three weeks ago. Hershey, who is Jewish, managed cases involving juveniles. He did not attend the meeting in which Caloia made the remark.

Reached for comment, Hershey declined to discuss his exact reasons for leaving Caloia's employ. He is now working as a deputy district attorney in Eagle County.

The Times obtained a Sept. 29 memorandum to Caloia that shows Hershey was upset by the comment after hearing about it from others who were present. He apparently met with Caloia to discuss the issue, according to the memo.

"Again I expressed my anger," Hershey said in the memo. "I also told you this was not the first incident involving inappropriate language from you that related to ethnicity, race, sexual preference, family status, national origin, etc., that you had used.

"You again assured me that you were very sorry; that these were not your true feelings and that you understood what you said was wrong."

The memorandum asked Caloia to make an apology in an office-wide setting with the entire staff. To date, such a meeting has not materialized.

"Finally, I hope you understand how hurtful the phrase you used was. I am very proud of my Jewish heritage. That identity has been a source of pride and strength for me and is very important of who I am and where I came from," Hershey wrote.

However, when reached by phone, Hershey said the remark was not his reason for leaving the office and declined further comment. Caloia said his reason for leaving might have been her management style, which involves close supervision of all staffers and their cases.

"Some of the attorneys like that," she said of her hands-on approach.

TURN, TURN, TURN

Elected in November 2012, Caloia is nearing the midpoint of her four-year term as district attorney for the 9th Judicial District, which includes Pitkin, Garfield and Rio Blanco counties. During the campaign leading up to her victory, the Democrat promised a different style of leadership compared with that of her incumbent opponent, Republican Martin Beeson.

Supporters and critics alike say there's little doubt that she's lived up to her campaign promise of a different style. Where they differ is in their assessment of the effect of that style.

Many defense attorneys who commented for this story requested anonymity, fearing potential reprisals from the District Attorney's Office over their statements. Of all the issues involving Caloia, the perceived religious slur topped the list. But issues of turnover and her personal management style weren't far behind.

One estimate placed the turnover rate in her office — around 33 employees, which includes attorneys, investigators and other staff positions — at around 60 percent. Caloia's estimate puts it at around 50 percent. Some employees were terminated while others left for better financial opportunities or reasons unrelated to her oversight, she said.

"It can be a highly stressful, toxic work environment," said one former prosecutor in the office who requested anonymity.

"What I'm hearing is that she's impossible to work for," said a local defense attorney.

Caloia acknowledged that she's not necessarily easy to work for.

"I do demand service by my people, and if they're not doing a good job in court, I'm going to call them on it," she said. "And yes, it is lonely at the top."

The turnover has had an impact on Caloia's offices in all three counties, including Pitkin.

The Aspen office, located in the Pitkin County Courthouse, has had stability in the felony prosecutor position, with Beeson administration holdover Andrea Bryan filling the spot since Arnie Mordkin was released upon Caloia's arrival. Mordkin is now a Snowmass Village-based defense attorney.

This year, many different misdemeanor prosecutors have served Pitkin County Court. Jason Slothouber held the job before he was called to the Glenwood Springs office to handle felony cases.

Slothouber successfully co-prosecuted Aspen bartender Peter Nardi for sexual assault and other charges in July. He was replaced by Blake Feamster, who had been working in the Glenwood Springs office for more than a year.

Feamster left the Aspen office after only a few months for a higher-paying job at a family-law practice in Denver. Caloia then turned to an intern to fill the role, but when the young woman failed to pass the Colorado bar exam, she was let go.

Caloia recently hired Sarah Talbott, a graduate of the Charleston School of Law in South Carolina, who has been in the position for the past few weeks. Talbott passed the state bar exam and is expected to divide her working hours between the Aspen and Glenwood Springs offices, Caloia said.

Some local defense attorneys have complained that instability in the position has created uncertainty with regard to cases they are trying to move through the system.

"Yes, there has been turnover in the Pitkin County Court position in Aspen, as there has been turnover in Glenwood Springs," Caloia said. "It is not my choice and I try to hire people who I think are career prosecutors and who also would be happy in a mountain town. It's hard to get somebody who fits the bill on those things."

The entry-level pay for a misdemeanor prosecutor in the 9th Judicial District Attorney's Office is $55,000, which could be seen as a low salary for an attorney with a few years of experience. Caloia said that's one reason she's had to look to recent law-school graduates.

Another recent graduate, hired for an internship in the Glenwood Springs office, also failed the bar exam. Caloia said that in the future, she probably won't look to interns awaiting bar-exam results to fill County Court prosecutorial spots.

"Every DA's office has turnover," Mordkin said when asked for his perspective on the situation. "Because salaries are not high, and as deputies progress they anticipate more money, they get more experience and they want to move on, either higher in the District Attorney's Office or in private practice. So, it's not unusual for DA's offices to have a greater amount of turnover than might be expected, say, at a private law firm."

But the assessment of nearly two-thirds turnover of the entire staff, if correct, seems inordinate, Mordkin said.

"We certainly didn't have much turnover when I was in the (Aspen) office," he said. "And there didn't seem to be all that much in the other offices, with Rio Blanco County perhaps being the exception."

While Mordkin handled felonies in Aspen during most of Beeson's administration — Beeson served one full four-year term and part of another term — attorney Richard Nedlin managed the County Court cases. Both were in those jobs for at least four years.

"Although it has made things bumpier, I would not classify it as a problem," Mordkin said of the effect of recent prosecutorial turnover on his caseload.

That's because Aspen felony prosecutor Andrea Bryan, whom Caloia held over from Beeson's office, has worked hard to pick up the slack with regard to misdemeanor cases, Mordkin said.

"Andrea is quite good at what she does," he said.

'IT MATTERS TO ME'

Caloia also lauded Bryan, who works mostly in Pitkin County, along with other felony prosecutors in Garfield County, as being stable forces in her administration. The Rio Blanco County office in Meeker has seen turnover, she admitted, but as Mordkin said, Rio Blanco is something of a rural outpost where turnover tends to be high.

"After I took over, there were a number of people who remained on the staff. Some of them were terminated because they weren't doing a good job in my estimation. I am not easy on those people," she said.

For example, Caloia said the chief deputy district attorney in Rio Blanco County quit after she expressed her dismay over his work ethic.

"He told me that the last 10 days of every month he leaves (the state)," she said. "That's not acceptable."

Caloia also mentioned the resignation of a deputy district attorney who worked in her Rifle office following his arrest near Aspen Village in November 2013 on suspicion of drunken driving.

"He resigned. He took his lumps," she said.

As for Rio Blanco County, two people have been hired to handle cases in Meeker and Rangely, Caloia said.

"I will say, I've had trouble with County Court deputies," she said. "I've had great luck with District Court prosecutors."

But attorneys are only part of the turnover equation. Caloia has revamped her three-person investigative staff since taking office.

"Our investigative staff is really top-notch, second to none," she said. "I'm really happy with the changes."

One holdover from Beeson's term, Lisa Miller, is now the chief investigator. Two other investigators were replaced after one man resigned and another was fired.

Caloia recalled that while campaigning in 2012, she always said she would run the office differently. She said her staff has taken on certain investigations and cases which the prior district attorney might have passed.

"The District Court deputies all have to help out in County Court," she said. "And I'm more proactive on the filing docket, on the front end. Everything comes to Glenwood for review so that we all are looking at cases that the other offices are filing. We all look at stuff and collaborate on it a lot more."

The accusations of micromanagement are not a cause for concern, she said.

"I'm not afraid of being called a micromanager," Caloia said. "I want to know what's going on. I want to know what my people are filing and offering because it matters to me to do the right thing."

Caloia said the biggest difference between her office and Beeson's is the philosophy of charging people with crimes.

"We ask, is this really a felony? What would a jury find? We are more realistic at the front end," she said.

Walter E. Brown III, a defense attorney in Glenwood Springs and former prosecutor, said he has recognized the turnover as being on par with what former District Attorney Colleen Truden had several years ago. Truden lost her position through a voter recall election following widespread allegations of wrongdoing.

"The turnover is different today," Brown said. "Colleen was kicking people out of the office and pushing them out on the street. There's been a lot of transfers under the present DA. People leave for different circumstances."

Brown pointed out that compared with the 9th Judicial District, the turnover has been much higher in Eagle County and the 5th Judicial District following the election of a new district attorney there.

"I've been here a long time, and I've seen a lot of DAs come and go," Brown said. "It seems to me (Caloia's) office has been run pretty well overall. My cases have not been adversely affected by anything going on over there."

andre@aspentimes.com

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