Truden, county at odds
A work session for District Attorney Colleen Truden and the Pitkin County commissioners turned nasty Tuesday as the county withheld approval of its share of her 2006 budget.The commissioners are requiring the embattled prosecutor to provide more information on the office’s projected operating costs given her increased rate of felony case filings.The denial of a 4 percent budget increase was but a part of an often tense meeting. The dialogue between Truden, who faces a recall election next month, and Commissioner Mick Ireland was particularly rancorous at times. The commissioner at one point asked Truden if she wanted to change the “untruthful” answers he said she gave at a previous meeting.County work sessions are usually low-key. The board of commissioners tape-recorded this one, which is rare.Ireland and fellow Commissioner Jack Hatfield both noted that Truden has said the office is handling more felony cases, and so the cost of prosecuting cases may also rise, they said.Pitkin County’s portion of the 2006 budget would be $1.6 million, according to Truden’s request. That would include a 4 percent merit pay increase for employees who have earned it, she said.Before it approves its share of the budget, the board wants information on conviction rates, population numbers and other information related to what Truden says is a 57 percent increase in felony case filings. The prosecutor has said her office is seeing drastically more cases because it has a better relationship with law enforcement. She repeated that assertion Tuesday.”Is the crime rate in Garfield County increasing or not?” Ireland said.”What I know is the number of cases are increasing,” Truden said. “I don’t have any statistics to show crime itself is increasing, but the number of cases we are pursuing … are increasing.”Felony cases all have their own levels of complexity, she said. Some involve witnesses and experts, and those types of cases “could certainly cost far more than a misdemeanor case.””How are you going to sustain that on an annual basis?” Ireland said, referring to the increased caseload.Truden said that if the office continues to see more cases, she will have to present a budget in future years that reflects the increased impacts, including possibly hiring more deputy prosecutors.Commissioner Dorothea Farris said Pitkin County is responsible for 22 percent of the district budget but only accounts for 12 percent of the district’s overall caseload. The judicial district consists of Pitkin, Garfield and Rio Blanco counties.The information the commissioners are seeking on convictions and demographics is difficult to pinpoint, Truden said. Ongoing cases skew a fixed conviction rate, she said. And transient employees working in the oil and natural gas sector and other industries in Garfield and Rio Blanco counties make it hard to correlate criminal filings with population numbers, Truden said.”Our manpower is pretty taxed. I’ll do what I can to get this for you, but I can’t promise I can push a computer button and crank these things out,” she said.The meeting soured when Ireland asked Truden if she wanted to change the answers she gave when she last met with the board, on April 26.He said he asked her about three things, including whether her husband was on the judicial district payroll, “and you said, ‘Absolutely not.'”Ireland said he asked her if deputy district attorneys who resigned were escorted out ahead of their scheduled last day. Truden that day told the commissioners that “not one” had been walked out.Finally, he asked her if “women would be comfortable knowing that one of your prosecutors had allegedly sexually harassed fellow workers in an office in Mesa County. You said that didn’t happen.”The veracity of her statements at the meeting in April fueled the effort to oust her from office. A recall vote is scheduled for Dec. 13 in the 9th District.On Tuesday, Truden angrily responded that Ireland was an “adamant” supporter of the recall effort.”You’re trying to dig up old issues that have been long resolved to support the recall efforts,” she said. “And my answer with regard to my husband was absolutely true. He was not on the payroll. If you don’t understand the difference between payroll and contract services, I’m sorry – I can explain that to you.”Ireland said, indeed, he has expressed his political views. But he also has a duty as a commissioner to maintain that the integrity of “our process is respected by all who appear before us,” he said. “Therefore, I think I’m obliged in the event that someone presents us with untruthful responses to give that person an opportunity to correct those responses on the record.””I will appreciate your grandstanding for exactly what it is,” Truden responded. “I have never been untruthful to this body or any other. I take my oath very seriously, and the attempts to smear my name started very early in my administration and it continues today.””Did you or did you not – ” Ireland said.”Mr. Ireland, I am trying to answer your questions and you’re interrupting me.””You can answer them yes or no.””No, I’m not going to answer them yes or no. This is not a cross-examination, and you’re being quite rude.”Ireland again asked her to answer the three questions he asked previously.”What you asked is whether or not individuals in my office were escorted out or were helped out – what is your question? Let’s be specific,” Truden said.Ireland repeated the question.”Let’s talk about ‘escorting out of the office,'” Truden said. “What was playing in the papers and what was the general character of ‘escorting out’ at the time you asked that question originally? It was extremely negative, grab-’em-by-the-seat-of-their-pants and just throw them out the door. It absolutely did not happen. Did I accept deputy district attorneys’ resignations earlier than they wanted them accepted? You bet I did.”She said she wanted people in the office who shared her philosophical persuasion. Resigning employees were asked if they wanted help with boxing up their things, she said. As for the allegations about Assistant District Attorney Vince Felletter in Mesa County, Truden on Tuesday said she looked into the matter to her satisfaction.”I talked to the prior district attorney, judges, defense counsel and other people. They assured me what I needed to know in order to make the hiring decision,” she said.”You said [the alleged sexual harassment] didn’t happen,” Ireland replied.Truden said it didn’t happen as Ireland and a report in the Aspen Daily News said it did.Finally, referring to her husband, Ireland asked Truden if she thought “arguing a distinction between being on payroll and being a contract employee” creates public confidence in her office.She said it was reported the day after the April 26 meeting “that I clarified he was not an employee of the office, he was not on the payroll, he did contract services and volunteer work. That was a straightforward answer.””Do you think it would have been helpful to simply state, ‘No, he’s not on the payroll, but he’s a contract employee?'” Ireland said.”That’s what I said,” Truden replied.In response to the question about her husband at the April meeting, Truden said he was “not an employee on the payroll of the office of the district attorney.”He does provide some services [in the office] and does some volunteer work,” she added at the time.It wasn’t until May 2, during a meeting with the Garfield County commissioners, that Truden acknowledged hiring her husband for contract work. Public records showed Fred Truden earned $6,000 for six weeks of computer work at the Glenwood district attorney’s office.Truden has since said he was hired as a stopgap during the upgrading of the office software.Farris later asked her if she had solicited her own employees for donations to her recall defense campaign. Truden said she has called her employees during their off hours because she doesn’t want them to feel “slighted.””Don’t you think that puts a lot of pressure on people if they don’t participate?” Ireland said.”No more than for you if I had asked you to participate.””You can’t fire me,” Ireland said.Several employees have chosen not to participate, Truden said.Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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