Who’s your DA? Truden, Beeson, McCrory face off in debate
December 8, 2005
District Attorney Colleen Truden’s opponents attacked her handling of prosecutions, media and the judicial district’s budget in a highly contentious and crowded debate Wednesday in Glenwood Springs.
In the middle of one of the most controversial prosecutorial terms in state history, Truden was stuck in the middle again. Sitting to her left and right, candidates Chip McCrory and Martin Beeson repeatedly hammered Truden’s 11 months in office.
The prosecutor fought back by reiterating her accomplishments, including a 57 percent larger caseload and a 40 percent higher conviction rate than her predecessor. She also touted the experience of her staff.
On that topic, McCrory pounced.
“It’s very easy to catch up on gaps in your budget when you’re budgeted for a certain number of attorneys and you’ve only got half that number,” he said, eliciting laughter and applause from some audience members. “And then in order to get fully staffed, you’ve done that because you’ve hired a couple of interns fresh out of law school that haven’t passed the bar exam yet. You’re not paying them varsity prices, either.”
“My, my. Many attacks from all sides,” Truden said.
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The incumbent and the candidates began the two-hour debate at City Hall with brief opening statements. They then took turns answering questions from moderator Ron Milhorn of Glenwood radio station KMTS.
The forum, broadcast live on Glenwood’s public access TV channel, offered downvalley citizens a chance to appraise Truden and those who would be district attorney. Voters in Pitkin, Garfield and Rio Blanco counties, which make up the judicial district, will go to the polls Tuesday and decide if they want her to remain in office. If not, they can mark Beeson’s name or write in McCrory’s name.
Truden opened by saying that no one was fired when she took over in January and that she “resisted advice to clean house.” She said she developed an action plan and assessed procedures and job assignments.
“I received absolute resentment when I introduced a new concept: accountability,” Truden said.
Her political opponents launched the recall and former employees wanting their jobs back joined in, she said. Aspen newspapers gave them media access, she added.
Among other accomplishments, the 9th Judicial District is processing criminal cases and the office is under budget, Truden said.
“Let’s clear up these distortions, these misrepresentations and these blatant efforts to destroy a reputation,” she said.
She also touched on the topic of credit cards. The Aspen Times reported in August that Garfield County finance officials canceled her staff’s credit cards for not reporting invoices in a timely fashion. But that didn’t happen at all, she said.
“We were using our credit cards as was expected,” she said. “It was just the town attorney’s office and budget folks weren’t used to seeing those kinds of charges because we used them for [witness expenses],” she said.
Beeson retorted that Truden hired her husband and then tried to hide it, bringing a roll of the eyes and a frown from the district attorney.
“And she didn’t pay her bills on time, and that’s why she got her credit cards yanked,” he said. “Fiscal irresponsibility? You bet.”
Another question centered on departing workers. Seven deputy district attorneys and several administrative staff members have resigned since Truden took office. Two prosecutors offered to stay on and finish cases but were escorted out almost immediately.
Truden said she handles employees who have given two weeks’ notice by taking note of their attitudes.
“If you have somebody who comes in and says, ‘I tender my resignation effective today, I would like to hang around here for a couple of weeks, but I don’t like you, I don’t like your philosophy and I don’t like what’s going on here,’ I have to say it’s not a good idea to keep them around,” she said.
Beeson, a former deputy district attorney under Truden, contended that he was a prosecutor, not a politician. He said he was trying to bring “straight talk” to the public.
The district attorney’s office is wracked by crises of dishonesty and a lack of confidence, he said.
“This office is going the wrong way down a one-way street,” Beeson said. “We need to get control of the office and to turn it around. We can do that; we have a chance here.
“How many times in life do you get a second chance on something so very important?”
McCrory, a Carbondale defense attorney and former local assistant district attorney, is a write-in candidate after falling short of getting enough signatures to make the ballot. Nevertheless, “I am serious in my candidacy,” he said.
District attorneys have a unique place in the judicial system, he said. They have the authority to dismiss or alter charges, and they have to balance many competing interests while still ensuring justice is done.
There were also questions about TRIDENT, a multijurisidiction drug task force, and, separately, the recent shooting death of a 9-year-old boy in Battlement Mesa, allegedly by a 14-year-old who will be tried as an adult.
All agreed that TRIDENT is a vital part of law enforcement, although McCrory said the group has not adjusted to current trends. The widespread manufacturing of methamphetamine in western Garfield County has not been addressed, he said.
The Battlement Mesa shooting was an immense tragedy, the three said. Truden said the decision to charge the teen as an adult was based on state statutes.
And then there was the issue of nepotism. Truden nodded her head slightly and had a tight grin on her face as McCrory said hiring a loved one is not a good political decision. The district attorney’s hiring of her husband as a contract employee has proven to be one of the most controversial aspects of Truden’s term so far.
Hiring Fred Truden was a one-time, emergency response to a computer crisis, she said, denying that he was paid $6,000 for six weeks of work. That last, widely reported, dollar amount was based on documents from her office obtained through freedom of information requests.
Beeson said it was one of many things on which the district attorney has misled the public.
“This is deception at its finest,” he said.
Colleen Truden later said her husband had provided hundreds of hours of volunteer work to the office ” “They don’t want you to know that.”
Regarding her handling of cases, Beeson said that when he worked for Truden, it was policy to file as many serious charges as possible against suspects to use as leverage.
“That is wrong, and it has to stop,” he said.
Finally, the three discussed dealing with the media. McCrory said it isn’t wise to ignore reporters’ phone calls and said the media has only touched on pieces of the controversy. Beeson harkened to Truden’s original campaign promise of running an open and transparent office. Every call has not been returned, he charged.
Truden said she has dealt with reporters, photographers and cameramen for three or four hours a day for months.
“You, the citizens, should get more information,” she said. “You are only getting one side.”
Rob Edelmann of Glenwood Springs brought his children to Wednesday night’s debate.
He said he wants Nicole, 12, and Bryan, 10, to be involved in politics. The kids had plenty of opportunities to study politics, denials, accusations and bitter replies. Edelmann said he thought it was also a chance to show them integrity, in the form of candidate Martin Beeson.
“I’m supporting Martin. He’s a man of integrity and character, so I wanted to see if he was the right man for this position,” he said.
With room for perhaps 60 in the council chambers at Glenwood Springs City Hall, people were left standing near the door. More stood out in the hallway.
Among those inside was No Name resident Dale Reed. He said he spent 31 years in state government.
“I’m a strong advocate for honesty in government. That should be a requirement,” he said.
He thought Truden had failed in that regard.
“The most publicized [example] is where she hired her husband under contract and then essentially misled the Pitkin County commissioners,” he said. “She didn’t say anything about [his] $6,000 contract. That’s basically dishonest.”
Charles Roberts of New Castle said Truden did the best she could under the circumstances.
“Of course, she was on the defense, which is understandable because there are a lot of allegations that have been thrown at her,” he said. “I think she was fairly clear with what the record shows.”
Getting back to her record and the statistics of her office handling more cases and convictions was key, Roberts said.
“Voters did not vote on style,” he said. “She’s not the most articulate person in the world, but she kept bringing it back to the statistics.
“She certainly has something to back her up.”
Outside the conference room stood Dean Moffett of Glenwood Springs. He was holding an armful of “Recall DA” signs to give out.
There were plenty of takers, Moffett said.
“And I’m one of those conservatives she was talking about,” he said with a smile.
Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org