Will 9th District voters KO the DA?
December 8, 2005
“We cannot afford waste and fraud in any department or agency. This unprecedented action will mean a total review of government; its performance, its practices and its costs. Together with my dedicated team of experts, we will make California the first, true 21st-century government in America.” California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger,February 2004Colleen Truden was one of those experts.After resigning as a municipal court judge in Glenwood Springs in 2004, she relocated to Sacramento, Calif., to pursue a master’s of law degree at the University of the Pacific.While obtaining an advanced degree in government law and public policy, Truden interned with a state senator, concentrating on workers’ compensation reform. That led to involvement with Schwarzenegger’s transition team, according to a university newsletter, and her next internship. Connecting with the new governor’s staff eventually led to a role on the California Performance Review, an initiative the governor undertook shortly after he won office in a recall election.The goal was to revolutionize state government by studying and then streamlining every agency and board. Truden was one of 275 volunteers and state employees picked from some 3,000 applicants. She was also named to the “executive administration,” just below two executive directors and nine other directors.The result of the review was mind-boggling: A 2,500-page report that aimed to save California a total of $32 billion. The Orange County Register reported that more than 100 boards and commissions would be eliminated under the plan. It would also, not incidentally, overhaul how businesses operated in the state.Truden said she took a lot away from that experience, even if she never met the governor.”It was extremely educational, and it was quite useful in looking at the reorganization of a state government,” she said. So what happened to the proposals of the California Performance Review? Nothing. The effort was never followed through, said Tony Quinn, co-editor of the California Target Book, which tracks the state’s political trends.”It just sort of petered out,” he said. “The Legislature didn’t like it.”The CPR effort wasn’t related to Schwarzenegger’s four sweeping ballot measures, which were killed by voters last month, Quinn said.But the CPR may have had some impact on Colorado’s 9th Judicial District, where District Attorney Truden faces a Dec. 13 recall election. Most of the prosecutors who have resigned from Truden’s administration bristled at both her new, supposedly tougher way of handling cases and her accountability standards, just as the California Legislature and voters turned their back on Schwarzenegger’s plans.How Truden, 47, went from helping California’s top recall proponent to being Colorado’s top recall opponent is a topic that has dominated the news in the valley – and attracted statewide attention – since April 21. That day, both Aspen papers published front-page stories about four deputy district attorneys who had resigned from Truden’s office.But Truden was in the news occasionally before that.
In September 2004, before taking office, Truden was criticized for forming an advisory board that included members of the other side – defense attorneys. Some said their participation would cause conflicts of interest.On April 6, 2005, The Aspen Times reported that Truden had ended a domestic abuse program for minor offenders. The program, set up by former District Attorney Mac Myers, offered suspects who were accused of less serious infractions an eight-hour anger-management program. Truden ended it, citing a ruling by the Domestic Violence Offender Management Board, part of the Colorado Division of Justice. Now, even those involved in minor domestic abuse cases get 36 weeks of treatment.The eight-hour option had numerous benefits, said Peg McGavock, director of Response – Help for Battered Women, an Aspen-based advocacy group, and the program separated dangerous abusers from the less serious offenders.Truden didn’t comment for that story. She didn’t comment on a lot of stories when her leadership first came under scrutiny. She does now. Her defense has been steady condemnation of her opponents – “disgruntled former employees” who simply want their job back, she contends – and of the press.
Regarding the media, “there’s just a whole lot of things that are problematic with the coverage from the beginning,” she said wearily. “It’s been very one-sided. I think a number of individuals have pointed that out in letters and other ways of trying to get more balance brought through the writing and reporting.”And it would not have worked to simply acknowledge any possible mistakes early on, she said.”I don’t think I had any opportunity to be fairly represented at that point,” Truden said.When told that this reporter or any local journalist was always willing to talk with her, the district attorney said she took issue with “the tone of the articles, the way in which they were written, the manner in how it was approached.”When Truden acknowledged to the Garfield County commissioners that she had hired her husband, recall organizer and defense attorney Sherry Caloia said at the time that if “she had been upfront about it, it wouldn’t be an issue.”Instead, Fred Truden’s tenure at the district attorney’s office in Glenwood Springs became a public-relations debacle.Reached at home in early May and asked about his role at the office, Fred Truden said he did “absolutely nothing” for the office. Subsequent records obtained by Caloia showed that his company, Mediate It Inc., was paid more than $6,000 over six weeks.In a Dec. 7, candidate forum, the district attorney refuted that dollar amount, but did not offer a different figure.
Truden’s background has been questioned since she became a candidate for office. She’s acknowledged never having prosecuted a felony, but to the former municipal court judge, that’s unimportant.”I’ve sat as a judge on thousands of cases, hundreds of trials,” she said in July. “I’ve sat as a law clerk for federal district court. It’s not fair to just say, ‘Oh, you’ve never stood up in the 9th Judicial District and prosecuted a felony case. Therefore you’re inadequate or you’re incompetent.’ If that’s their standard, whoa!”She has also served as a clerk to an Indiana Supreme Court judge. After that, Truden had a solo law practice before becoming a municipal court judge in Glenwood Springs.Truden’s predecessor, Mac Myers, who won two terms as district attorney for the 9th District, has criticized her repeatedly in guest opinions and letters to the editor.”I have been a prosecutor for 19 of my 26 years as a lawyer, and I do not enjoy seeing prosecutors, even those in-name-only like you, being ridiculed in the press,” said Myers, who is now a deputy district attorney in Cortez. “Your conduct is an affront to the hundreds of prosecutors in this state who go the extra mile every day to do justice.”Truden, in turn, has fired back at Myers, saying she is reforming and improving the way justice is administered in the 9th District.”Our team of dedicated professionals is prosecuting more criminals, handling more cases, helping more victims and improving relationships with our law enforcement partners, in spite of the constant attack of lies and distortions, fueled and promoted by some in the local print media,” she wrote in a recent response to Myers.Truden’s lack of prosecutorial experience first became an issue during the campaign before the August 2004 primary election, when she faced then-Assistant District Attorney Lawson Wills. But voters in the three-county district (Pitkin, Garfield and Rio Blanco counties) weren’t overly concerned about Truden’s résumé. She beat Wills by 448 votes. There was no Democratic challenger in the November 2004 general election, nor has any Democrat entered the recall election. The three involved are all Republicans.
It has been a difficult 11 months, not only for Truden and her former employees, but also for suspects and victims waiting for judgments and results from the criminal justice system.Already under public scrutiny, the district attorney’s office was criticized in May by the father of Alex Terral, the Aspen High School student killed in a car crash outside town during summer 2004. The driver, Dustin Hite, who was also a student at Aspen High, was originally charged with vehicular manslaughter, a felony. After nearly a year in which several prosecutors handled the case, Hite accepted a plea offer of careless driving causing death, a misdemeanor.”For whatever reason, possibly expediency or lack of staff, the new people in the DA’s office agreed, against my wishes, to this lesser charge,” wrote Terral’s father, Tim.Friends and associates say the ongoing scrutiny has taken a toll on Truden and her entire office. But recall proponents contend the district attorney has only herself to blame.Criticism began in earnest in April, when three deputy district attorneys resigned (another quit before she took office). Jeff Cheney and Gail Nichols said they offered to stay with the office to finish cases, but were escorted out soon after turning in their resignations. Martin Beeson said he did not want the same treatment, so a few days later he resigned and walked out after finishing his docket. A few administrative staff members also quit.”This is very abnormal to see this many people go,” Glenwood Springs defense attorney Walt Brown said at the time. “There’s this large exodus of people that in my 27 years of practice I’ve never seen here.”The departures were just beginning. Three more deputies would resign in the next four months. Most cited differences with Truden’s management style.When it was revealed, also in April, that Truden’s husband had worked in the office and that she was evasive about the issue in front of the Pitkin County commissioners, the criticism intensified. Critics’ resolve grew stronger yet when they learned how much Fred Truden had been paid. The district attorney was also under fire for allegedly spending two-thirds of her annual budget in her first five months on office improvements and a new computer system.But perhaps the worst blow to Truden was yet to come. While Beeson, Cheney and Nichols were left over from Myers’ administration, some of Truden’s own hires eventually jumped ship.Tony Hershey, a former Aspen councilman who was hired by Truden before she took office, was a resolute supporter during the campaign and during most of his time as a deputy district attorney. But the relationship soured around August.Hershey said he was berated by Assistant District Attorney Vince Felletter for talking in the hallway with a defense attorney who was a perceived enemy of Truden’s. Hershey’s status further deteriorated when he and Felletter argued about it again during a staff meeting.Soon after that, Hershey drafted a resignation letter in which he told Truden that she was not “a Russian empress” and accused her and Felletter of fostering an atmosphere of paranoia.”I used to work in the entertainment industry for a writer-director who I thought belonged in an insane asylum,” Hershey said at the time. “But he wasn’t as bad as she is or Vince is.”Fellow Deputy District Attorney Katie Steers, also hired by Truden, then became the seventh and, at this point, the last deputy prosecutor to resign. She too cited a hostile work environment. After resigning, she filed an ethics complaint against her former boss with the investigative arm of the Colorado Supreme Court. Attorneys friendly to Truden’s office are being given better plea deals than those who have spoken out against her, Steers alleged. That investigation is ongoing. Hershey, meanwhile, has sued Truden over the conditions surrounding his departure.
Truden has consistently refuted every accusation against her. Even though 9,000-or-so people signed recall petitions, and 6,000 signatures were certified by the state, she contends the campaign against her consists of “a few individuals who have petty personal agendas.” She has maintained that felony filings are up 57 percent and that her office is winning more convictions. She has neither wavered from these stances nor admitted any mistakes.The ongoing influx of transient oil and gas workers in western Garfield County has been suggested as one reason for the swelling number of felony filings and convictions under Truden. The oil and gas boom could play a part, she has said, but it’s mostly because of an improved relationship between her office and law enforcement.The Aspen Times investigated this claim recently, asking local sheriffs and police chiefs for their opinions. Two agreed with Truden, one disagreed, and two others declined to comment.
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In looking back at a controversial political figure, it is interesting to study the days before the imbroglio. The similarities between Truden and Schwarzenegger are many: Both were riding high on promises to revamp their jurisdictions, both made strident efforts that resulted in major backlashes, and both are now suffering politically.If Truden does become the first district attorney in Colorado history to be recalled, she may look back and question the grandiose plan of the Terminator, and her allegiance to similar methods. Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is email@example.com