Paul Nitze: Bad timing for a political grudge match in Colorado
December 3, 2009
Colorado’s senior Republicans, with the dogged assistance of The Denver Post, are trying to claim a scalp in the battle over Stephanie Villafuerte’s nomination to be Colorado U.S. Attorney. A Post subscriber might reasonably conclude, based on recent coverage, that we have a scandal on our hands to rival Teapot Dome. Nothing could be further from the truth.
A brief word on the facts. Late in Gov. Ritter’s 2006 campaign, when GOP candidate Bob Beauprez knew he was on the ropes, he took a cheap shot at the governor, then Denver’s district attorney. Based on information he obtained from an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent by the name of Cory Voorhis, he ran an ad claiming that Ritter cut sweetheart deals to illegal aliens charged with serious crimes.
The ad, which hit the airwaves in October 2006, focused on a heroin dealer named Carlos Estrada-Medina, also known as Walter Ramo. Under the latter name, he went on to commit sexual assault in California, after he was released on his drug case in Denver. Ramo was here illegally. Beauprez’s ad highlighted Ramo’s immigration status, and claimed that Ritter had a soft spot for criminal aliens, and gave them especially lenient plea deals.
Had it not been for Voorhis’ concerted effort to funnel the Ramo information to Beauprez’s campaign, it never would have aired. Voorhis accessed this information for an improper, political purpose, and most likely violated federal law in doing so. But Voorhis wasn’t the only person who accessed the National Criminal Information Center (NCIC) database that fall.
Just after the Beauprez campaign launched its attack on Ritter, someone in the Denver DA’s office also ran Ramo’s name through the NCIC database. And that background check coincided with a series of calls from Villafuerte and others in the Ritter campaign to their old office. While we don’t know exactly who requested that the check be run, the evidence strongly suggests that Villafuerte called First Assistant DA Chuck Lepley and a press officer about Ramo.
Since then, both Ritter and Villafuerte have denied contacting the Denver DA’s office about Ramo. They claim that the flurry of calls to their old office was limited to a possible security threat to Ritter, despite evidence to the contrary. Rather than simply admit the contact, they’ve stonewalled. As seems to be a pattern with the governor through his first term, the cure has turned out to be worse than the disease.
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Dick Wadhams, Congressman Mike Coffman, and a substantial chunk of the Republicans in the state Legislature are now out for blood. With its breathless, scoop-a-minute coverage of the Ramo/Voorhis affair, the Post is eager to help them kill the nomination. Lost in all of this is the basic question of what’s best for the state.
We’ve been without a U.S. attorney since January, when Troy Eid stepped down. Dave Gaouette, the acting U.S. attorney, is a very capable interim head, but he doesn’t have the mandate of a Senate-confirmed appointee. Major policy decisions and new hiring is frozen until a nominee is confirmed.
While U.S. attorneys are political appointees, they haven’t traditionally been subject to the same confirmation process as judicial nominees or cabinet heads. Until very recently, the rule of thumb was that a president is entitled to speedy confirmation of his U.S. attorney picks absent a serious concern about the qualifications or integrity of a nominee. Are the questions raised by Villafuerte’s contacts with her old office troubling? Sure. Are they disqualifying? I think not.
I welcome a serious debate about Villafuerte’s qualifications as a nominee, her judgment during her long tenure at the Denver DA’s office, and her position on the policy issues a U.S. attorney must navigate. If there’s a pattern of deception or misconduct, let’s hash it out.
But let’s not follow the Post’s lead by allowing state Republicans to use Villafuerte as a pawn to air out their grievances against Ritter or weaken him for the 2010 campaign.
Most troubling of all is the attempt to tar Villafuerte, Colorado’s first Hispanic nominee for this post, as a friend of criminal aliens. Colorado’s nativist son, Tom Tancredo, has made this point most explicitly. Recently, he got on the stump to claim that Villafuerte won’t “advocate for the effective enforcement of our nation’s immigration laws after participating in this disgusting vendetta against ICE agent Cory Voorhis.” Rather, it’s Tancredo’s sentiment that’s disgusting.
Bob Beauprez’s campaign started the ball rolling here by using improperly obtained information to smear Ritter. Ritter’s campaign appears to have compounded the error by improperly seeking the same information from the Denver DA’s office. Who’s in favor of tripling down and keeping the most important federal law enforcement job in Colorado vacant in service of a political grudge match?
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