Adams County: Exposing a culture of corruption

Special program on 7NEWS Wednesday at 7 p.m.

BRIGHTON, Colo. - With the final defendants in the Adams County corruption investigation sentenced to jail, the CALL7 Investigators detail the five-year investigation that led to felony charges, resignations and a revamp of county practices designed to prevent future corruption.

"Adams County: Exposing A Culture of Corruption" will air Wednesday at 7 p.m.

"I think that the most sweeping change in Adams County is that business is different, people know if I see the wrong thing I can report it and if I do the wrong thing I will be held accountable for it," said former Adams County District Attorney Don Quick, whose office prosecuted seven people for theft and other charges after a series of CALL7 stories.

The investigation began in 2008 when the CALL7 Investigators uncovered millions of dollars in no-bid contracts provided to Quality Paving and Quality Resurfacing companies despite a state law that requires governments to bid all road construction contracts over $5,000. 

Our stories also detailed change orders, contract extensions and instances when Quality Paving received contracts despite bidding higher than other qualified vendors.

The investigative reporting also detailed how Quality Paving and another company owned by a business partner of Quality Paving owner Jerry Rhea completed tens of thousands of dollars in construction and landscaping work at the home of Adams County public works director Lee Asay. 

After the stories ran, Adams County administrator Jim Robinson asked Asay if he could provide receipts showing he paid for the work on his home.

"Lee wasn't able to produce receipts that substantiated that it had been an arms-length transaction," Robinson told CALL7 Investigator John Ferrugia. "It would be hard to imagine that there were going to be receipts once we realized who had done the work on his home."

"Because Quality Paving had done it?" Ferrugia asked. "And he admitted that?"

"He did," Robinson said. "Quality Paving had done the work as well as another contractor."

Asay resigned after the original story and Robinson asked Quick to open a criminal investigation. But after a few months, Quick said his investigation stalled because he could not find people who knew about the deals.

The CALL7 Investigators, still working on the story, found several former Quality Paving workers who laid out how business with Adams County was done.

Our stories also uncovered that Quality Paving and Rhea's partner completed work on property owned by another key Adams County Public Works employee - contracts manager Sam Gomez.

The story about the landscaping and remodeling at Gomez's house included two public works employees. One asked to remain anonymous and a second was Heath Russo. They described Quality Paving’s work on Gomez's house.

"Well, did you know people from Quality Paving who were working over there?" Ferrugia asked Russo.

"Yes, they worked for my crew," he said.

After the story ran, Quick's office was able to gain Russo’s cooperation and dig up the information they needed to file criminal charges against seven Adams County and Quality Paving employees. Gomez and Asay resigned from the county.

"We didn't have anyone on the inside to say this is how it really worked," Quick said earlier this year. "They under bid everybody else at the time of the contract and then they did a change order which was basically for the same amount of work that was supposed to be in the contract and that's where they made their profit. And so once we had Heath Russo who was the person that you found who spoke to you, be willing to explain the inside operation then all of the sudden that was a lynch pin that dominos went in the right direction and that opened us able to say not only is this suspicious but it was done intentionally and was fraud on the taxpayers."

Aside from the Quality Paving scandal, The CALL7 investigators found other problems highlighting dysfunction in the Adams County government. 

The CALL7 Investigators followed Adams County parks director Crystal Gray after receiving a tip that she spent very few hours at work. We found her rarely going in to the office and shopping or running personal errands on days she filled out her timecard as working.

That story sparked the first change in Adams County, where directors often went around the county administrator.

"Whenever a director needed something, they would go around the administrator directly to the commissioners and part of what we did in our reorganization was that all the directors now answer to the county administrator," Robinson said.

"And that was directly a result of that investigation?" Ferrugia asked.

"That's correct, John," Robinson said.

Gray resigned after the story.

After the public works stories ran, Robinson realized he had bigger problems than just a director blowing off work.

"I mean how deep does the issue go?" Robinson said at the time. "We need to get to the bottom of it."

Along with a criminal investigation, the county started a major restructuring of the county's processes. Robinson hired an ethics officer who could investigate corruption allegations. The county also put in place an auditor and implemented central purchasing where all expenditures could be easily tracked. 

"If there was one event that led to reform and changes in Adam's county, it was the whole Quality Paving scandal," Robinson said. "I would say certainly after Channel 7's investigation into Quality Paving and the public works director, I had full support to try and put processes in place that would make Adams County a better government."

Voters also approved a change to the county charter expanding the Board of County Commissioners from three to five members. Voters will have a chance to elect those commissioners next year with the new commissioners taking their seats in 2015.

"We've gone from a couple of people making decisions -- you know at a kitchen table -- to now having it being much more transparent that five people are going to make decisions and they're going to do it publicly," Quick said.

"Do you think that's a direct result of this investigation?" Ferrugia asked.

"The five commissioners?" Quick said. "Yeah, I do."

Quick’s office was also able to secure convictions or pleas from six of the seven people charged in the case.

Quality Paving owner Jerry Rhea was sentenced to nine years in prison but he's free pending appeal. Quality Paving vice president Dennis Coen is serving 13 years in prison.

Russo and Adams County Stacey Parkin plead guilty to theft and obtained deferred sentences. One Quality Paving employee was acquitted at trial.

Gomez was sentenced to four years and Asay took a plea and received a 30-month prison sentence, which he started serving in April.

At his sentencing, Asay argued that he was a victim of the culture of corruption at Adams County, but District Attorney Dave Young said he was a key player in the corrupt government.

"Mr. Asay is a public servant (who) violated the public trust of the citizens of Adams County," Young told the judge. "He refuses to take responsibility that this was in fact a crime that he committed - that he allowed Quality Paving to steal from the taxpayers of Adams County."

Asay refused to talk to Ferrugia even after pleading guilty.

"Mr. Asay do you think you ought to go to jail for cheating taxpayers of Adams County," Ferrugia asked Asay as he enter the courthouse in February to attend his sentencing hearing. "Are you going to pay it back?"

"Can one of you guys help me here?" Asay asked the deputies.

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