Denver Sheriff's Department: Gardner's office filed trespassing charges against protesters

DENVER – The last remaining disability advocate who was jailed following a more than 48-hour sit-in inside Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner’s office was released early Saturday, and the Denver Sheriff's Department said in a statement that officials within Gardner's office were the ones who filed trespassing charges against the protesters. 

Gardner's office has previously said that Andrew Merritt -- who is Gardner’s state director for Colorado -- was told by the building’s management Thursday that the office would be in violation of its lease at the building if it allowed the protesters to stay inside the office after 6 p.m. that day.

Requesting clarification on the department’s statement, a representative for Gardner’s office told Denver7 that whomever was at Gardner’s office at the time “signed papers to have the protesters removed at the request of the building.”

“Our building was threatening us with eviction,” said Contres adding, “it’s possible the trespassing charges were included in whatever they signed from DSD.”

Contres also told Denver7 they don’t see those charges moving forward, but that the decision would ultimately be up to the District Attorney, who would have to weigh in on the matter.

Denver7 has learned that the building is managed by Hines, a large corporate property management company that also manages several other large commercial properties throughout the world. Calls made to Hines’ Denver office on Friday to request comment were not returned.

The building Gardner’s office is housed in, 1125 17th Street, was bought by Goldman Sachs in January for $169 million, and is home to Halliburton, JP Morgan Chase, and Physician Health Partners, among a host of other clients.

Those arrested Thursday evening all face trespassing charges and have been issued court summons to appear in Denver court on July 28 at 8 a.m. Some of those protesters face further charges.

David Dane, the Denver attorney representing the arrested advocates, told Denver7 the protesters would have left had Gardner spoken with them, though at least two of the protesters told Denver7 earlier this week that they wouldn’t leave the office until Gardner voted against the Senate’s version of the health care bill.

“All he had to do was be honest—where do you stand on health care? He refused to meet with the people whose lives will be massively affected by what he does,” Lane said. “At some point, he’ll have to make a commitment one way or another and pay whatever political price he’s going to pay.”

But Contres says that’s not quite the case.

He told Denver7 that Gardner’s health care policy staffer has met either in person or via telephone with people from the group, ADAPT, 16 times since January, and that the most recent meeting was June 22.

And he added that the state director, Merritt, also spoke with the advocates several times since their protest started Tuesday morning.

Contres also said that staffers from the Denver office stayed with the protesters overnight both Tuesday and Wednesday nights to “allow these individuals to exercise their First Amendment rights in a safe environment.”

He said Friday that it was only when the Hines building management told Gardner’s office that their lease was at risk if the protesters weren’t out by the close of business that he says Merritt acted.

Contres told Denver7 that Merritt told them at 6 p.m. they would be removed if they didn’t decide to leave, that it was the building management’s orders, and that the office would work to get them rides from the office if they wanted. He said that it was only after all the protesters declined that Merritt had to call police.

The police reports do corroborate that account.

One of the complaints says that Merritt contacted police at 6:44 p.m., and that Sgt. A. Clarry told the group three times they were trespassing and had a time limit of 5 minutes to leave or they would be arrested.

“A few people opted to leave and were escorted off the premises,” one of the complaints says, but the others refused to leave despite knowing they’d be arrested, according to the complaints.

Video showed that the protesters were chanting, “I’d rather go to jail than die without Medicaid,” when they were brought out to be put in police vans.

Colorado Lieutenant Governor Donna Lynne on Friday sent a letter to ADAPT in response to a letter the organization sent the governor’s office requesting help in stopping the Senate’s health care bill.

“Like all Coloradans, people with disabilities deserve to live the lives they want, residing and working in the community. Our administration is committed to ensuring that individuals have access to the appropriate community based care and supports, especially those provided through Medicaid,” Lynne wrote, in part.

“We have deep concerns about the Senate bill and have asked Senators Gardner and Bennet to vote against this bill. The Department of Health Care Policy and Financing estimates that, when fully implemented, this bill would cut $1.5 billion annually from our Medicaid budget. Cuts of this size would force the state to make impossible decisions about the types of benefits we can offer or who will be eligible for them,” she continued.

Some of the protesters held a vigil outside the Denver courthouse Friday morning in solidarity with those who were arrested Thursday.

Both of the House and Senate bills Republicans have crafted in recent months to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act—something many Republicans, including Gardner, have campaigned on in recent years—would make large cuts to Medicaid and force more than 22 million people currently with insurance off it.

Gardner has been particularly targeted by groups in Colorado, as he is a Republican in a state that expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, and hundreds of thousands would be expected to lose that coverage sometime in the next 10 years under both the House and Senate bills. He's also been chastised for not holding in-person town hall meetings in the state over the past 8+ months.

Both Republicans and Democrats have called for changes to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), but the pathway to getting there differs greatly between parties. Senate Republicans all-but shut out Democrats while crafting their bill, and there were zero Democratic votes in favor of the House bill when it passed that chamber.

But as the impasse reaches a peak in the Senate after a handful of Republicans—specifically those from states that expanded Medicaid under the ACA—said they wouldn’t even vote the bill onto the full floor for discussion, representatives from both parties have slowly started to acknowledge that the two parties needed to work together to fix the ACA.

There had been talk of a new Senate bill being released Friday, but as of publication, there was not a new bill. 

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