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Fact-check: Attack ad about Polis' 1999 altercation with former female employee is misleading

Posted: 4:24 PM, Oct 19, 2018
Updated: 2018-10-20 04:25:04Z

DENVER – An attack ad that resurrects a 1999 confrontation between Jared Polis and a former female employee at his Boulder tech company has roiled the Colorado governor’s race.

Polis, the Democratic candidate for governor, adamantly denies any wrongdoing. 

But his Republican opponent, Walker Stapleton, said in a statement Thursday, “It is indisputable Congressman Polis pushed a woman into a filing cabinet and there is no excuse for this type of behavior.”

And an ad from an independent expenditure committee continues to try and push the claim.

Denver7’s fact-check finds the ad selectively cites quotes from police and court records and misleads voters. It also leaves out critical details, like the fact the former employee pleaded guilty to stealing trade secret records from Polis, whom law enforcement called the victim of the crime.

The ad is based on an altercation between Polis and the ex-employee, Patricia Hughes, who had resigned days earlier. She was clearing out her belongings from the office, and Polis feared she might remove sensitive documents belonging to his company.

The 1999 incident was first reported by the conservative Washington Free Beacon .

The TV ad – titled “Assault” – is sponsored by a shadowy group called Colorado Citizens for Truth, which only registered with the Colorado Secretary of State on Oct. 9 – just days before the ad began running. The independent expenditure committee has already spent nearly $900,000, according state campaign finance records. But they won’t have to disclose their donors until Oct. 29 – about a week before election day. 

The group has not responded to Denver7’s request to provide information supporting the TV ad’s claims.

The ad begins with a female narrator saying, “An angry CEO confronts a departed female employee and traps her in his office,” as the video scans sections of a police report. “Scared, she tried calling 911, but the CEO forcibly hung up the phone, pushed her into a cabinet.”

“Police observed bruises,” the narrator continues.

Let’s start examining these claims.

On the afternoon of June 23, 1999, Polis – whose legal name then was Jared Polis Schutz – and Hughes both called Boulder police, according to police reports.

Polis told an arriving officer that he’d talked earlier by phone with Hughes and she’d said she had information to “go after” him if things did not go smoothly with her resignation.

Polis said this made him suspicious, so he drove to the office to “make sure that she did not take any sensitive documents.” 

Polis said when he arrived, he found Hughes sitting at a computer deleting files. She also had several bags filled with files, sitting in the office and the hallway, the police report said. Polis said he asked the ex-employee if he could search the bags to make sure there were no work records in them. Hughes said she told Polis “the files belonged to her and that she did not want him to look through them.”

So, Polis called the police. And he told Hughes she couldn’t leave with the records.

From there, the Polis and Hughes accounts start to diverge.

Hughes told police that she tried to walk out with the files, but Polis stopped her. “He grabbed her and pushed her back into office,” and she hit a file cabinet, hurting her leg, Hughes said, according to a police report.

Polis told police he blocked the door to stop her leaving with the documents. “She moved toward him again, this time hitting him with a [sic] one of her bags,” Polis told police.

Polis said he “put both hands on her shoulders and pushed her back to prevent her from leaving.” But he didn’t say she hit a file cabinet.

Hughes told police she tried twice to call 911, but Polis hung up the phone. On her third try, her 911 call went through.

One of two police officers at the incident reported seeing two bruises on Hughes’ left, inner bicep and a red welt on her right thigh. Hughes said the bruises on her arm were from Polis “grabbing” her with his right hand.

But the officer wrote in his report, “The bruises were not conducive with [Polis’] statement that he pushed her shoulders. Nor were they conducive with Ms. Hughes’ statement of [Polis] standing in front of her and grabbing her.”

“The welt on her thigh she said was from [Polis] pushing her back when she attempted to leave … was conducive with the a [sic] file cabinet in front of the door,” the officer wrote. “There was also a key protruding from the upper right hand corner of the cabinet that could have produced the welt.”

An officer asked Hughes about the files in her bags, and she said they only contained her possessions. But she consented to a search of her bags.

The officer and Polis looked through files in the bags and Polis identified manila folders containing “original contracts for several of the companies he works with.” He said the contracts varied in value from $25,000 to $75,000, the police report said.

Hughes admitted the files belonged to Polis. The officer asked why she had them, and Hughes replied that as she was leaving, she “just took everything from on top of her desk and in her drawer.”

The officer noticed she had three keys on her key ring and asked her if they were for the office. She said no, but another officer took the keys and found one opened the office door.

The first officer asked Hughes “why she had lied to me,” and she replied she thought they were her keys.

The officer issued a summons for Hughes to appear in a court on an investigative charge of misdemeanor theft of trade secrets. “Ms. Hughes did knowingly and unlawfully take several files with original contracts and other sensitive documents from the office of JPS International LLC with the intent to deprive the business of these items permanently,” the police report concluded.

The ad’s narrator continues, “Courts imposed a restraining order ... But the CEO’s big-gun lawyers put the blame on her.”

Two days after police issued the summons to Hughes, she filed a request for a temporary restraining order, prohibiting Polis from contacting her. It was granted.

Boulder County District Attorney spokesman Catherine Olguin said judges almost “universally” grant temporary restraining orders.

But a permanent restraining order was not granted. The temporary order was soon vacated, and the case was closed.

As for the ad’s claim that the “CEO’s big-gun lawyers put the blame on her,” this is where the ad starts twisting reality.

It was prosecutors and police – not Polis’ “big-gun lawyers” – who decided that Polis was the victim of the crime and Hughes was the perpetrator.

She was charged with theft of trade secrets and pleaded guilty. She was granted a deferred sentence, allowed her to avoid jail and have her record cleared if she stayed out of trouble for 18 months. She had to comply with conditions that included having no contact with Polis, returning his property, and continuing her mental health treatment, court records said.

She successfully completed the deferred judgment.

Yet, the ad continues to portray Polis as the perpetrator – not the victim.

“There’s no good reason to assault a woman,” the ad narrator says.

Polis said Hughes hit him with bag. After that, he did admit pushing the woman back to prevent her from leaving the office with the records.  

Why he was never charged or arrested in the case?

The DA’s spokeswoman said years later, the prosecutor can’t remember the details of the case – among the hundreds of cases she handled that year. It was a relatively low-level criminal case.

Olguin stressed that a police report is “not evidence.” It’s documentation of what people tell police and what officers observe during the initial investigation. 

In an incident like this, a responding officer hears from all the parties, examines any physical evidence and then “makes a judgment call on whether I have probable cause to issue a summons or arrest someone,” Olguin said.

The district attorney also reviews the facts of the case and can decide to file additional charges.

“That did not happen in this case,” Olguin said. “Polis was not charged with a crime in relation to this incident.”

Hughes has since died.

The ad ended with the narrator saying, “The CEO’s name? Back then, ‘Jared P. Schutz.’ But you know him as ‘Jared Polis.’ Jared Polis changed his name, but he cannot change his past.”

The implication is that Polis changed his name to avoid being linked to the case.

In May 2000 – almost a year after the altercation with Hughes – Jared Polis Schutz decided to drop his last name and just go by “Jared Polis” – in honor of his mother’s maiden name, the Rocky Mountain News reported. He adopted the change as he was making his first run for public office, seeking a seat on the state Board of Education.

Polis held a public name-changing party. Guests were asked to make a $100 donation to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, which was matched by the Schutz Family Foundation, the newspaper reported.

Not exactly what you’d do if you wanted to quietly change your name to avoid being connected to a court case.

Our Findings

Colorado Citizens for Truth’s ad says, “An angry CEO confronts a departed female employee and traps her in his office. Scared, she tried calling 911, but the CEO forcibly hung up the phone, pushed her into a cabinet.”

Polis told police that he blocked the ex-employee from leaving with possibly stolen documents, and that – after Patricia Hughes hit him with a bag – he pushed her back into the office. She said Polis shoved her into a file cabinet, and an officer said a red welt on her leg was “conducive” with her hitting the cabinet. She said Polis initially stopped her from calling 911, but she eventually reached a dispatcher.  

The ad accurately cites some details from the police report. But it leaves out important context – that it was Hughes who was charged with a crime and she pleaded guilty. Polis was never charged. Police questioned her credibility. The police report said Hughes said that she had not placed company files in her bags, only for an officer to find that wasn’t true. An officer wrote that she “lied” when she said she didn’t have a key to the office. Clearly, the officer did not find probable cause to charge Polis with a crime.

Polis told police that he blocked the ex-employee from leaving with possibly stolen documents. She said he initially stopped her from calling 911, but she eventually reached a dispatcher. She said Polis shoved her into a file cabinet, and an officer said a red welt on her leg was “conducive” to her hitting the cabinet.  

But the ad leaves out important context – like Polis’ account that Hughes hit him with a bag of files, and her questionable credibility. An officer reported he twice caught her giving false information – denying that she had placed company files in her bags and saying she didn’t have a key to the office.

We rate this claim Misleading.

The ad says, “Police observed bruises.” That’s true, but an officer wrote that the bruises on the woman’s inner bicep were neither “conducive” with Polis’ account that he pushed her by her shoulders nor Hughes’ statement about Polis standing in front of her and grabbing her.

We rate this claim Misleading.

The ad claims, “Courts imposed a restraining order...But the CEO’s big-gun lawyers put the blame on her.” Hughes did obtain a temporary restraining order, but it was soon vacated, and the case was closed. It was prosecutors and police – not Polis’ “big-gun lawyers” – who decided to prosecute the former employee.

We rate this claim Misleading.

The ad says, “Jared Polis changed his name, but he cannot change his past.” This implies that Polis changed his name to avoid being linked to the altercation with the female employee. But Polis held a public name-changing party, with press coverage – not what you do to conceal changing your name or to hide your past.

We rate this claim Misleading.

Note: The television version of this story airs Friday on Denver7 News at 10 p.m.