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Investigations find misconduct, workplace issues within Colorado Judicial Department

Colorado Supreme Court
Posted at 4:49 PM, Jul 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-14 19:31:41-04

DENVER — Two investigations into allegations of misconduct and sexual harassment within the Colorado judicial branch have wrapped up.

The first report, a 69-page investigation into a contract awarded to former Judicial Department employee Mindy Masias, concluded that the contract was awarded improperly and that there was misconduct, but it stopped short of calling the agreement a quid pro quo.

The $2.5 million, five-year contract for judicial training was awarded to Masias, a former Judicial Department chief of staff, in a no-bid process. However, Masias was fired from the department for allegedly forging reimbursement receipts.

Before signing a separation agreement, Masias allegedly met Judicial Department officials and threatened a sexual discrimination lawsuit.

“The lawsuit allegedly would be a tell-all sex discrimination case that she would reveal the conduct of judges and other personnel within the department,” said David Migoya, a reporter with the Denver Gazette who broke the story.

According to the memo, the allegations against judges included an instance where a judge sent a pornographic video out using a judicial email, and another instance where a judge exposed and rubbed his hairy chest on a female employee’s back without any action being taken against him.

The investigation by former U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado Robert Troyer concluded that the contract should never have been awarded to Masias, and that there was both mismanagement and misconduct in the contract’s approval.

In a statement about the report, Chief Justice Brian Boatright wrote, “There is no way to sugarcoat the uncomfortable findings of RCT’s investigation. However, with new leadership throughout the SCAO since these events, I believe that we have made significant progress in addressing many of the issues that the report identifies. But we obviously still have plenty of work to do.”

During a legislative interim committee hearing about the report Tuesday, Troyer and his colleagues told lawmakers the contract itself is a serious breach of public trust, and that they were concerned about the toxic work culture they uncovered. However, they determined the contract was not awarded as a result of threats to disclose judicial misdeeds, a conclusion lawmakers were openly critical of.

Chris Forsyth, the executive director of the Judicial Integrity Project, is also concerned with the report’s findings. For about a decade, he has been calling for reforms within the state’s judicial system, and says all of this could have been avoided if the state had listened to him a decade ago.

“Unfortunately, one of the takeaways is how badly the government dropped the ball on all of this,” Forsyth said.

He is critical of the reports because investigators did not talk to three of the key people involved in the scandal — Masias, former human resources director Eric Brown and former State Court Administrator Chris Ryan. Forsyth worries that investigators only got half the picture in their review of the contract.

He also disagrees with some of the recommended changes from the Troyer report. He wants to see the administrative functions of the judicial department separate from the judges themselves.

His group is proposing electing a state court administrator who runs the judicial branch financially and administratively separate from the judges.

“We want judges focusing on the judicial business, we want judges hearing and deciding cases,” Forsyth said.

The Judicial Integrity Project also wants more citizen involvement in the judicial discipline process and more transparency into the process.

In the wake of the contract allegations, this year, Colorado lawmakers passed a bill to form an interim committee to look into the judicial discipline process and propose legislation to make reforms. Rep. Jennifer Bacon, D-Denver, sits on that committee.

“This whole department, that has such importance over people's lives, I'm really concerned that there may not be checks and balances in regards to what people are doing. But what I can say is, for the most part, you know, I don't, I have not lost faith in the rule of law,” Bacon said.

She says a lot of the discussion has been around the culture of the Colorado Judicial Department and concerns about silencing people who are trying to speak up.

During Tuesday’s committee hearing, several lawmakers also questioned the scope of the investigation, since the three key players were not interviewed. After the hearing, Bacon says she has a number of concerns.

“I don't doubt some of these, you know, judges’ ability to assess law, but I deeply question if they even know how to manage people,” she said.

The committee has been tasked to look into 18 areas of judicial discipline. However, this can be tricky, since some issues fall under the realm of human resources and others fall into the category of judicial discipline. Both have very different processes and levels of transparency.

“I think that we're all in a place of understanding the department needed to be managed better and to be managed differently. We now have to figure out to the extent what we can do as a legislature that is not in violation of law or the Constitution,” Bacon said.

In order to bring major change to the judicial discipline process, voters would need to approve a change to the state constitution, since that is where the judicial discipline process is laid out. It would take 55% of the vote to see a constitutional change.

Forsyth anticipates that lawmakers will, at a minimum, reduce the level of confidentiality within the discipline system so that there is more transparency. However, he also has concerns with the legislative committee itself, because he believes some lawmakers have previously run bills on behalf of the Judicial Department.

At the end of the day, Forsyth says changing the judicial discipline system would not have resolved the problems that popped up with the Masias contract.

“We're trying to improve it to increase the trust and confidence of the people," he said. "Right now, this scandal is awful. I mean, the trust and confidence of the people is, rightfully, at a low point."

A second, 131-page report took a closer look at the culture within the department, and found that there are workplace issues, but it stopped short of saying there was a cover up or intentional ignoring of complaints.

That investigation was conducted by the Investigative Law Group, which determined that the workplace problems include fear of retaliation if employees were to file a complaint of misconduct.

A second statement from Chief Justice Boatright read in part, “ILG’s findings are simultaneously clarifying and sobering.”

He went on to call for the creation of a workplace culture initiative and for improvements to the legitimacy of the process for handling complaints.

The report also determined that there were not enough ways for employees to confidentially report issues, as well as a greater need for transparency and accountability within the department.

“It's a very poor culture. In the workplace, in the Judicial Department, where many women, most women, feel very uncomfortable with having to report any issue with sexual assault or sexual harassment,” Migoya said.

That report will be discussed at the committee’s next hearing on August 10.