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Jeffco dysfunction takes center stage at trial

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By AJ Vicens

While scandal is a subjective term, Mark Paschall’s trial on charges that he solicited a kickback from an appointee once again opened a window on the strange doings and apparent dysfunction that have plagued Jeffco government over the past decade.

Paschall, Jeffco's elected treasurer from January 2003 to December 2006, was found not guilty Feb. 15 on one of two felony charges. He'll be back in court Feb. 28 to see if the Jeffco DA wants to pursue the second count from his indictment.

The trial produced no end of wild disclosures and weird accusations. Paschall claimed that the allegations were a result of political payback from District 1 Commissioner Jim Congrove, who he said was angry because Paschall wouldn’t reveal his own testimony in a grand jury investigation of Congrove.

Meanwhile, during the trial, it was revealed that the prosecution’s star witness, Kathy Redmond, had been put up in a Breckenridge condo at the time Paschall's indictment was revealed in the press, leading to no end of speculation about the “smoking condo” — and who might have paid for it.

"The myriad scandals and court cases and investigations within the inner workings of Jefferson County government really paint a picture of a government in dysfunction," said Heath Urie, a former Courier reporter now working for the Boulder Camera. Urie spent nearly two years covering Jeffco and had a front-row seat to several scandals and investigations, and saw the effects of scandals before his time.

"The sheer number of investigations speaks volumes about the questions people have about their government,” Urie said. “People in Jefferson County, if they aren't already, should be very wary of trusting their local government without keeping a close eye."

Urie said county leaders are running a huge government with a large budget and need to be held accountable.

"The thing that is most important is that Jefferson County officials deal with huge sums of taxpayer dollars," Urie said. "Hundreds of millions of dollars are funneled through a few key people, and when the credibility of those few key people comes into question, the citizens should be very concerned."

Mike Zinna, a longtime county critic, has been involved with several lawsuits against the county, some of which have been thrown out of court.

"Absolute power corrupts absolutely," Zinna said. "When you've got three commissioners, all of whom share the same party affiliation, running a county that has 500,000 residents and a half-billion-dollar annual budget, there's going to be some greed and unchecked power associated with it. There's a time for a change in Jefferson County. There needs to be five commissioners, and a mix of representation that more accurately reflects the citizenry."

Kathryn Heider, Jeffco’s spokeswoman, declined to comment for this story when reached by phone Feb. 18.

A few of the low points for Jeffco officials in recent years:

• April 1999: A grand jury, at the request of former Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar, found that top Jeffco government and law enforcement officials held a secret meeting a few days after the Columbine High School massacre to discuss how to handle the existence of a draft affidavit to search the home of Eric Harris a year before the shootings happened. The group decided not to bring up the report at a news conference. Former County Attorney Frank Hutfless and other attorneys involved in the matter were cleared of allegations of violating professional standards in the matter in April 2005.

• June 2000: An e-mail composed by Hutfless said he believed there were "crimes committed" at the Jeffco Airport, despite a June 2000 finding by then-DA Dave Thomas that no criminal acts took place involving the former Airport Authority Board. Hutfless stated that he "simply told (a reporter) that the decision to prosecute/not prosecute was the DA's, and I won't second-guess him. (The reporter) and I both know ... that there were crimes committed."

July 2001: Longtime county critic Mike Zinna was part of two companies that sued Jeffco officials for $100 million following a land development deal that went bad in July 2001. The lawsuit was thrown out by the Colorado Supreme Court in February 2006, when the court found that Jeffco officials negotiated in good faith. Zinna is involved with litigation against the county and county officials to this day.

"The allegations contained in the previous lawsuits were way ahead of their time," Zinna said Monday. "If the judges in that case knew then what everybody knows now about Jefferson County corruption, those cases would have turned out differently."

October 2004: County Attorney Bill Tuthill resigned amid controversy over the hiring of three outside law firms to represent former Commissioner Rick Sheehan and an assistant county attorney. Sheehan and assistant county attorney Cynthia Beyer-Ulrich were accused of defaming several other county employees and elected officials in letters sent to Zinna, who operated a website and radio show. Tuthill hired three outside law firms to represent the county officials in the matter, and then-Commissioner Pat Holloway objected, arguing that taxpayer money shouldn't be spent defending people who were not acting in an official capacity for the county.

January 2005: Sheehan admitted that his family members sent a series of faxes that defamed several Jeffco officials. He claimed that he had no involvement in preparing or sending the faxes, but at that point the county had incurred about $30,000 in legal fees resulting from the "Pinky-T" scandal and faced another lawsuit in which Sheehan was accused of slandering a county employee. Sheehan resigned in February 2005 over the matter.

May 2005: The Jeffco sheriff's office launched a criminal investigation into how 8,000 pages of documents relating to Zinna went missing from a county attorney's office on May 19, 2005. No suspects in the matter have been announced, but the sheriff's report did point out at least 18 areas of improper or lax security measures at the county courts and administration facility, and a mismanaged filing system.

January 2006: The Jeffco commissioners engaged in a closed-door session to ostensibly discuss "legal advice" but wound up discussing how to shut off the microphone on Zinna during public comment times. Questions of the legality of the meeting and the fact that the commissioners may have been trying to muzzle one of their most vocal critics were raised.

May 2006: A Jeffco grand jury began looking into allegations that Commissioner Jim Congrove committed bank fraud and forgery, after Zinna filed a complaint with the Arvada Police Department in 2005 alleging Congrove had fraudulently used Zinna's name on a mortgage application in 2004 and forged his name on a bill of sale for a truck. Arvada police wrapped up their investigation in January 2006, and the case was handed over to the Denver DA's office as a special prosecutor. In late June 2006, the grand jury decided to take no formal action against Congrove.

September 2006: County officials refused to release public documents that would potentially shed light on the county commissioners' work schedules and public availability, citing "security concerns."

December 2006: A Courier review of county records found that some elected officials, including all three commissioners, were violating the county's rules for keeping logs of their driving activities while using county-owned vehicles. A request for records in the matter was met with an admission that the county had not properly followed guidelines for reporting and accounting for such use.

January 2007: Then-County Attorney Frank Hutfless resigned amid a boiling conflict with Congrove. The two nearly came to blows during the last public hearing Hutfless attended before his departure, over a memo that Congrove leaked to the media in which Hutfless criticized the commissioners over a pending audit of his office.

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com.