DENVER — The highest branch of Colorado’s Judicial Department is facing allegations of sexual harassment, sexism and payoffs to silence witnesses.
A series of investigative reports by The Denver Post revealed these allegations after being tipped off about a questionable contract two years ago.
The $2.5 million, five-year contract for judicial training was awarded to Mindy Masias, a former judicial department chief of staff, in a no-bid process.
“The rub to that was that she was facing discipline, they were looking to fire her,” said David Migoya, the investigative reporter who broke the story. “What nobody knew — what was behind it — was the why. Why was somebody facing firing all the sudden given a very lucrative contract?”
After his initial reporting, Migoya was able to interview former State Court Administrator Christopher Ryan, who claimed the contract was the result of a meeting between Masias and judicial department officials where she threatened a sexual discrimination lawsuit if she was fired.
Before accepting the contract, Masias had to sign a separation agreement with the department.
“Part of Ms. Masias’s separation agreement was to turn over a secret tape recording that she had made with, at the time all we knew was a justice of the Supreme Court. It turned out to be the chief justice,” Migoya said.
That recording apparently showed former Chief Justice Nancy Rice and Masias discussing sexism in the workplace.
Migoya said the Supreme Court has denied the contract was made in order to keep the allegations silent.
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 memo also details allegations of sexual relationships between staffers and that some were sending inappropriate photos and having sexual relations with vendors on state time and on state property.
Beyond that, the memo alleges that female employees are terminated at a much higher rate than men and have a more difficult time getting promoted.
After the release of the memo, the auditor general of the state of Colorado will be conducting a fraud level investigation. Gov. Jared Polis has released statements in support of that investigation.
"This memo describes unacceptable behavior within our judicial system, both among members of the bench as well as Judicial employees. This type of conduct has no place in Colorado. Every person should feel safe in the workplace and every Coloradan should be able to feel confident in the integrity of our judicial system and the high standards to which we hold our judges and our judicial system. We understand that the judicial department led by the new Chief Justice, Brian Boatright, has initiated an outside investigation to take a fresh look at what has happened in the past, and we support this decision,” Gov. Polis said in a statement.
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser also expressed concerns about the allegations brought up in the memo and said he welcomes the investigation.
“Coloradans expect transparency and accountability from public officials entrusted to lead state government. Releasing the memorandum at the center of this matter regarding the State Judicial Department, as well as opening independent investigations into the allegations contained in the memo, are necessary steps to address these serious concerns and instill confidence in the judiciary,” Attorney General Phil Weiser said in a statement.
Meanwhile, some state lawmakers are calling for a hearing into the allegations.
“This is not a normal way of practicing, but I would say these concerns are unprecedented, and the level of corruption, the level of cover-up, the level of lack of transparency and lack of integrity really will force us, if need be, to exercise all options to make sure we have accountability,” Sen. Leroy Garcia said.
He wants to shed light on the evaluation process for these justices and find out what policies and practices need to be put in place to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again.
Right now, Garcia said he is not confident in the process or the overall transparency of the judicial system.
“It’s becoming more and more apparent that this isn’t something that just happened over a one day time span. Many should’ve been sounding the alarms,” Garcia said.
The questions over transparency and accountability in the judicial department are something attorney Chris Forsyth has been raising for years.
“We’ve proposed simple proposals that would completely have prevented the situation and should be the status quo going forward, which is public judicial discipline proceedings and an elected state court administrator. We’ve advocated for both of these, and it’s all fallen on deaf ears,” Forsyth said.
He believes the latest allegations prove the justices believes themselves to be above the law in Colorado, and he believes there are many more secrets the public is simply unaware of.
“Thirty-four states have public judicial discipline. Most states have them, Colorado doesn’t. People don’t understand that Colorado judicial system is extreme. It’s radical in its darkness that it provides to judges,” Forsyth said.
He would like to see more separation between the finances of the judicial department and the judging of the department.
“No judge should have access to taxpayer funds to award contract in exchange for the sort of keeping judicial misconduct away from public view,” he said.
With more attention on the judicial system in the state thanks to the Denver Post reporting, Forsyth said he’s cautiously optimistic changes could be on the horizon.