Investigators defend findings that controversial $2.75 million judicial contract was not a quid pro quo
Lawmakers questioned a pair of independent investigators Tuesday about their core finding that a controversial contract awarded by the Colorado Judicial Department to a top administrator as she left her job was not explicitly given to keep the woman from speaking out about judges’ misconduct.
Former U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer and former Denver independent monitor Nick Mitchell defended their conclusions during the second public meeting of the Legislative Interim Committee on Judicial Discipline, which is tasked with considering reforms to the state’s system for disciplining judges.
The committee members expressed skepticism about the report’s key finding — that the contract was not designed as a payoff to silence the official, Mindy Masias, who was then chief of staff at the State Court Administrator’s Office but was facing firing over financial irregularities.
“You’ve reached the conclusions you’ve reached. I am left with an uneasy feeling,” Rep. Mike Weissman, D-Aurora, said Tuesday.
Troyer and Mitchell relied heavily on why then-Chief Justice Nathan “Ben” Coats agreed to give the $2.75 million contract to Masias in order to conclude that the deal was not a contract-for-silence agreement, finding Coats did not believe that was the reason for the contract.
Their investigation centered in part on a meeting in late 2018 or early 2019 between Coats, attorney Andrew Rottman, then-human resources director Eric Brown and then-State Court Administrator Chris Ryan in which Ryan recited various instances of past judicial misconduct that Masias knew about during a discussion about giving the contract to Masias.
Mitchell and Troyer found that Coats had already decided to give the contract to Masias before that meeting — the contract had been under discussion for several weeks — and so concluded the deal was not a contract-for-silence, although Brown and Ryan had advocated for giving the contract as a way to keep Masias quiet and may have hoped reciting the misconduct would seal the deal.
“Obviously Nick and I picked on the skepticism about this conclusion,” Troyer told lawmakers in response to pointed questioning. “It’s just one of those things where sometimes we want a story to be sexy and dramatic… before the investigation is done and actually it’s much more commonplace: poor human behavior, deficient, regrettable, really disappointing human behavior, especially from a judicial department… We still feel the report is very firm in the conclusion that things didn’t change in this meeting, where the ‘dirt memo’ was read. Motivations didn’t change, a contract for silence didn’t spring out of someone’s forehead.”
Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, told the investigators he “struggled” with the report’s findings.
“Perhaps there is no evidence that the then-chief justice approved the contract in order to ‘shut her up,’ but it did seem to me there was a strong implication this contract was awarded for improper motivations, some of which may have been to make Mindy happy or to get Mindy on her way or out the door, if not to shut her up, pay her off… And that just still lingers out there,” Gardner said.
Troyer said Coats’ motivations differed from others in the department, and in particular from Ryan, who later alleged to The Denver Post that the contract was a deal for silence.
“I think you are on the right track when you say there is still something nagging that leads us to believe the contract was a way to keep Mindy happy and get her out the door,” Troyer told Gardner. “That phrasing you used is precisely what we found Chris Ryan’s motivation to be. He engaged in a bunch of actions and omission in his communication of information to Coats about what was going on. That allowed him to accomplish that goal. But I think really that was Chris Ryan’s goal and not Ben Coats’ goal.”
The investigators also said the Colorado Judicial Department did not sway their findings or improperly influence their investigation, as some critics have suggested.
“The conclusions reflected in this report are our conclusions that we formed using our independent judgment shaped by our decades of legal and investigative experience,” Mitchell said. “Our conclusions do not reflect improper undue influence from any party, including employees of the judicial department.”
The conversation with the investigators on Tuesday also focused on the problems they discovered within the State Court Administrator’s work culture and environment, which Mitchell described as one of the “most troubling” findings in their investigation, and which multiple lawmakers described as “shocking.”
“There were multiple employees within the department who had concerns about the contract,” Mitchell said, “but given the climate of fear and intimidation that had been created by people in leadership positions, those employees never voiced their concerns.”