GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. - As former Mesa County Public Trustee, part of Paul Brown's job was to guide people who are in foreclosure, and help them restructure or renegotiate their loans whenever possible so they could remain in their homes.
Brown also spoke to service groups and appeared on television, warning residents about "shysters" who, for $5,000, promised to get people out of foreclosure - a scam that happened a lot, both locally and nationally, he said.
"I really looked at my job as trying to help people get out of being in foreclosure," Brown said.
Colorado's public trustee system was established in 1894, as a neutral party to protect the rights of borrowers, lenders and lienholders.
Although the public trustee office is located on the third floor of the old county courthouse, 544 Rood Ave., the office is not taxpayer-supported, but funded by fees charged to banks and other lenders. The public trustee pays rent to the county.
Brown, 70, grew up in Palisade, and graduated from Palisade High School, then Mesa Junior College and the University of Colorado. He served four years in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam era.
Brown also served two terms in the Colorado State Legislature, worked as a real estate appraiser, and for the state in the division of property taxation. He's been married 47 years to his wife, Sue, and they have one daughter and two grandchildren.
Brown recently sat down with the Free Press to talk about his work as public trustee, and what led to his forced retirement in August.
In 2006, Brown, a Democrat, ran for Mesa County Assessor, but lost to his Republican opponent Barbara Brewer, who was the public trustee for Mesa County at the time.
"Over the course of the campaign, we became friends," Brown said. "There was no mudslinging."
Brewer suggested that Brown apply for the public trustee job and offered to write a letter in support. Then-Gov. Bill Ritter appointed Brown to the position in February 2007, and Gov. John Hickenlooper reappointed Brown in 2011.
Hickenlooper chose not to reappoint Brown in August 2012, however, after a series of articles, published in the Daily Sentinel and Denver Post newspapers, alleged misconduct in public trustee offices around the state.
The Sentinel reported extensively on Brown - he counted at least 47 articles - after he stopped publishing legal notices in its newspaper (a lucrative longtime source of revenue for the paper). The contract instead went to the Fruita Times and Palisade Tribune newspapers.
The Daily Sentinel ran a number of front-page stories about Brown that said he acted inappropriately when he asked for requests for proposals after making a deal with the Times and Tribune Publisher Bob Sweeney.
A Denver Post reporter then initiated an investigation into all 10 public trustee offices around the state for alleged misdeeds. As a result, Hickenlooper asked all 10 public trustees to resign and later reapply for their jobs. Brown was not among the five who were eventually rehired. Another former public trustee refused to reapply.
"(The governor) was taking the word of a newspaper reporter without our side of the story," Brown said.
Brown said he was never interviewed by Hickenlooper, but was told repeatedly by two Hickenlooper staffers that he was "too controversial," that he had "made the largest newspaper on the Western Slope 'very angry.'"
"I was just trying to do my job," he said he told the staffers.
Hickenlooper did not respond to a Free Press inquiry as to why Brown was fired.
Brown said he had no intention of removing the foreclosure notices from the Sentinel when he took office, even though Sweeney often asked him to "spread the wealth around" by printing the notices in the Fruita and Palisade papers.
The public trustee office paid the Sentinel more than $500,000 in 2010, for publishing the foreclosure notices, current public trustee Mike Moran said.
Although all the legal notices are published online for free at www.mesacounty.us/publictrustee, the public trustee office is required by law to also publish the notices in a paid legal newspaper. The Fruita Times and Palisade Tribune are both paid weeklies.
It wasn't until Brown began noticing frequent mistakes while proofing the legal descriptions that he considered publishing the notices elsewhere, he said.
Daily Sentinel Publisher Jay Seaton disputed that assertion.
"If that's the case, he never brought it to my attention until he pulled the notices out of the newspaper," Seaton said. "I don't agree with his version of the facts."
Seaton said he was aware of one mistake in a legal description published in July 2011, and the newspaper reran the notice at no charge.
Brown responded, "Certainly, his staff knew it was happening repeatedly, because I kept going over (to the Sentinel office)" Brown said.
In an attempt to avoid errors and increase readability of the legal notices, Brown said he asked the Sentinel to scan and publish the information in the format provided by his office - a more legible layout that would have taken up more space, thus costing the newspaper more money to print.
Traditionally, the Sentinel has published the notices in a dense, single-column format that both Brown and Moran said are difficult to read.
Sweeney was willing to publish the legal notices as Brown requested, and brought a sample publication to him.
"That's when I signed a letter of intent," to publish the notices in his newspapers, Brown said.
However, after consulting his attorney, Brown decided to open the bidding process to all media.
"I told Bob Sweeney he would have to resubmit his bid," Brown said. "And Sweeney agreed to resubmit his bid and abide by the results."
Sweeney's bid was half that of the Sentinel's to publish the notices in the format Brown wanted. Thus, the Fruita Times and Palisade Tribune won the 2012 contract, Brown said.
Brown soon found himself the subject of numerous negative articles in the Sentinel - coverage that lasted a year.
"(Publishing legal notices) was work we'd done for 100 years. We didn't change the price for 18 years. Suddenly, he's moving the legals to the Palisade Tribune," Seaton said.
"We contacted the governor."
A handful of banks continued to advertise their notices in the Sentinel, while the Fruita and Palisade papers became the trustee's default publications in 2011. The Daily Sentinel experimented with publishing the notices in the format favored by Brown's office, but then stopped.
"Our legal research indicated that the public trustee has no legal basis, no statutory authority to insist on any particular format," Seaton said.
While it's true the public trustee office cannot dictate a particular format, the public trustee does have the freedom to choose where to publish the foreclosure notices.
Although the Daily Sentinel has a larger circulation than the Fruita Times and the Palisade Tribune combined, both the former and current public trustee said they believe more people read the notices published in the two smaller newspapers due, they say, to the easier-to-read format.
"The attendance on my foreclosure sales increased by about 50 percent when we went to the smaller papers," Brown said.
Plus, the papers were distributed freely at real estate offices, the library and other public buildings, he said.
"The number of properties that sold increased," and that's good because people who are foreclosed on stand a better chance of recouping some of their investment when a property sells, rather than when a bank takes back a property and it sits on the market, Brown said.
Earlier this month, Moran agreed to publish the 2013 foreclosure and other legal notices in the Daily Sentinel, the sole bidder. The Sentinel bought the Fruita Times and Palisade Tribune in January, thus eliminating any competition for the legal notices.
"The rate being charged by the Daily Sentinel is more than is charged by newspapers in all of the other most-populated counties of Colorado," wrote Moran in an email to the Free Press. "The average cost of publication of a notice of foreclosure sale in Colorado is around $250. The Daily Sentinel is charging more than twice the average cost being charged in most foreclosures in the state."
Brown said he would have liked the opportunity to tell Gov. Hickenlooper his side of the story, regarding the publication of the legal notices. He said he feels he was unfairly attacked by the media, which ultimately led to his losing his job.
"I never would have made the change if (the Sentinel) had given me what I'd asked for in the beginning," Brown said.