Martin, Acha debate meal spending; Dems seek special prosecutor
October 19, 2016
Garfield County Commissioner John Martin reasserted in a debate Wednesday that his spending on meals and travel, the subject of accusations by his political opponents, have been legitimate expenses — while challenger John Acha backed away from being involved with the Garfield County Democrats' demands that Martin step down or face indictment.
Later in the afternoon, county Democrats released a letter to District Attroney Sherry Caloia calling for appointment of a special prosecutor for the "investigation, indictment and prosecution of John Martin for Class 5 felony embezzlement by a public official."
Caloia said her office cannot be involved with such an investigation because her office gets money from the county commissioners. She said she forwarded the request to the Fifth Judicial District Attorney's Office, which picks up cases in which she has a conflict of interests.
"That is something they could decide to do or not do," said the DA. This case has "also not been investigated by any police of sheriff's agency, which puts it into a state of limbo," Caloia added.
Twenty-year incumbent Martin and Acha hashed out their perspectives during a debate recorded Wednesday at the Post Independent to air that evening on Aspen Public Radio.
Open records requests by the Acha campaign and Garfield County Democrats uncovered that Martin had to reimburse the county $1,800 last year after an audit of his spending at intergovernmental conferences. Acha's campaign and the Garfield County Democrats jointly filed 19 requests under the Colorado Open Records Act, and the commissioners' use of their county purchasing cards was one target among the requests.
"But it is so much more than $1,800," Acha said.
In total, the cost to the county was about $12,000 including another $3,000 that Martin spent with his county purchasing card during these conferences and the bill the county got for the audit, said Acha.
Most of that $12,000 total comes from the audit itself, which cost the county $7,500.
Martin has defended himself, pointing out that at these conferences he's representing more than just Garfield County. He also represents other intergovernmental organizations, and receives an advances from one, Colorado Counties Inc., toward his travel expenses.
Democrats are putting all that money into a basket, mixing it up and saying that it's double dipping, Martin has said. He said Wednesday that he incurs significant expenses such as cab fare and airline luggage charges that aren't covered by the per diem.
This week, in a separate release, Democrats and Acha's campaign made public the commissioners' purchasing card receipts and said the board frequently and improperly goes out to eat on the taxpayers' dime.
In the debate, Martin reiterated that these meals are legitimate expenditures that commissioners are entitled to when they're on county business.
He said the meals — often lunches with fellow Commissioner Mike Samson on days the board is meeting — walk the fine line of being before and after county business, but not involving county business so they don't violate open meetings rules.
Concerning buying meals for other officials, Martin said, "If you happen to have a senator come into town … is it a legitimate thing to take him to lunch and use your purchase card? We think it is, because it's good practice, it's etiquette, it is something decorum calls upon."
But on Wednesday Acha minimized his role in Democratic demands for Martin to step down or face indictment.
"In no way whatsoever was Acha 2016 represented at that meeting," he said of an Oct. 11 meeting among Martin and top county Democrats Robert Shivley and Andrew Quiat at which Martin said he was told to resign and move to Delta County or face indictment. "Nobody from my staff was present. That was the Democratic Party." Acha said.
Acha said the meeting was described to him not as an ultimatum, but as a conversation between "three old politicians," a professional courtesy to let Martin know what Democrats had uncovered.
That meeting has been twisted in a way to make it seem like extortion, but it wasn't, Acha said.
"This was not a social call," replied Martin, who questioned the professional conduct of the attorneys at that meeting.
Martin has said this ultimatum could be considered intimidation of a elected official, but Caloia has said she doesn't believe the meeting "rises to that level."
And in that case too, Caloia said, she has a conflict of interests.
With the 19 CORA requests, Democrats say they've uncovered evidence of mismanagement and corruption in the county government. They've also criticized county property acquisitions and investments they targeted with CORA requests.
Separate from that discussion, Martin said during the debate that should he win re-election, he plans to "take a back seat" and retire after his sixth term.