DA’s office loses another member
Post Independent Staff
A prosecutor accused District Attorney Colleen Truden of ethical improprieties Thursday evening after joining the growing list of attorneys to resign from Truden’s office.
Katherine Steers said Truden abused her power by making prosecution decisions according to what defense attorneys have said publicly about the DA’s office, “instead of basing them on the case and doing what’s right for the defendant.”
“It’s wrong. It’s ethically immoral,” Steers said. “I’m embarrassed that I worked for her just because of what I saw happen.”
Steers also criticized Truden for filing a contempt of court charge against defense attorney Ted Hess, and said financial difficulties appeared to be hindering Truden’s willingness to take cases to trial.
Truden could not be reached for comment Thursday evening.
Steers submitted a letter of resignation Thursday.
“I am forced to take this action at this time to remove myself both personally and professionally from the hostile work environment that you have fostered and continue to promote,” Steers wrote to Truden. “I simply cannot work where normal standards of respect and courteous behavior are not observed.
“Moreover, I cannot meet my obligations to our legal profession, our oath of office and those that we serve if I were to continue employment under such negative and hostile circumstances, all of which appear to have spiteful and harmful motivations.”
Steers joins a chorus of ex-employees who say working conditions under Truden are intolerable.
“It’s like a broken record. It’s the same song, over and over, the same lines,” said Martin Beeson, another former prosecutor for Truden, who is helping lead an effort to recall Truden.
Steers is the seventh prosecutor to leave Truden’s office since Truden took over as DA at the start of the year, Beeson said. She is at least the 11th staff member to leave under Truden. Steers is the second attorney hired by Truden to resign. The first was Tony Hershey, who also has raised concerns about how Truden runs her office.
Steers said she was friends with Hershey, and she was treated differently after Hershey quit.
“Ever since Tony left it’s been hell for me,” she said. “… I was painted in the enemy’s corner because I was friends with Tony.”
She said Truden told her she was still part of the DA office team, but she felt isolated and Truden had little contact with her.
“It got to a point where it was unbearable.”
Steers, 28, is a Baylor University graduate who started with Truden at the end of February, in what was her first full-time legal job out of law school.
“I thought, ‘Wow, what a great opportunity, what a great area, what great people to work with.'”
She had no idea then about the controversy surrounding Truden’s office.
“I had no clue,” she said. “And then when I got in, at first I was like, these people who were leaving just don’t like the change. She’s a new person, give her a chance, it will work out.”
She said she assumed Truden had just made a few mistakes and would correct them, but that turned out not to be the case.
“The longer I stayed, the more I knew. When I became knowledgeable of the stuff going on in that office, for my own professional well-being I had to leave. … I realized, ‘Oh my God, what they’re printing in the papers is absolutely true.'”
She said assistant DA Vince Felleter is the only prosecutor with prosecutorial experience in the Glenwood Springs office, and didn’t communicate with her.
“I know that that’s not a place that I can grow professionally,” Steers said. “I thought that this isn’t the lawyer I want to be.”
Steers said she loved her job, and working with defense attorneys and judges.
But ultimately, “Knowing what I know, I feel like I’m responsible for part of it if I stay, like I’m endorsing it, and I don’t want any part of it,” she said.
She said prosecutors are unable to do their job because Truden and Felleter are “obsessed with the political climate.” She said they “locked themselves in their office for two hours just to go through the (news)papers.”
She said they threatened defense attorneys with bad plea deals on cases if they didn’t cooperate with the DA’s office, and good treatment “as long as they didn’t speak out against the office in the paper.”
Steers said when she went to Felleter with questions about how to handle cases, he would ask what defense attorney was handling the case. Those who didn’t say anything bad in the press were offered better deals for their clients.
She said what Truden did violates national standards for how prosecutors should handle plea bargains, and personal considerations between attorneys should not dictate how defendants are treated. She said the charge against Hess resulted from the fact that Felleter doesn’t like Hess.
“To use the power of our office to serve somebody with a summons and complaint, for another attorney to intimidate him, I don’t know what his intent was other than to hurt him,” Steers said.
Hess was charged after exchanging harsh words with deputy DA Billie Burchfield in court. He has pleaded not guilty to the charge and described it as “bullying.”
Felleter could not be reached for comment Thursday evening.
Steers said Felleter is overworked.
“I think it’s a volatile situation to put someone (into Felleter’s job) with a hot temper anyway, and then overwork them,” she said.
Steers worries about how Truden’s office will manage taking over her cases. She said only three attorneys are left in the Glenwood Springs office, not counting Truden, who hasn’t handled anything in court. Truden has been criticized for her lack of prosecution experience.
This week, Truden defended her work as DA by saying felony convictions in the 9th Judicial District are up 8 percent so far this year, compared to the same time period last year under former DA Mac Myers. Felony filings in Garfield County are up 58 percent, she said.
But Steers said she saw a lot of felony cases pleaded down to lower charges for sentencing. She said Felleter has taken only one case to trial. She said her understanding is that more cases aren’t going to trial because of a lack of money to prosecute them and pay for expert witnesses.
Truden has gone over her budget so far this year.
Steers took three cases to trial herself.
“I was very excited to go to trial. I was ready to go for it, I enjoyed it,” she said.
She said she lost all three cases, but they were tough ones that would have been difficult even for experienced prosecutors to win.
Said Beeson, “I know (Steers) was young and green when she first came on, but she was eager, she was a hard worker and she was a fighter.”
He said it’s his understanding that after he left, she was one of the few prosecutors “who had the courage to go to trial.”
He’s not surprised she quit.
“I just knew it would be just a matter of time before she realized if she wanted to lose her reputation and professionalism, the way to do that is to stay with this administration.”
Steers said she has no job lined up. Beeson said five of the seven attorneys to leave Truden’s office, himself included, have had no other jobs waiting for them.
“It rings a bell loud and clear when people are resigning with nothing to fall back on,” he said.
Recall petitioners have until Sept. 16 to raise the required 5,455 qualified signatures to force a recall election. They have about 4,000 now, and Beeson thinks they’ll need about 7,500 or 8,000, to allow for signatures that will be disqualified.
He’s confident the petition drive won’t fall short. He said recall leader Sherry Caloia was flooded with calls from people wanting to help out after articles appeared in the Post Independent and Aspen Times Thursday describing the challenge that remains in meeting the signature threshold.
“I think when (Steers’) resignation becomes public knowledge … I think it’s going to convince a lot of people who are on the fence,” he said.
Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. 516
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UPDATE 5:27 p.m. — Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon has reopened in both directions Saturday evening after a safety closure due to a flash flood warning. There were no reported mud/debris slides.