AG candidates want state unit to fight public theft | PostIndependent.com

AG candidates want state unit to fight public theft

Randy Essex
resse@postindependent.com

Colorado needs a public corruption unit in part to address frequent theft from public offices such as Garfield County has suffered twice since 2012 in its clerk's office, both candidates for attorney general say.

"Several cases have surfaced," particularly on the Western Slope, Cynthia Coffman, who is the Republican nominee for attorney general, said last week. "The attorney general needs the ability to investigate and prosecute public corruption," and Coffman said she would ask the Legislature to give the office that authority.

Her opponent, former prosecutor Don Quick, also has called for creation of such a unit. He cites cases such as one his office prosecuted in Adams County over a paving company and public works department defrauding taxpayers of $1.8 million, including billing for work that was never done.

Besides the Garfield County cases, the towns of Marble and Paonia, and also Gunnison County schools, have been hit by embezzling cases since 2012.

In Garfield County, Robin McMillan, a clerk's office employee, had been fired and faces felony charges over allegations she stole at least $194,000 over five years.

In 2012, employee Brenda Caywood was fired and subsequently pleaded guilty to stealing nearly $16,000 from the office over two years. Caywood was sentenced to two years' probation, 60 hours of community service and restitution totaling $19,422. McMillan, 51, of Rifle, helped expose Caywood's theft.

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Sherry Caloia, 9th District attorney and an ardent prosecutor of embezzlement, said in an email she would welcome state help with the cases.

"The time and expense of these cases does create a burden on smaller jurisdictions, and having the AG take a lead role in court would be a huge help for us," Caloia said.

The Colorado Bureau of Investigation already provides law enforcement assistance in investigating cases of public theft, "and that takes the burden off of local law enforcement who sometimes do not have the resources to conduct the investigation," she said.

"I would hope that the local DA maintains some part in the prosecution because it is the locality that is most affected by the crime and our input is vital to seeing that justice is done," Caloia said.

Coffman said she also had heard that some people who suspect theft are "afraid of retribution in small communities" if they speak up. A state unit could provide whistleblower protection and enable informants to come forward.

Caloia was skeptical that would be the case.

"Embezzlers are very crafty and sneaky individuals, and even those around them are unaware of their crime," she said. "It is generally the responsible official who is embarrassed by their failure to check the books and records carefully and often is reluctant to report. I do not believe that taking the reporting out of town will have much effect or make it any easier."

Coffman and Quick, of Westminister, who also is a former top deputy AG, are vying to succeed John Suthers, who has been Colorado AG since 2005 and is barred by term limits from seeking another term.

Among Coffman’s chief issues are enforcing the death penalty — Colorado has three men on death row and hasn't carried out an execution since 1997; fighting election fraud; and protecting the state's water.

Coffman is heavily backed by the Republican Attorney Generals Association, which has invested $2.6 million in backing her campaign — more than four times what has been spent on any Colorado AG campaign. Quick, who advocates taking repeat and violent offenders off the street, protecting natural resources and ensuring safe schools, has responded by walking 2.6 miles a day in campaigning.