Troubled times at DA’s office? | PostIndependent.com

Troubled times at DA’s office?

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Ninth Judicial District Attorney Sherry Caloia
CaloiaLawsuit-gpi-111313jpg

Ninth Judicial District Attorney Sherry Caloia has come under heavy behind-the-scenes criticism in recent months over a number of issues, including a perceived slur against Jews, continued turnover in her office and a leadership style some describe as micro-management.

During a meeting with assistant and deputy district attorneys on the morning of Sept. 26, Caloia used an expression that some people inside and outside of her office found inappropriate, according to sources who spoke with The Aspen Times. The exact quote could not be ascertained, but she reportedly compared defense attorneys’ bargaining tactics to Jewish stereotypes when talking to her staff about criminal-case plea negotiations.

Caloia apologized for the remark in an email sent to her attorneys on the same day.

“I apologize for my statement at the meeting today and it will not happen again,” she wrote.

She told the Times that she is not anti-Semitic and her misstatement was not intended to offend, nor was it said with malice. She declined to supply the exact quote, saying, “I don’t want to get into it.”

“It’s one of those sayings that we all grew up with,” Caloia said. Some common expressions learned from childhood, she said, can be “hard habits to break.”

A longtime prosecutor, Tony Hershey, left the office three weeks ago. Hershey, who is Jewish, managed cases involving juveniles. He did not attend the meeting in which Caloia made the remark.

Hershey declined to discuss his exact reasons for going to work as a deputy district attorney in Eagle County.

The Times obtained a Sept. 29 memorandum to Caloia that shows Hershey was upset by the comment after hearing about it. He apparently met with Caloia to discuss the issue, according to the memo.

“Again I expressed my anger,” Hershey wrote. “I also told you this was not the first incident involving inappropriate language from you that related to ethnicity, race, sexual preference, family status, national origin, etc., that you had used.

“You again assured me that you were very sorry; that these were not your true feelings and that you understood what you said was wrong.”

The memorandum asked Caloia to make an apology in an officewide setting with the entire staff. To date, such a meeting has not materialized.

“Finally, I hope you understand how hurtful the phrase you used was. I am very proud of my Jewish heritage,” Hershey wrote.

Reached by phone, Hershey said the remark was not his reason for leaving the office, and declined further comment. Caloia said his reason for leaving might have been her management style, which involves close supervision of all staffers and their cases.

“Some of the attorneys like that,” she said of her hands-on approach.

DIFFERENT STYLE

Elected in November 2012, Caloia is nearing the mid-point of her four-year term as district attorney for the 9th Judicial District, which includes Pitkin, Garfield and Rio Blanco counties. During the campaign leading up to her victory, the Democrat promised a different style of leadership compared with that of her incumbent opponent, Republican Martin Beeson.

Supporters and critics alike say that there’s little doubt that she’s lived up to her campaign promise of a different style. Where they differ is in their assessment of the effect of that style.

Many defense attorneys who commented for this story requested anonymity, fearing potential reprisals from the DA’s office. Of all the issues involving Caloia, the perceived religious slur topped the list. But turnover and management style weren’t far behind.

One estimate placed the turnover rate in her office — around 33 employees, which includes attorneys, investigators and other staff positions — at around 60 percent. Caloia’s estimate puts it at around 50 percent. Some employees were terminated, while others left for better financial opportunities or reasons unrelated to her oversight, she said.

Caloia acknowledged that she’s not necessarily easy to work for.

“I do demand service by my people and if they’re not doing a good job in court, I’m going to call them on it,” she said. “And yes, it is lonely at the top.”

The turnover has had an impact on Caloia’s offices in all three counties, including Pitkin.

“Yes, there has been turnover in the Pitkin County Court position in Aspen, as there has been turnover in Glenwood Springs,” Caloia said. “It is not my choice and I try to hire people who I think are career prosecutors and who also would be happy in a mountain town. It’s hard to get somebody who fits the bill on those things.”

The entry-level pay for a misdemeanor prosecutor in the 9th Judicial District office is $55,000, which could be seen as a low salary for an attorney with a few years of experience. Caloia said that’s one reason she’s had to look to recent law-school graduates.

Another recent graduate, hired for an internship in the Glenwood Springs office, also failed the bar exam. Caloia said that in the future, she probably won’t look to interns awaiting bar-exam results to fill County Court prosecutorial spots.

The Rio Blanco County office in Meeker has seen turnover, she said, but Rio Blanco is something of a rural outpost where turnover tends to be high.

Caloia also mentioned the resignation of a deputy district attorney who worked in her Rifle office following his arrest near Aspen Village in November 2013 on suspicion of drunken-driving.

“He resigned. He took his lumps,” she said.

As for Rio Blanco County, two people have been hired to handle cases in Meeker and Rangely, Caloia said.

“I will say, I’ve had trouble with County Court deputies,” she said. “I’ve had great luck with District Court prosecutors.”

But attorneys are only part of the turnover equation. Caloia has revamped her three-person investigative staff since taking office.

“Our investigative staff is really top-notch, second to none,” she said.

One holdover from Beeson’s term, Lisa Miller, is now the chief investigator. Two other investigators were replaced after one man resigned and another was fired.

Caloia recalled that while campaigning in 2012, she always said she would run the office differently. She said her staff has taken on certain investigations and cases which the prior district attorney might have passed.

“The District Court deputies all have to help out in County Court,” she said. “And I’m more proactive on the filing docket, on the front end. Everything comes to Glenwood for review so that we all are looking at cases that the other offices are filing.”

The accusations of micro-management are not a cause for concern, she said.

“I’m not afraid of being called a micro-manager,” Caloia said. “I want to know what’s going on. I want to know what my people are filing and offering because it matters to me to do the right thing.”

Caloia said the biggest difference between her office and Beeson’s is the philosophy of charging people with crimes.

“We ask, is this really a felony? What would a jury find? We are more realistic at the front end,” she said.

Walter E. Brown III, a defense attorney in Glenwood Springs and former prosecutor, said hat compared with the 9th Judicial District, the turnover has been much higher in Eagle County and the 5th Judicial District following the election of a new district attorney there.

“I’ve been here a long time, and I’ve seen a lot of DAs come and go,” Brown said. “It seems to me (Caloia’s) office has been run pretty well overall.”

andre@aspentimes.com


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