In the days leading to their resignations en masse last month, Colorado’s appointed public trustees had a mixed bag of reactions to their fate — the result of a number of Denver Post stories about them, their office and the state’s foreclosure process — that ranged from shock and dismay to lament, according to their email traffic.
Pueblo Public Trustee Nick Gradisar flat-out said in an email that he would not be reapplying for appointment, which Gov. John Hickenlooper said he’d allow the trustees to do when he asked all 10 to resign July 10.
“Looking back, I certainly would have done things differently,” Gradisar said in the July 10 email to Alan Salazar, Hickenlooper’s chief strategy officer and director of the Office of Legislative Affairs. “I certainly did not intend to embarrass the Governor and I regret that my actions may give fodder to those who want to change the system.”
The Post pointed out how Gradisar for years rented office space for the public trustee in a building owned by a partnership that includes himself and other lawyers with whom he works. Too, Gradisar had also maintained business relationships with his trustee employees, one of whom runs a process service business with her husband and serves legal papers for Gradisar’s legal work.
Gradisar, who is also the president of Pueblo’s water board, defended the choices as “legimate.” In his email to Salazar, he said he rented the office space to ensure he could continue to practice law.
“Despite the appearance of a conflict, the office situation was fair to the (public trustee) and allowed me to do that and still practice law,” Gradisar wrote. “It is clear that the Governor is looking for someone who has no other employment to be the Public Trustee and that I would not be reapplying for the position.”
The Denver Post acquired emails sent by all 10 trustees from July 8 to July 10, under the state’s open records law. Some, like Margaret Chapman in Jefferson County, hardly used their government-provided email system at all.
Others, such as Debby Morgan in Larimer County and Susie Velasquez in Weld County, lamented their resignation, with Morgan simply replying with the sad-face icon, “:-(” in an exchange to Velasquez.
“I am too upset to tell my staff,” Morgan wrote Velasquez shortly after Hickenlooper asked them all to resign in a conference call.
Quipping to El Paso County Public Trustee Thomas Mowle earlier that day, in which Mowle mistyped “policies” as “polices” in an email subject line about a conference, Morgan wrote: “Your subject line is appropriate for all our recent current events.”
Days earlier, Hickenlooper’s staff issued strict guidelines on how the trustees were to run their respective offices, such as requiring all contracts to be pre-approved. Colorado’s 10 appointed trustees operate independently, different than the state’s other 54 public trustees, who are either elected or chosen locally.
In her exchange with Morgan, Velasquez worried how her resignation would reflect on her personally.
“What about my reputation in my community???” she wrote. “And, I haven’t even done anything wrong!”
Velasquez used trustee funds to pay for her personal registration and licensing as a practicing attorney with the Colorado Supreme Court, fees she said in a later statement that were approved by county officials to whom she’d made inquiry.
Yet in the same breath, Velasquez defended her decision to self-insure her staff because county officials had said her office is not a recognized agency of Weld County.
In Arapahoe County, Public Trustee Ana Maria Peters-Ruddick, a long-time employee of that office before her appointment in 2007, tip-toed through an inquiry to Hickenlooper’s office about using trustee funds to buy flowers.
“One of the employees in the office father died,” she wrote July 9 to Kevin Patterson, Hickenlooper’s deputy chief of staff. “We would like to send flowers from the office. Can the office pay for the flowers? I have several other areas that I am not sure about.”
The Post showed how Peters-Ruddick used trustee funds to pay for frequent in-office chair massages for her staff and monthly lunches. She said she discontinued the massages when the masseuse’s husband had died, adding it was for “budgetary reasons.”
The Post in December showed how the Arapahoe County public trustee had more than $1 million in excess funds last year — despite the cost of the chair massages — money that was turned over to the county’s general fund. There is no limit to how much the trustees can spend of the revenue they collect, nor any minimum requirement for how much must be turned over to the county.
In an exchange with Adams County Public Trustee Carol Snyder, who retired effective July 31 rather than resign, Douglas County Public Trustee George Kennedy said Hickenlooper’s request was not taken easily.
“This is tough,” Kennedy wrote Snyder late July 10th. “I told my kids tonight that I did what I always told them not to do — quit a job before you have another one.”
In response to Snyder’s note saying “I am VERY glad to be retiring!” Kennedy replied: “Oh I wish I could too ”
The resignations are effective Aug. 10 and Hickenlooper is expected to name replacements — perhaps reappoint some of those who resigned. Some counties — Weld and Larimer among them — have asked Hickenlooper to hold off on any appointments until the Legislature can take up the issue in January. The law allows deputy public trustees to run the offices in the absence of an appointee.
At least five trustees confirmed they had applied for re-appointment. Interviews with the governor’s staff have been scheduled for next week, people familiar with the process have said.
Just before the conference call with Hickenlooper, Snyder asked Mowle whether he was “prepared to give up your car allowance if reappointed? You escaped the bullet in this article but the next one?” The Post had written how Snyder’s office purchased a Dodge Nitro vehicle for her full-time use, which she said merely followed what other Adams County officials received.
Mowle, who had been taking a $500-per-month travel and car allowance rather than the reimbursement of those expenses, said he’d already stopped accepting the benefit in late June after consulting with Hickenlooper’s office.
“El Paso County authorizes some of its senior staff to receive a taxable lump sum each pay period in lieu of reimbursement for actual travel expenses,” Mowle wrote The Post this week. “After consultation with the Governor’s office … we agreed that it would be best to avoid having Public Trustees follow County-unique policies or accept County-unique benefits.”