Did Colorado state lawyers have obligation to report judicial misconduct in judicial department memo?

At least two high-ranking lawyers in the Colorado Attorney General’s Office were aware of the contents of a memo that enumerated allegations of judicial and official misconduct two years before it became public, The Denver Post has learned, but it’s not clear if they ever reported the alleged conduct to authorities or their boss.

The two attorneys – LeeAnn Morrill, a first-assistant attorney general in charge of its public officials unit, and Grant Sullivan, the AG’s assistant solicitor general – were briefed about the memo and its contents by former State Court Administrator Christopher Ryan at a meeting in July 2019 just as he was about to resign, Ryan told The Post.

Law professors who teach professional responsibility say the rules of professional conduct are clear that attorneys should disclose judicial improprieties to authorities when they learn of them, but a requirement to maintain client confidentiality might get in the way.

“In the interest of justice, one ought to report, but it’s not quite that firm of an obligation,” University of Colorado law professor Richard Collins said. “The rule about judicial misconduct is very clear and involves some complex judgment such as what makes a judge unfit for office. If it’s serious enough and part of confidential information they received from a client, then it appears to need their consent to disclose it.”

The memo is central to a $2.5 million five-year judicial training contract awarded in April 2019 to the department’s chief of staff, Mindy Masias, who Ryan said threatened to file a sex-discrimination lawsuit if she were fired over financial irregularities. Masias resigned in March 2019 just weeks before signing the contract, which officially began that June. It was canceled in July 2019 amid a Denver Post investigation into the deal.

The memo detailed more than a dozen instances of misdeeds by judges and other high-level officials within the department that were glossed over or covered up by the agency.

“I provided them the information and chronology that has been relayed” in Denver Post stories, Ryan said of the AG attorneys. “The meeting culminated in me delivering the copy of the memo to (department chief legal counsel Terri) Morrison so she could provide it to Morrill.”

Ryan said he does not believe any action was taken on allegations listed in the memo – allegations that reach to the state’s Court of Appeals and Supreme Court.

“I have no knowledge of any investigation that was undertaken relative to the information in the memo, and after offering to assist in one, I was not asked to provide any further information,” Ryan said, referring to state auditors who later looked into the Masias contract.

The head of the Colorado Judicial Disciplinary Commission, which investigates allegations against jurists and whose findings generally remain secret, would not say whether the body was aware of the memo or its contents, but did say it was keenly interested.

“We are committed to learn more about this either through our own efforts or through the two investigations ordered by the court,” its executive director, William Campbell, told The Post.

Attorney General Phil Weiser on Tuesday said that “Coloradans expect transparency and accountability from public officials entrusted to lead state government. … Independent investigations into the allegations contained in the memo are necessary steps to … instill confidence in the judiciary.”

But Weiser would not say if he was previously aware of the document or its contents.

“The Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct prohibit a lawyer from revealing information or documents related to the representation of that lawyer’s client,” Weiser’s office told The Denver Post in an email Wednesday. “The Attorney General’s Office is required under state law to be the legal counsel to the Judicial Department and the State Auditor, and all state lawyers must follow these rules requiring confidentiality of client information.”

Asked directly whether Weiser knew, his spokesman would not say.

“We cannot confirm or deny any information,” Lawrence Pacheco wrote in an email to The Post.

Former Attorney General Cynthia Coffman told The Post that at the minimum, Weiser should have been told, and that there was a duty to report the alleged misconduct contained in the memo.

“My expectation and policy, as well as the gravity of that memo’s content, would have required them to tell me as the attorney general of Colorado,” Coffman said in a telephone interview. “We are all officers of the court and we take an oath to report all allegations of misconduct. At the minimum, I would have had a conversation with the chief justice” of the Supreme Court.

Colorado’s rules of professional conduct for attorneys requires any lawyer aware of potential judicial misconduct to report it.

“A lawyer who knows that a judge has committed a violation of applicable rules of judicial conduct that raises a substantial question as to the judge’s fitness for office shall inform the appropriate authority,” according to Rule 8.3 of professional conduct.

Another rule, number 1.6, deals with attorneys maintaining the confidentiality of a client and information they learn from them, but doesn’t supercede Rule 8.3. The attorney general represents all branches of Colorado government, including the Judicial Department.

Morrill is a 17-year veteran of the AG’s office and for the past eight years and has led the team that counsels and represents Gov. Jared Polis as well as the Judicial Department, the Secretary of State, State Auditor, Department of Local Affairs and the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

Sullivan is a 10-year veteran of the AG’s office, all as its assistant solicitor general, and was a clerk to the Supreme Court before that.

Neither responded to Denver Post efforts to reach them.

Ryan has said the memo dates to January 2019 when then-human resources director Eric Brown said Masias was prepared to file a lawsuit baring the department’s secrets.

The Colorado Supreme Court on Monday released the document which it had previously denied Denver Post efforts to obtain under the department’s open records rules. Morrill and Sullivan vigorously defended the department’s withholding the memo.

The unsigned document lists 27 bullet points Brown referred to in a meeting with Ryan, then-Chief Justice Nathan “Ben” Coats and his counsel, attorney Andrew Rottman.

Brown managed to read only part-way through the two-page memo before Coats waved for him to stop and asked what they could do to prevent Masias from following through with the threats, Ryan said.

She was ultimately given a five-year $2.5 million contract to provide judicial training for the whole department. A public bidding process yielded no bids despite dozens of companies requesting information about participating. Several companies previously told The Post that they felt the proposal request by the State Court Administrator’s Office was too narrowly focused to offer a bid.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Brian Boatright said the court is hiring an independent investigator to look into the memo and allegations it was the crux behind the Masias contract. Boatright and the other six sitting justices have denied that the contract was intended to keep the allegations in the memo quiet.

Gov. Jared Polis weighed in, saying he supports the call for an inquiry.

“This memo describes unacceptable behavior within our judicial system, both among members of the bench as well as Judicial employees.  This type of conduct has no place in Colorado,” he said in a statement. “Every person should feel safe in the workplace and every Coloradan should be able to feel confident in the integrity of our judicial system and the high standards to which we hold our judges and our judicial system.”

The memo described a chief justice – it’s unclear which one – ordering the destruction of a note alleging sexual misconduct, the paying of a settlement to a Court of Appeals law clerk to protect a sitting appellate judge’s chances for appointment to the Supreme Court, and the passing of pornographic videos by two judges who would later be named chief judge in their district when no action was taken against them.

Legal associations have also backed the call for investigations.

“We urge the Colorado (Judicial) Department to be fully transparent and to take the necessary steps to redress these issues promptly in order to maintain the public’s faith in the administration of justice in Colorado,” the Colorado Bar Association said in a statement.

All the justices approved of Masias’ contract at the time, but Boatright said they saw the memo for the first time this week. It remains unclear whether Coats told any of them about the memo at the time.

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