You don't have to agree with Colorado Attorney General John Suthers politically. I only do part of the time. But to say he's unethical? That's a flat out lie.
Before you disregard what I am about to say because I share Suthers' political affiliation, consider this. I publicly supported his Democratic opponent, Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett in the last election. I did so because I appreciated Garnett's willingness to spend political capital on controversial issues, including medical marijuana and sentencing reform. I'm sure I am in the minority when I say I have tremendous admiration for both men.
In a July 17th Huffington Post column titled “John Suthers: 'Pay-to play' Campaign Contributions,” a self-described “former reporter” Phil Linsalata abandons journalistic ethics in his sloppy attack on the conservative Suthers. “Suthers has credentials that make him look almost perfect for Mitt Romney's short list of candidates for United States Attorney General — until you look a more closely,” he writes.
Unfortunately for Linsalata, a closer look doesn't live up to the hype. Instead, he merely repeats tired accusations, including a reference to Suthers' so-called “'Willie Horton moment,' in which Suthers, as U.S. Attorney for Colorado, signed the early release papers of a convict who then went on to kill three women and his own uncle.” In truth, the decision was made long before Suthers entered the fray. It was the FBI that offered the inmate a get-out-of-jail-free card in exchange for sharing information that later turned out to be false. As U.S. Attorney, Suthers signed off on the previously authorized deal.
This is the same flawed attack that proved fatal to Garnett's bid to unseat the incumbent Suthers. Voters, including some prominent liberal Democrats swayed to Suthers' camp by the move, fully rejected the thesis that a prosecutor who has spent almost his entire career fighting to put the guilty behind bars should be accountable because a single inmate he let out on the streets went on to commit horrific crimes. I personally think Suthers puts too many people behind bars.
Next, Linsalata grossly misstates Suthers' position on Obamacare, questioning his conservative credentials over statements he made in conjunction with the U.S. Supreme Court's recent landmark health care decision. Here, Linsalata entirely omits the fact that Suthers was a national force in uniting state attorneys general to file the lawsuit seeking to strike the law. Yes, some conservatives were outraged over Suthers' recent support for a state-level health insurance exchange. Not surprising given that conservative lawmakers were also bitterly divided on the legislation.
But Linsalata doesn't stop there. He claims that Suthers is guilty of accepting “pay-to-play” campaign contributions, including $11,775 from high-interest payday loan lenders in 2010 at the same time he was “re-drafting state regulations on the short-term loan businesses.” And just who were these critics? Linsalata quotes Luis Toro, executive director of Colorado Ethics Watch, the liberal litigation machine that has been caught in the act multiple times making false accusations and overplaying its hand. But even Toro stopped short of a full condemnation, only going so far as to say that the scenario “looks like 'pay-to-play.'”
The second part of the “pay-to-play” conspiracy: Suthers “was spending millions of Colorado taxpayer dollars in a failed attempt to shut them down.” Millions? This estimate has no basis in fact. Perhaps he is talking about Suthers' unsuccessful lawsuit against lenders who use Indian Tribes as fronts to avoid having to comply with state law. This was nowhere near a seven-figure legal battle. The argument falls flat. Suthers is unethical for taking money from payday lenders, an allegation that isn't mitigated by his state Supreme Court challenge against one of the industry's most powerful coalitions? Those campaign contributions don't appear to be helping much.
Linsalata falsely asserts that Suthers “assigned” Laura Udis, a “subordinate” attorney to draft payday loan regulations. In fact, Udis is the chief official for the state's Administration of the Uniform Commercial Code, a position created under administrative law and one that possesses rulemaking powers separate and distinct from Suthers' authority. The rule drafting was always under Udis's domain. Yes, Suthers has the power to hire and fire her, but beyond that, he has stayed out of the rulemaking process almost entirely. Further, had Linsalata spoken with lenders, he would have learned that industry leaders have, at times, vocally opposed Udis's actions. Once again, not exactly the treatment a donor might expect in exchange for campaign cash.
Linsalata concludes his argument detailing Suthers' vulnerability as a possible contender to earn Mit Romney's nod for U.S. Attorney General through two final cheap shots. First, he cites allegedly “strong” opposition by Indian tribes. Second, he takes issue with Suthers' reliance on staff to oversee almost all litigation in which his office is engaged.
Would these tribes be the same ones accused of illegal coordination with the payday loan industry who allegedly gave him money in exchange for political favors? Good prosecutors should be unpopular with those targeted with legal investigations. For a prosecutor to win 100 percent of the time, he or she must not be taking on enough tough cases.
To Linsalata's point about Suthers' allocation of time between the courtroom and other duties, he lacks a basic understanding about the duties of an attorney general. Charged with overseeing a massive bureaucracy that necessarily devotes substantial time and resources to litigation (including several cases brought by Colorado Ethics Watch in recent years), Suthers must be careful to provide adequate attention to the department's other obligations, which include critical investigations into illegal activity and fraud, active monitoring of the legislative process, drafting of legal positions, and crisis management.
Now it's up to you to decide whether Linsalata has made his case. Do his allegations of wrongdoing match his thesis that Suthers is culpable for the “early release of a man who went on a murder spree, [a] refusal to return questionable campaign contributions and a soft stance on Obamacare?” Based on this flimsy evidence, Linsalata fails miserably in my humble court of opinion.
Jessica K. Peck is a Denver attorney and serves as executive director of Colorado's Open Government Institute. www.OGIColorado.org.