The Colorado Supreme Court on Monday ordered Adams County to pay the legal expenses of its elected treasurer, who it sued nearly a year ago over allegations that she mismanaged her office.
The state’s high court called Adams County’s failure to cover Lisa Culpepper’s costs of defending herself against the county’s lawsuit an “abuse of discretion.” The justices also cited an Adams County judge who upheld the county’s decision to not appropriate funds for her defense.
Culpepper, who was elected as Adams County treasurer in 2018, would normally be represented by the county attorney’s office in legal matters. However, because that same office was representing the county commissioners suing her meant Culpepper had to obtain outside counsel.
Adams County covered her legal bills for about four months before halting payment in April. On Aug. 1, Adams County District Judge Mark Warner issued a ruling saying he’d “decline to specifically order payment of attorney fees at this time.”
“The question presented is whether the county may initiate litigation against the treasurer in her official capacity, use the county attorney’s office to prosecute this litigation, and, at the same time, refuse to appropriate funds to allow the treasurer, who, but for the conflict of interest, would be represented by the county attorney’s office, to retain counsel to represent her,” wrote the Supreme Court justices in Monday’s decision.
J. Kirk McGill, an attorney with law firm Hall Estill, which is representing Culpepper, told The Denver Post in August that unpaid legal bills in the convoluted case are approaching a quarter of a million dollars. On Monday, he said an independent special master — a retired judge — will review and approve all invoices submitted by his firm.
The message sent by the Colorado Supreme Court has widespread ramifications in the state, McGill said.
“The Colorado Constitution, like the United States Constitution, recognizes that no one can be trusted with absolute power,” he told The Post. “Thus, the Colorado Constitution separates and diffuses power amongst the commissioners and independently elected officials such as the treasurer, clerk & recorder, assessor, sheriff, coroner, etc.”
Adams County did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The county’s commissioners alleged in their October 2021 suit against Culpepper that her office engaged in shoddy bookkeeping and failed to account for more than $200 million in taxpayer funds. Early this year, the county’s finance director said problems at the treasurer’s office were hampering her ability to complete a required annual audit.
The county initially asked that a judge appoint a receiver to oversee Culpepper’s office.
But McGill said Adams County’s independent audits of Culpepper’s office for 2019, 2020 and 2021 reveal that she “performed her duties and complied with the law” and that the county’s claims against her are “disproven by their own audits.”
Culpepper is running for re-election as a write-in candidate after she failed to make it onto the ballot during the Democratic county assembly in March. McGill said the county essentially engaged in a “smear campaign” to try and get Culpepper removed from office prematurely.
His client, he said, “hopes that (the Supreme Court ruling) will help more independently elected officials be willing to stand up for the constitutional rights and obligations of their offices.”
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