gavel

Getty images

Four former employees of the Colorado Supreme Court Administrator's Office have been referred to law enforcement for criminal investigation following a yearlong audit into allegations of a contract-for-silence scheme and a whistleblower letter that alleged more widespread fraud, the Supreme Court announced Monday.

Auditors concluded there was "at least some evidence of occupational fraud, illegal transactions, and/or misuse or embezzlement of public funds," according to an executive summary of their findings the court released.

The investigations will center mostly on the department's former chief of staff, Mindy Masias, and its former human resources director, Eric Brown, according to a three-page statement issued by the court. Both were alleged to have double-dipped the state's pay system by "receiving state compensation while being paid for work by an outside employer," Chief Justice Brian Boatright said in a statement summarizing what auditors found.

Masias and Brown were frequent speakers at conferences for the National Center for State Courts.

Additionally, auditors found Masias and Brown attempted "to influence the (bidding process), sole source contract, and related processes in favor of Ms. Masias" that ultimately ended up with her pocketing a $2.5 million judicial training contract. Boatright's statement did not address allegations that a two-page memo was at the center of the deal, in which Masias reportedly threatened a sex discrimination lawsuit that would expose years of judicial misconduct that was intentionally kept quiet or put aside.

Auditors did say they "found that Ms. Masias had access to potentially damaging information about the Judicial Branch. This information included notes about alleged sexual misconduct, discrimination, and other misconduct by Judicial Branch staff and judges. Additionally, there is evidence that Ms. Masias secretly recorded her conversation with former Chief Justice Nancy Rice, which included a discussion about why Ms. Masias was not selected to be State Court Administrator when she applied for that job."

Additionally, while facing firing for financial irregularities, auditors said "multiple sources described two meetings in December 2018 and/or January 2019 (before Ms. Masias resigned) during which Judicial Branch staff discussed the possibility of contracting with Ms. Masias to provide leadership training."

They added: Auditors "found some evidence that Ms. Masias requested the promise of a contract before resigning." But Boatright said there was no evidence Masias was promised the contract prior to signing her resignation and that the referral to law enforcement did not include any current employee of the Judicial Department or any judge past or present.

Auditors said it appeared Brown might have rigged the training contract to favor Masias.

"Mr. Brown sought to influence the RFP process in a way that would ensure Ms. Masias would receive the leadership training contract, including by inserting experience requirements that were restrictive enough to preclude any other vendors from submitting bids," auditors wrote.

Auditors said they reviewed more than 16,000 pages of documents in its inquiry, and allowed the Judicial Department "multiple opportunities to review the report and executive summary and redact information they identified as privileged, attorney work product or subject to other legal protections."

Masias and Brown did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.

The court said state auditors were also asking law enforcement to review a settlement agreement that was given to a former employee without the consent of then-Chief Justice Nathan "Ben" Coats. That employee was not identified, but was said to be in a position that allowed them to have information they could use against Masias and Brown.

The employee had been tracking the pair's movements via security systems throughout the state's new judicial building at the request of superiors, according to people familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it. Auditors said the Judicial Department would not disclose the employee's name nor the circumstances of their separation to investigators.

Sign Up For Free: Denver AM Update

Your morning rundown of the latest news from overnight and the stories to follow throughout the day.

Success! Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter.

The employee was placed on administrative leave before getting a separation agreement that totaled about $143,000 — the highest amount paid to any employee for leave and severance. Auditors said Ryan should not have negotiated the deal because he was a personal friend of the employee. Similarly, Masias and Brown were targets of the employee's alleged misconduct and should have recused themselves from the disciplinary process.

The four people referred to law enforcement are Masias, Brown, the unnamed former employee and former State Court Administrator Chris Ryan, who went public with allegations last year that the Masias contract was the result of the threatened lawsuit. Ryan had said Coats was instrumental in approving the deal in a meeting with Brown, Ryan and Coats' legal counsel, Andrew Rottman.

Ryan's attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

Auditors determined Masias and Brown earned $17,200 and $26,800 respectively in state salaries in 2018 and 2019 while also being paid by outside employers.

"Based on the totality of the circumstances, the (Office of the State Auditor) concludes that there is at least some evidence of occupational fraud, apparently illegal transactions, and/or misuse or embezzlement of public funds," auditors wrote in a report summary.

It's unclear which law enforcement agency has jurisdiction in the case, but the attorney general's office represents the Judicial Department. A spokesman for the attorney general did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

The matter could be referred to the Denver district attorney, but that office has a number of employees with close family and professional ties to the department and active judges.

Boatright said Coats canceled the Masias contract after he learned Ryan and others withheld information from him, but did not elaborate. Auditors said it was her secret recording of Rice.

Boatright did say auditors did not take a position on whether fiscal rules were violated in the contracting process or whether there were any ethical or code of conduct violations.

The department canceled the contract in July 2019 after a newspaper investigation into the deal, but officially said the cancellation was the result of Masias not formally undergoing a background investigation that was part of the contract. The reason for the contract — the alleged quid-pro-quo deal involving the memo — did not surface until February 2021.

"I must emphasize that this is not a determination that laws were broken, nor does it mean that criminal charges will be filed," Boatright wrote. "It means only that under Colorado’s fraud hotline statute, (auditors) determined the evidence it found in the investigation required the agency to submit a report to law enforcement."

Boatright said the full report, which it did not release publicly, would be given to investigators of other pending inquiries, but did not say which. There are five ongoing: By the FBI, by the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel, by the Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline and two by law firms hired by the Judicial Department.

The discipline commission has subpoenaed the department to compel its cooperation in its inquiry after it said it had been stonewalled. The court last week said it was cooperating but the commission stood by its earlier allegations, which included a request of legislators to create an independent Office of Judicial Discipline. The commission is currently funded by attorney registration fees that are doled out by by the Supreme Court.

David Migoya can be reached at david.migoya@gazette.com

David is an award-winning Senior Investigative Reporter at The Gazette and has worked in Colorado for more than two decades. He has been a journalist since 1982 and has also worked in New York, St. Louis, and Detroit.