A former top Colorado Judicial Department official who last year blew the whistle on what he said was corruption at the highest levels of the court system testified before lawmakers Wednesday, speaking just weeks after an investigation concluded his core allegation of a cover-up to be false.
Former State Court Administrator Christopher Ryan said the investigation into his claims was flawed because it was not independent from the Colorado Judicial Department, and called for widespread reform to the judicial discipline process during brief comments before the Interim Committee on Judicial Discipline.
“Judicial was in full control of the investigations,” he said.
Ryan last year claimed that top judicial officials agreed to give a $2.75 million contract to the state court administrator’s then-Chief-of-Staff Mindy Masias as she left her job to ensure she did not speak publicly about judges’ unaddressed misconduct.
An independent investigation into the contract that finished in June found that while the contract was steeped in unethical behavior, enabled by a toxic work environment and was an abuse of taxpayer resources, it was not specifically designed to stop Masias from speaking out about misconduct or filing a tell-all sex discrimination lawsuit.
The investigators concluded the contract was not a quid-pro-quo deal for silence, in large part because then-Colorado Supreme Court Justice Nathan “Ben” Coats had agreed to give the contract to Masias weeks before the threat of a tell-all lawsuit was made.
The investigators have said that they were not inappropriately influenced by the Colorado Supreme Court or the Judicial Department.
Ryan, who did not participate in that investigation, on Wednesday emphasized the power difference inherent between judges and the staff of the Judicial Department, and suggested that he did not take action in his job without the approval of those judges or justices. He also argued that the power differential must be addressed in reform efforts.
“I worked exclusively for judges in one manner or another,” he said. “Given that most of the written work I produced over the course of my career was issued under someone else’s name, I clearly knew who was in charge. My duties… were always performed with the advice and consent of the judicial officers for whom I worked.”
Ryan called for significant structural change before a committee of state lawmakers who are considering ways to reform the system for disciplining judges for professional misconduct — a reform effort launched this summer in the wake of Ryan’s allegations of bribery and a cover-up.
“I had a front seat at the table for a long time, ” Ryan said. “There’s a broad sweeping application in the concept of separation of powers and the use of the umbrella of judicial independence as cover to keep the ‘outsiders’ out of judicial business.”
He did not discuss in detail the independent investigation’s findings or what he called “the personal denigration inflicted by the judicial branch,” saying that he did not have time to go through the details.
Ryan was one of numerous witnesses to offer testimony Wednesday during an all-day public hearing as part of the reform effort. Other witnesses included members of the Commission on Judicial Discipline, current State Court Administrator Steven Vasconcellos, members of the Colorado Women’s Bar Association and the Colorado Judicial Institute.
The hearing is the third of five — and the last hearing in which committee members will solicit significant public feedback. The lawmakers will go on to suggest reforms to the judicial discipline system, which could include changes to the state’s constitution, and will be brought to the table during the next legislative session.
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