Despite a history of ethics violations and relatively scant experience as a lawyer, in 2008 Elizabeth Oldham was elected head District Attorney for Colorado’s 14th Judicial District, a geographically sprawling district that encompasses Routt, Grand and Moffat counties, and includes the ski resort of Steamboat Springs. It would not be unfair to conclude if more information about her ethical history had been reported to the public and to the Office of Attorney Regulation, the result might have turned out differently.
Why is that? I should first point out that the information about Oldham’s career at the 14th and why she was forced to leave there for several years and join Mark Hurlbert’s 5th District Attorney’s office, is not disputed at all by Oldham. She sat down during the campaign for a lengthy interview with Steamboat Springs Local publisher, Thomas Reuter. In the original post, I linked to the URL for that article, but under what Reuter described to me as local pressure, he removed that URL from his website a few weeks ago. When I discovered the link was no longer current, I contacted Reuter and he sent me a downloaded Pdf of the article, which I have now embedded at the bottom of this post.
In that interview, Oldham admitted to Reuter that she’d committed serious misconduct while a Deputy District Attorney in the 14th Judicial District when she, married herself, embarked on an affair with her married-with-children boss, the head DA. His name is mentioned in the attached article, but is misspelled. It should have an “a” where it has an “o”. While Oldham’s marriage remained intact, it broke up the former head DA’s marriage and devastated his wife and children.
As usual, I have done independent research, and recently spoke with this now-Senior Judge’s former wife. Seven years later, she and her family are still devastated. Because of this, I have removed the name of her former husband and Oldham paramour from this post. A Senior Judge, in addition to collecting his PERA pension at a far younger age than most of us get to retire, picks up an additional 20 percent for filling in for judges on vacations and conducting overflow work. I hope the majority of it goes to his family.
The affair was a violation of the DA’s office ethics rules for reasons that should be obvious. Each attorney is sworn to uphold state ethics rules, and many rules apply to DAs that don’t apply to private attorneys, because under the law, prosecutors are sworn to seek justice, even if that means losing a case. By contrast, defense attorneys opposing them in court, are bound by ethics rules, but are free to defend the guilty and in fact are required to use all legal means to vigrously defend their clients.
In practice, though, many DAs pursue their prosecutions seeking only to win, justice be damned. Sometimes the DAs just want notches on their belts, sometimes they are settling personal scores with lawyers or defendants they don’t like. A boss might overlook ethical violations by his mistress, he might encourage her to cover up his own ethical violations. He might be threatened if he left the mistress against her desires with disclosure of the affair to the public or his wife.
In addition, as Reuter points out, a DA is an officer of the court and representations they make will generally be taken at face value by judges in what is called a “proffer” — a statement of alleged facts made without swearing under oath, which serves to immunize the DA from potential perjury if they lie. Their entire jobs involve proof of the truth. In theory.
Thus, if someone goes around lying to her husband or his wife, to co-workers, to friends on a daily basis, it doesn’t take an imaginative leap to conclude such an individual is not particularly trustworthy in general. The wife of the then-head 14th District Attorney was a clerk of the court. She came into contact with Oldham every day and thought she was her friend, all the while being betrayed. (And she denies Reuter’s report that she spread news of the affair around the court house).
That’s why such conduct has brought down the careers of politicians who we don’t even expect to be telling the truth routinely, such as presidential candidate John Edwards, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, or New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer. The media coverup of John Edwards’ infidelities and lies could well have changed the outcome of the presidential election in 2008, as his continued campaigning while the media kept his secrets arguably took a lot of votes away from Hillary Clinton.
Oldham’s series of ethical violations was no big secret in legal circles, but it was from the general public and litigants in Hurlbert’s 5th Judicial District after he brought her aboard despite not only ethical violations of 14th District policies, but his own appropriate policies as well. He wrote me today, March 29, 2010, he would hire her back had he the opportunity. Hurlbert did not deny the ethics violations (and how in the small mountain communities of DAs and judges could he or local judges not have known). In addition, he has failed to report other ethics violations by her as required by the Office of Attorney Regulation.
And just when one would think all this legal hypocrisy couldnt get any worse, the former 14th District DA was appointed a District Court Judge by former-governor Bill Owens. This left Ms. Oldham with an obvious conflict of interest problem, as she could not ethically have any of her cases adjudicated before him. And akin to all the bad cops that get kicked out of one department and then, behind the backs of the public who pay them, get jobs in a new and unsuspecting town or suburb, Oldham moved to Summit County. Mark Hurlbert ultimately promoted her to his third in command, Chief Deputy. Hurlbert, facing term limits he unsuccessfully tried to extend, is now a candidate for State Senate District 16.
The real kick is the reasons Owens gave for the appointment of an ethically challenged District Attorney to a judgeship. Owens said: “During the course of the selection process I heard from a wide range of members of the community about [his] courage, integrity and excellent legal skills. These qualities combined with his exceptional intellect will serve him well as District Court judge.” I guess Bill Owens had a very different definition of “integrity” than most Coloradans.
Here’s the restored interview, in a downloaded pdf. Elizabeth Oldham’s Adultery, Ethics Violations, and Conflict of Interest with 14th District DA: Elizabeth Oldham’s Interview with Thomas Reuter. I would note that there’s a lot of stuff here that’s not my style, in particular the observations about what a “legal cutie” Oldham supposedly is. My characterization of her would not be fit to print.