Alexis King convinced voters in Jefferson and Gilpin counties that she should be their next district attorney on the promise that she’d reform the prosecutor’s office — and she hasn’t waited to be sworn in to make sweeping changes.
King will cut 10 people from the First Judicial District Attorney’s Office when she takes charge in January, she acknowledged in a brief interview Thursday. Those losing their jobs include six senior prosecutors and three deputy district attorneys, those involved told The Denver Post, wiping away decades of experience and senior leadership in the office.
“At the end of the day, it’s about ensuring that we are bringing and performing ethical prosecutions, protecting public safety, that are also aligned with my values and making sure we have a workplace that is open to all identities,” King said Thursday, adding the dismissals are “100%” part of her effort to reform the office as she, a Democrat, takes the reigns from Republican incumbent Pete Weir.
It’s not unusual for incoming district attorneys — especially those with very different approaches from their predecessors — to replace some top leadership as they come into office, and with half of Colorado’s elected district attorneys replaced in November’s election, it’s a scenario many offices are dealing with as new leaders with new ideas take charge of criminal justice in their judicial districts.
In the Eighth Judicial District, including Larimer and Jackson counties, Gordon McLaughlin is the first Democrat elected district attorney since the 1970s. He told four attorneys they will be out of jobs in January, including two chief deputy district attorneys and two deputy district attorneys, out of a staff of 40 full-time prosecutors, he said Thursday.
“A new administration needs a leadership team in place that believes in their philosophy,” he said. “The voters of Larimer County voted overwhelmingly for a new direction.”
Those being fired by King took issue with her methods. Most were informed in quick phone calls, they told The Post, and King didn’t make any effort to discuss her new vision with prosecutors to see whether they’d be willing to fall in line before she told them they couldn’t keep their jobs.
“They have families, kids in college or headed to college, and to ax them with no conversation or discussion, or ability to speak to her about her concerns, whatever they may be, I can’t imagine a worse way to come into a new office,” said Assistant District Attorney Charles Tingle, who is among the senior staff King is replacing. “It’s devastating for morale.”
In a brief phone call with Steve Jensen, a chief deputy district attorney who has worked in the office for 33 years, King said he didn’t fit with her “vision of inclusivity,” he said. Another chief deputy was told the office was going in a “new direction” and he was no longer welcome.
King, who worked in the First Judicial District Attorney’s Office for a decade before leaving in 2017 to become a magistrate judge, said she was already familiar with her colleagues and the way the office worked, so she didn’t need to wait to make her decisions. She informed prosecutors by phone because she is working remotely due to the novel coronavirus.
“I certainly had enough information, as did my transition team, to make qualified decisions that were in line with (our) goals and values,” she said.
George Brauchler, who was elected district attorney in the 18th Judicial District in 2012, said he’s not surprised to see the leadership changes King is making.
“I imagine she wants to turn the ship,” he said. “And you don’t turn the ship by changing out just the captain.”
When he was first elected, he told 10 staff members, mostly senior prosecutors, that he wouldn’t keep them on, he said, letting them know in face-to-face meetings after a round of interviews with all senior staff.
“The people I let go were not insignificant, not people who didn’t have storied and long careers in prosecution,” he said. “But from my vantage point, they’d been in the office for three terms of the DA, and they were just in a place where it was like, ‘Look, I just have different ideas about prosecution, and I don’t think I can rally you at this stage of your career,’ so I moved them on.”
But, he added, it is less typical to see an incoming district attorney let go of deputy district attorneys, who are lower-level lawyers who spend most of their time “in the trenches” in court and typically don’t have any supervisory roles.
One of the deputy district attorneys King picked out, Chris Ponce, said he’s never met King and has been racking his brain for what he might have done that prompted her to call him Tuesday and tell him there’s no place for him in her “vision of inclusiveness.” Ponce, who is one of just a handful of Hispanic prosecutors in the office, thinks she might have learned about a letter he wrote to the Colorado District Attorney’s Council objecting to some training the organization offered on white fragility and systemic racism.
Ponce has been with the district attorney’s office for less than a year; he moved with his wife and two kids from Weld County to take the job because he’s always wanted to work in Jefferson County, he said. The family dug into savings to break into the Denver real estate market.
They’re a one-income household, and now he’s in a completely unexpected financial bind, he said.
“I have no policy-making power at all,” he said. “I just go to court and prosecute cases. I have no management responsibilities… It’s just an incredible hardship during COVID, having just had a baby, and needing health insurance and everything else.”
In the 17th Judicial District, which includes Adams and Broomfield counties, District Attorney-elect Brian Mason has at this point announced only two personnel changes, naming Jess Redman, currently assistant district attorney to Dave Young, as his assistant district attorney, and creating a second assistant district attorney position for Tiffany Sorice, a Westminster municipal judge.
“My transition strategy has been to really listen first and do this top-to-bottom review to figure out what the office is doing well and where the areas are that we need to improve,” he said. “I’m certainly working on building my management team, but a lot of those decisions I am going to hold off on until I have the full results of the transition team’s work.”
Some of the senior prosecutors that King is not keeping worried about how the office would handle upcoming major jury trials after they depart.
“You’re talking about hundreds of combined years of experience with analyzing cases and making decisions, and that can be hard to replace,” Jensen said. “…To think that, with some exceptions, someone with one or two years of experience can do what someone with a decade or more can do would be naïve.”
But, he said, every new district attorney has “the right to have people come in who they feel comfortable with who they think will follow their vision,” and he’s known he could be cut with each transition of the five district attorneys he’s served under, both Republican and Democrat.
King said she’s confident the district attorney’s office will continue to carry out its duties effectively, noting she’s cut just 10 of nearly 200 employees. About 70 of those employees are prosecutors, according to the district attorney’s website.
“There is a lot of talent in that office,” she said, “and we’re looking forward to not only letting them thrive, but also giving the opportunity for folks in the office with talent to really excel.”