Disbarred former 12th Judicial District Attorney Alonzo Payne and others with the DA’s office have been accused of filing false criminal charges in retaliation against a political rival and critic, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court on Aug. 8.
Bob Willett, the former DA who lost to Payne during the Democratic primary for the 2020 ballot, is seeking more than $5 million in damages. He names Payne, the 12th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, former assistant district attorney R. Alex Raines, the office’s investigator Sam Coffman, its business and finance administrator Tammy Rogers and several unknown employees of the office as defendants in both personal and professional capacities. The lawsuit claims Willett’s constitutional rights were violated as a result of the investigation and charges.
Payne has since been disbarred after an investigation from the Colorado Attorney General’s Office and Colorado’s Presiding Disciplinary Judge found numerous issues within the DA’s office and purported misconduct by Payne.
In March 2022, the 12th Judicial District Attorney’s Office charged Willett with embezzlement of public property, a class 5 felony, accusing him of using end-of-year bonuses from the office’s budget to compensate himself and others more than the statutory maximum amount allowed for DA’s. The charges against Willett were dropped several months later and the case has since been sealed.
The charges coincided with a recall effort of Payne by voters. The Colorado Secretary of State’s Office in June 2022 announced it had received enough signatures to recall the former DA. Payne resigned as DA in July 2022 and Gov. Jared Polis appointed Anne Kelly to take over the office. Willett was appointed to lead the office from 2019 through 2020 but lost the Democratic primary nomination for DA to Payne in 2020. At the time of the recall efforts, Willett had thrown his hat in the ring to take over the office until an election for the permanent DA. Willett did run again for the position in 2022, but lost to Kelly.
Willett, who is being represented by Kris Miller of Colorado Springs firm Maher & Maher Law, is now arguing Payne and his office conducted an investigation in bad faith and filed the charges to retaliate against him as a political opponent and critic.
According to the lawsuit, as a result of the charges, Willett was suspended without pay from his job as a prosecutor in the 4th Judicial District, faced public and professional embarrassment and harassment, had to hire a defense attorney and was at risk of professional discipline and a criminal sentence.
“The reckless and unwarranted investigation (if it can be called such) charging Mr. Willett was a clear effort by Alonzo Payne, Alex Raines, and Sam Coffman conspiring to destroy and intimidate a political opponent and any other voices then critical of Payne’s tenure and manner of running the Office,” the lawsuit states.
According to the lawsuit, Payne directed 12th DA office investigator Coffman to look into the bonuses that were given by Willett in December 2020 to himself and others in the office. The lawsuit claims that despite the conflict of interest, the investigation was done only by members of the 12th DA’s office. The lawsuit claims Coffman was given a payroll sheet that showed in 2020 Willett was paid more than $130,000 due to the end-of-year bonuses, which is more than the fixed salary for DAs set by state law. Willett claims that tax records show he was paid $126,000 in 2020, less than the statutory maximum.
The lawsuit claims the 12th DA’s office has long used surplus money as end-of-year bonuses for its staff. The lawsuit claims at the end of 2020, Willett was informed the Alamosa County commissioners had set aside funds without any conditions for him to disburse as end-of-year bonuses. The lawsuit claims Coffman spoke to a former assistant DA who said in the past surplus money from processing fees for fraudulent check fees would be used at the end of the year to offer bonuses, but the former DA didn’t consider the bonus funds to be a salary increase. During the investigation, the lawsuit claims neither Willett nor the county commissioners were interviewed about the allegations.
Coffman’s investigation eventually led to charges of embezzlement of public property filed against Willett.
During the proceedings, Payne personally appeared in court and the lawsuit claims he dragged his feet in finding a special prosecutor to take over the case. When a special prosecutor was eventually selected, it was a former employee of Payne, Henry Solano of the 3rd Judicial District Attorney’s Office. Willett claims that he filed another motion to appoint a special prosecutor due to concerns over conflict of interest. Solano eventually withdrew and the case was moved entirely to the 5th Judicial District Attorney’s Office where prosecutors dropped the charges. The overseeing judge dismissed the case with prejudice, noting a “lack of prosecutorial merit.”
The lawsuit accuses Payne and other officials with the DA’s office of pursuing charges despite a lack of evidence and not taking standard steps to remove potential conflict of interest during the investigation and prosecution of the case.
“Even though each Defendant and their agents had an affirmative duty to intervene to protect Robert Willett and prevent his constitutional rights from infringement by the others, and even though each had the opportunity to intervene and prevent the harm, each Defendant failed to take reasonable steps to intervene in other Defendants’ unconstitutional conduct,” the lawsuit claims.
While prosecutors are entitled to absolute immunity for actions as a government advocate, Willett argues Payne and others in the 12th DA’s office aren’t covered by it for the investigation “because their conduct was not objectively reasonable and violated clearly established statutory or constitutional rights.”
He is seeking compensation for both economic and non-economic damages. The case is Willett v. Payne et. al., 23-cv-02010.
Other Payne Points
Leading up to the lawsuit, the 12th Judicial DA’s Office has been embroiled in scandal.
In July 2022, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser announced a months-long investigation into the 12th Judicial DA’s office, which covers Alamosa, Rio Grande, Conejos, Costilla, Saguache and Mineral counties in the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado. The investigation found the DA’s office repeatedly violated Colorado’s Victims Rights Act by failing to communicate with victims, failing to consult with them about case dismissals or pleas and failing to treat them with respect and dignity. The AG’s office and the DA’s office entered into a consent agreement to address the issues, according to statements by the attorney general at the time.
Colorado’s PDJ disbarred Payne, effective Oct. 26, 2022, and in its opinion noted the issues found by the AG’s office, issues with attorneys Payne was responsible for supervising, conduct by Payne and the investigation opened into Willett.
“During a political campaign to recall Payne from office, Payne began an investigation and filed criminal charges against the previous district attorney, a political rival and critic of Payne,” wrote the PDJ. “Despite this antagonistic relationship, Payne did not seek an outside law enforcement agency or special prosecutor to oversee the investigation or make charging decisions. Ultimately, Payne’s actions prevented the court from making a probable cause determination in the case.”
Another defendant in Willett’s lawsuit, former 12th Judicial District assistant DA Raines, was the subject of disciplinary action in 2020 and 2022. According to a PDJ opinion, Raines was disciplined, suspended for six months and given a two-year probation period after the PDJ found he violated rules of professional conduct handling a case. But last year, the PDJ revoked that probation after finding that Raines “abused his power” by “engaging in a pattern of threatening behavior that prejudiced the proceedings and administration of justice” while employed by the DA’s office under Payne.