Colorado Judicial Department gave $2.5 million contract to prevent tell-all sex discrimination lawsuit about judges’, court officials’ misconduct
FEB 3, 2021 | REPUBLISHED BY LIT: FEB 3, 2021
Colorado court officials — including the chief justice of the Supreme Court — were trying to ensure the personal misconduct of nearly two dozen judges and administrators remained secret when they gave a multi-million dollar contract to a former Judicial Department employee who threatened to expose it all if she was fired, according to the agency’s former chief administrator.
Facing dismissal over financial irregularities, Mindy Masias, the former chief of staff of the Supreme Court Administrator’s office, was instead handed a $2.5 million five-year contract in March 2019. The contract was in exchange for not filing a tell-all sexual-discrimination lawsuit, according to Christopher Ryan, the state’s chief court administrator who resigned in July 2019 amid a Denver Post investigation into the deal.
Although The Post had previously reported that Masias was given the contract as well as other financial benefits despite facing dismissal, the details behind the deal have only now emerged.
The lawsuit threat – summarized in a two-page memo written in December 2018 for Ryan by Eric Brown, the department’s then-human resources chief – outlined
“at least 20, likely more” episodes of conduct by judges and other department officials that Brown told him Masias was prepared to disclose,
Ryan told The Post.
Ryan described the conduct listed in the memo as a
“host of ills, of personal things judges do … sexually suggestive and inappropriate actions … gut-wrenching things … reprehensible behavior.”
Masias’ contract to train judges in leadership skills was canceled following The Post’s stories, and at least three other department employees eventually resigned.
The contract was at the center of a state audit released in December 2020 that was critical of the department’s financial operations, but the memo was not mentioned and auditors would not say if they were aware of it.
Masias had been on family medical leave when she was given the contract. She took the leave in November 2018 when she learned she was to be fired over concerns about her expenses.
Then-Chief Justice Nathan Coats signed off on the contract to ensure the information would not become public, Ryan said. Coats retired on Dec. 31, 2020, and was replaced by Chief Justice Brian Boatright.
Ryan, who oversaw the operations of the state’s entire judicial system and reported directly to Coats, said the former chief justice was
“very concerned about …information of that nature coming out, that it makes the branch look bad, that it’s worthwhile to prevent that information from getting released.”
Coats, through a department spokesman, refused to comment for this story. Masias and Brown did not respond to emails and phone messages from The Post.
“The Judicial Department does not publicly comment on attorney-client privileged communications, and has not authorized any current or former employee to do so either,” department spokesman Robert McCallum wrote in an email to The Post in response to an email the newspaper sent Coats.
The Judicial Department has refused repeated requests from The Post to provide the memo under the court’s open-records rules, claiming it is a work product that contains privileged information protected from disclosure. An attorney for The Post has argued the memo is a public record because it was written by one government employee based on information obtained by another government employee, and discussed the actions of other employees.
Masias’ career as the department’s human resources director and its chief of staff put her in a position to know sensitive details about all its employees and judges. Brown was her assistant director before taking over as human resources chief.
“Brown said he had spoken to Masias and she was going to sue the branch … and will bring up everything she knows about actions of judges and other court officials that happened statewide,”
“She was the fixer for the branch for the past 20 years and she’d essentially spill her guts … just to smear the [judicial] branch.”
Ryan said he did not speak directly with Masias or her attorney about the memo or its contents.
Ryan said Brown was clear that Masias would sue for sexual discrimination if she were fired, in part because she was losing her job and in part because she had been passed over for the State Court Administrator job that Ryan landed.
Ryan, the former clerk to the department’s Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court for a decade, did not apply for the chief administrator’s job, but was named interim to the post in July 2017 after the justices could not decide among two finalists, one of them Masias. Ryan was given the administrator’s job outright in September 2017.
“As part of that lawsuit she was going to reveal the information that ultimately became the contents of the memo, which along with being damaging publicly would demonstrate a pattern of how Judicial treated issues with men in positions of power within the branch versus how she was treated,”
Ryan told The Post.
After reading the memo, Ryan said he set up a meeting with Coats to discuss the department’s next step.
Ryan would not disclose to The Post any names identified in the memo but said at least half were sitting judges. Ryan said he no longer had his copy of the memo because he turned it over to Terri Morrison, the department’s chief counsel, when he resigned.
He would not elaborate on what he remembers of details in the memo because,
“I ended up losing my job to prevent it from getting out” and he refused to be complicit in disclosing the specifics.
“It included judges, district and county, and the highest levels of managers, the heads of the probation and court sides of districts, not at any level below that,”
“These included incidents that chief judges in the districts had declined to do anything about, had looked away.”
Ryan said he came forward about the memo after state auditors blamed him for financial irregularities that had “degraded the public trust,” including how the Masias contract was awarded. Auditors made no mention of the memo or the meeting with Coats that was convened to discuss it.
“They had a chance to do the right thing and they didn’t,” Ryan said of the audit and the Judicial Department.
He said problems of poor money management that auditors discovered were actually issues he had identified and was working to fix when the Masias issue took hold.
“I was surprised with how it was presented,” Ryan said. “It was laid at my feet in a vacuum without ever having talked to me. I never did things on my own.”
Ryan had reported to state auditors concerns about Masias’ department expenses in August 2018. They were serious enough that Ryan barred Masias from future travel or out-of-pocket expense reimbursements, from approving any expenditures for anyone in the department, and from signing any department documents including contracts — all critical components of her job.
Ryan took those steps after discovering Masias “attempted to circumvent” reimbursement policies “by submitting altered documents” which had “likely violated Colorado law,” according to a letter he sent auditors at the time.
Masias was initially only to be disciplined over the reimbursement receipts episode, Ryan told The Post.
“Coats didn’t think there was enough to prove fraud … but he thought we should take some action, but not firing,” Ryan said.
That changed when two high-level officials in the State Court Administrator’s office – controller Myra Dukes and Chief Financial Officer David Kribs – refused to sign off on a routine state audit unless Masias was fired.
“If they don’t sign that audit it could affect a whole slew of things,”
Ryan told The Post.
“So I let the chief (justice) know and termination was what we chose to do.”
Masias immediately took a medical leave of absence and after several weeks, Brown “comes to see me and says she’s going to sue the branch,” Ryan said. He called a meeting with Morrison the day after Christmas for the three to discuss the matter.
“We generally spoke about it with Morrison, no details, but generally about all this info Masias had gleaned over a career with judicial that she was prepared to reveal,” Ryan said.
Referring to text messages Morrison had sent him afterward, Ryan said, “She was very upset and angry, and had trouble sleeping” the night after their discussion.
After the meeting and at Ryan’s request, Brown wrote the memo outlining “all she would do,” Ryan said.
It was the first time Ryan saw the extent of the information Masias had, he said, and prompted him to set up a meeting with Coats.
The meeting was between himself, Brown, Coats and attorney Andrew Rottman, counsel to the chief justice, in Coats’ chambers and happened in early January 2019, Ryan said. Brown began to read the memo aloud and got about half-way through it when Coats waved his arms for Brown to stop, Ryan said.
“Coats says that’s enough, he doesn’t want to hear any more,” Ryan said. “Then he said, ‘What can we do about it? What are our options?”’
That’s when Ryan and Brown “made the proposal” for the judicial training contract to Masias. Brown had already drafted a contract and shared it with Ryan via their personal emails, according to copies of the email reviewed by The Post.
The contract “would prevent a lawsuit and the judiciary from having to deal with a public airing of a host of ills of personal things judges do that are not related to their decision-making,”
Ryan told The Post.
“She was willing to give all the details over her career to harm the branch unless she got a softer landing. It was definitely a quid-pro-quo.”
About two weeks later, the training contract was first offered publicly and when no companies bid, it was given outright to Masias’ newly formed firm, The Leadership Practice.
“I did execute the Masias contract, but note that this was not an undertaking of a single individual,” Ryan said.
“Chief Justice Coats and … Andrew Rottman were involved in every discussion, review of the contract language and all aspects of the decision for implementation.”
In December 2019, Coats and Steven Vasconcellos, who replaced Ryan following his resignation, told the state legislature’s Joint Budget Committee that Masias was given the judicial-training contract when Brown declared her company was the only one that could do the job. They said Ryan had signed off on it, but did not say that Coats and the other justices had approved it as well or why.
Ryan said he’s unsure whether any of the other six members of the Supreme Court aside from Coats knew of the memo.
Coats and Vasconcellos told the legislative committee the contract was canceled “in the public interest” at Coats’ direction following The Post’s stories and said Ryan and Brown had resigned in its wake.
“The indication that in the last two years of my career that I suddenly became a tyrant who went rogue is abhorrent to me,” Ryan told The Post.
“Let me be clear. Chief Justice (Nathan) Coats and Rottman know exactly why that contract was given.”
Ryan said he’s been out of work since his resignation, which he said he offered because
“I was the number 2 and it was to protect number 1 (Coats). My job was to protect the branch.”