DA candidates spar in debate

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Two challengers put incumbent Brown on the hot seat

By Ian Neligh

The three candidates for Clear Creek district attorney took turns being cross-examined during a Sept. 19 Republican-hosted forum at Beau Jo’s in Idaho Springs.

Incumbent DA Bruce Brown, a Democrat, is running for a second term and was in the hot seat during much of the forum.

Brown was positioned between his two opponents and often defended his administration, practices and choice of employees. While things started out amiably, the discourse soon became more heated. Brown pointed fingers or tried to stare his opponents down when they attacked his practices.

Brown is being challenged by Republican Bruce Carey, an Eagle-based criminal defense attorney, and Sanam Mehrnia, a Frisco-based attorney who is running as an independent.

The 5th District includes Clear Creek, Eagle, Lake and Summit counties.

The event drew about 20 people, who listened as Kaye Ferry, chairwoman of the Eagle County Republicans, questioned the candidates.

Plea by Mail program

Carey took aim at the district’s Plea by Mail program, which lets offenders sentenced to community service donate $150 to charity instead. That money goes to nonprofits every year to help prevent crimes and provide assistance to crime victims.

Carey said he would eliminate the charitable contribution program.

“I don’t want it so that you can buy justice,” Carey said. “The charitable contribution … makes a slush fund available to Mr. Brown (and his staff) … to sit around and decide what charities get money throughout the district.”

Carey said this makes charities beholden to the DA’s office, and it builds up goodwill for the DA.

“Mr. Brown can come up to them and say, ‘Did you get that $1,000 check I sent you? Hope you appreciated it,’ ” Carey said. In addition, “People are buying their way out of trouble.”

Brown countered that the program was started by a predecessor 25 to 30 years ago and, when he was elected, he streamlined it and then focused on nonprofits. Money goes to programs such as the Clear Creek County Advocates and the Friends of Charlie’s Place, applications are public, and the recipients and how much they receive are listed online.

“When offenders are asked to make a charitable donation, they’re given an alternative,” Brown said. “The idea is, ‘Let’s give back to your community …’ ”

Mehrnia said she liked the program as a source of funding for the district.

“What I would like to see with the money is building programs like community mediation, like the veterans court, like resources for parents who don’t know where else to go. I personally would use (the charitable contributions) to get the DA’s office the resources to build these programs,” Mehrnia said. “(That way) the charities are being funded; they survived. Now let’s help the community survive.”

Quality of justice

Carey said the quality of justice has degraded during Brown’s four-year term.

“The sheriffs are not happy with our current prosecution team. Historically the sheriffs have always been behind the prosecutors; that is no longer the case,” Carey said. “The prosecution and the defense bar do not get along.”

Carey said that historically the district had softball teams whose players included prosecutors, judges and defense lawyers, which is no longer the case because of eroding relationships.

Conversely, Brown said he improved the district during his first term, adding that he originally ran for the position because he felt residents were not well protected and victims were not represented, and too many cases were not being brought to a successful conclusion.

“Interestingly, people will point to me, maybe from that side of the table, and say, ‘He locks too many people up.’ The truth is, we don’t send any more numbers of people to prison than we did under my predecessor. We just choose them differently,” Brown said.

Carey later responded to Brown’s assertion about successful convictions, saying he was tired of rookie prosecutors believing the number of convictions is the “mark of a job well done.”

“For me, the cutting of recidivism, the reducing of repeat offenses is the most important thing I can do in most of our cases,” Carey said.

Crime rate increase

Brown said that over the past four years the district has experienced a spike in serious crimes.

“In the last year we’ve had two homicides right here in Clear Creek County. We’ve also had in a little over a year two homicides in Lake County,” Brown said. “So it is a symbol of maybe how our society is changing a little bit and some of the challenges that … we face as prosecutors.”

Mehrnia countered that fear should not be used as an argument in political discussions.

“Yes, we have homicides in this community, like any other community, but overcharging cases is why we have a higher rate of crime,” Mehrnia said.

Sexual assault

Carey said there were too many sexual assault cases in the district being plea-bargained to non-sexual-assault convictions.

“I would change that. I would hire an experienced sexual assault trial lawyer and give that person their choice of any one of the four counties in the district,” Carey said. “And every sexual assault case would be e-mailed to that prosecutor, and that prosecutor would shepherd the case from start to finish and go to the county where that trial would be held.”

Restorative justice

All three candidates agreed that restorative justice — rehabilitating offenders through reconciling with victims and the community— is important for the district.

Brown touted his experience in helping with youth courts in the district and his intent to create programs to help veterans.

Carey said he would focus on starting veterans courts.

Mehrnia said the district also should bring resources to the community dealing with, for example, mental health.

“And I think this is a critical time to do it because of the growth we’re facing,” Mehrnia said. “If history had taught us anything: Punishment and throwing away the key is not the answer.”

Mehrnia said she’s giving up her defense practice because cases are being overcharged without a thought to those being affected.

“We need an adult diversion program. People make mistakes, people need a helping hand, and right now we just don’t have that,” Mehrnia said. “All we do is throw the book at them.”

Programs are needed to give offenders options such as drug rehabilitation programs, she said.

“And right now we’re helping people fail,” Mehrnia said. “And when you tell someone they are a criminal, and they’re no good, they start believing that, and we need to change that big time.”