Colorado’s former top judge, Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan “Ben” Coats, is under investigation by the state’s Attorney Regulation Counsel, the agency that disciplines lawyers, for his role in a multimillion-dollar contract awarded to a former Judicial Department official who threatened a tell-all sex-discrimination lawsuit.
The investigation by a pair of Chicago-based attorneys was approved in March, according to an ARC statement posted within its website, but the first witnesses were approached only recently, according to people familiar with the probe.
Legal experts could not recall another time the ARC has investigated a state Supreme Court justice. Attorney Regulation Counsel Jennifer Yates on Tuesday would not say why the Coats inquiry was opened.
“The Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel has opened an investigation into recent allegations published in news articles about former Chief Justice Coats, including his knowledge of the reasons a contract was awarded to a former executive in the Judicial Department and Coats’ statements about that contract,” according to the ARC statement dated March 15.
The ARC falls within the Supreme Court and regulates the practice of law in Colorado, handling licensing, registration, and discipline. The Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline investigates and disciplines judges. The two share jurisdiction over judges as to violations of the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct.
Coats declined to comment through his attorney, John Gleason, who headed the ARC for 14 years and left in 2013. Coats, 72, was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2000 by Gov. Bill Owens and became chief justice in 2018. He left in December 2020 as he approached the mandatory retirement age of 72.
At the core of the investigation is a $2.5 million contract awarded to former Judicial Department chief of staff Mindy Masias who faced termination over financial irregularities, which The Denver Post initially revealed in June 2019. The contract was subsequently canceled.
The Post in February 2021 reported that the contract was actually a way to keep Masias from revealing in a threatened sexual-discrimination lawsuit what she knew about sexual harassment within the department, much of it undisciplined, according to former chief court administrator Christopher Ryan, who had resigned in the wake of the contract issue.
Ryan said Coats approved the deal in early 2019 when he learned the details of what Masias was prepared to disclose from a memo read to him in a meeting with Ryan, then-human resources director Eric Brown and Coats’ counsel, Andrew Rottman.
The memo, which Ryan said Brown authored, contains allegations of harassment and misdeeds by justices of the state Supreme Court, a judge of the Colorado Court of Appeals, district court chief judges, and chiefs of probation at a number of judicial districts. The memo also contained other allegations, including the destruction of evidence and payoffs to silence victims.
Other justices said they reviewed the memo for the first time after The Post’s stories.
The ARC investigation is one of three ongoing inquiries into the contract and the allegations contained in the memo.
Current Chief Justice Brian Boatright told a joint session of the Colorado Legislature this year that he was launching an independent inquiry into the contract and memo. The legislature, governor and attorney general each named members of an eight-person panel that drafted a public-bid proposal to hire an investigator.
Eight companies submitted bids in May and the panel is reviewing the proposals. Boatright has said the investigator’s report will be public.
A second probe, by the office of the state auditor looking into fraud allegations, was launched shortly after The Denver Post’s initial stories about the contract in 2019 but stalled when investigators had difficulty acquiring information, largely due to COVID-related restrictions.
The probe launched anew after The Post revealed the existence of the memo. The results of the inquiry are not public unless charges are filed or the Judicial Department chooses to release it.
Yates said the two lawyers hired to do the ARC inquiry – Wendy Muchman and James Grogan, both university professors specializing in legal ethics – will be paid $200 per hour for their work. They aren’t operating under a time limit and are not bound to only investigate Coats if information leads them to other attorneys.
Yates would not comment further, but the ARC statement noted its legal regulation committee appointed the outside investigators. Muchman and Grogan have each worked with the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission. Muchman is a professor at Northwestern University and Grogan at Loyola University Chicago.
Muchman and Grogan would not comment about their investigation.
The Commission on Judicial Discipline had no comment about the ARC inquiry or whether it is conducting its own investigation.
Commission chairman, attorney Christopher Gregory, was not reappointed last week, and Gov. Jared Polis named attorney Mindy Scooter of Boulder to replace him.
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