A judge has ruled that he cannot appoint someone else to run embattled Adams County Treasurer Lisa Culpepper’s department amid allegations that she mismanaged tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer money, stating that he “lacks the authority” to strip that power from an elected official.
The ruling, issued last week by Adams County District Judge Mark Warner, deals a major blow to Adams County’s contention that a court should name a receiver to take over operations at a department it claims has been beset by shoddy bookkeeping and woeful customer service.
“The Court finds the constitutional provision has plain and clear language. ‘[U]nless removed according to law’ the Treasurer ‘shall’ exercise the duties of said office,” Warner wrote in a 10-page ruling dated April 26.
Culpepper’s case is scheduled for a hearing Wednesday, during which the judge will consider whether Adams County’s lawsuit against the treasurer should be dismissed in its entirety.
“The Court simply found that giving the commissioners what they demanded — a receiver to replace the treasurer — violated the Colorado Constitution,” Culpepper’s attorney, J. Kirk McGill, told The Denver Post via email Tuesday.
McGill described the treasurer as “the bank for Adams County” through which “every single taxpayer dollar in the county passes.”
“This is one reason why the Colorado Constitution requires an independently elected treasurer — to ensure that the elected officials authorized to spend the money (the Commissioners) are independent from the elected official required to account for the money (the Treasurer),” he said.
McGill said his client believes the Adams County commissioners sued her last fall “to remove her as an obstacle and intimidate any future treasurer into going along with their unconstitutional aggrandizement of their own power at the expense of an independent treasurer.”
Adams County Commissioner Eva Henry called Warner’s decision “disappointing.” The county, she said, wasn’t looking to replace Culpepper but to get someone competent to run the office.
“We needed someone to perform the duties that are supposed to be the treasurer’s,” Henry said. “When we have a treasurer who is not doing the job by state statute, we had no other choice to do what we did.”
The county’s October suit against Culpepper alleges that her office practiced shoddy bookkeeping and failed to account for more than $200 million in taxpayer funds. That includes a more than six-month late accounting of $90 million in federal COVID-19 relief money and more than half a million dollars sent by her office to taxing jurisdictions that weren’t owed the money.
In an audit consultancy Eide Bailly LLP completed last year, the firm enumerated a number of shortcomings at the treasurer’s office in terms of accounting and reconciliation practices. It also knocked the office for its failure to respond to taxpayers’ questions about tax payments, liens and other business matters.
“As of November 2021, more than 4,000 emails and 500 voicemails remained unanswered…,” the report said.
In January, Adams County’s finance director told the commissioners that communication with Culpepper’s office was so lacking that she was having trouble completing a required annual audit, without which state officials could withhold millions of dollars in property tax proceeds and “possibly bring county operations to a halt.”
Christa Bruning, a spokeswoman for Adams County, said little had improved over the last half year. There is still $215 million unreconciled, she said.
“The accounts remain unreconciled and need to be cleaned up. In addition, there has been no improvement in required reporting,” Bruning said. “We would love to see collaboration with the Treasurer’s Office, but if that’s not an option in the future, we’ll continue moving forward with legal options.”
Henry said Culpepper had 90 days to implement measures outlined in the Eide Bailly report and that deadline elapsed this week with no action taken by the treasurer.
“That will be brought before the judge Wednesday,” she said.
Meanwhile, Culpepper will vie to maintain her position in November’s election, despite failing to make it onto the ballot through the assembly process in March.
“Ms. Culpepper will also run as a write-in candidate in the November 2022 general election, notwithstanding the steep odds, because of the importance of this issue and at the request of many taxpayers who are concerned about it, and who are pleased with Ms. Culpepper’s innovative and important work as Adams County Treasurer,” her attorney said.
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