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Former court administrator weighs in on possible reforms for Colorado judicial branch

Colorado Supreme Court
Posted at 6:28 PM, Aug 10, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-10 20:40:05-04

DENVER — An interim legislative committee on Wednesday heard for the first time from one of the key players in a scandal that has spurred two separate investigations into the Colorado Supreme Court.

Christopher Ryan is a former court administrator who was one of three people accused of helping craft a contract for a judicial employee who was about to be terminated from the department over alleged financial wrongdoing.

That $2.75 million contract was awarded to former chief of staff Mindy Masias.

Former court administrator weighs in on possible reforms for Colorado judicial branch

She was on the verge of being terminated after falsifying the date for reimbursement after buying two shag beanbag chairs for $161. However, Masias had allegedly threatened to expose wrongdoing within the department and file a gender discrimination lawsuit after not being given the court administrator position.

Masias, former human resources director Eric Brown and Masias then allegedly came up with a sole-source contract to conduct leadership training for the department.

The contract was dissolved in 2019 and Ryan resigned when reports came to light of how the contract came together. Ryan helped bring that contract to light in 2021.

“There have been ongoing efforts by the leadership of the judiciary, specifically the Colorado Supreme Court to endorse a specific narrative relating to the Masias contract-related issues,” Ryan said.

In May, Ryan and his attorney spoke with investigative reporter David Migoya and said his reputation was intentionally being destroyed to protect those complicit in the scandal.

“Now, having spent a significant time outside of the circle, I have a new sense of what it's like to draw their ire. And the degree to which they're focused on self-protection has become an area of extreme awareness for me personally,” Ryan said to the state lawmakers.

During Wednesday’s hearing, he spoke publicly for the first time about changes he believe need to be made within the department.

“In retrospect, it seems I was blind to motivations of individuals and what I believe was an appropriate personal sacrifice to make on behalf of the branch,” Ryan said.

He insisted that throughout his 30 years working for the courts his devotion has always been to the institution, not individual concerns. He said he was a true supporter and believer in the process.

Ryan went on to say that he does not believe that there has ever been wide-ranging systematic corruption or bias in the state’s trial courts.

However, the former court administrator criticized the role the branch played in two separate investigations that recently wrapped up. One found that there was no contract to silence Masias but that there was misconduct.

A second concluded that there are significant workplace issues within the department and that many employees exhibited a fear of reporting due to possible retaliation.

“The overt actions of the leadership of the department to promote a publicly specific narrative and avoid an impartial and judicial discipline investigation themselves illustrates the depth of the flaws and the functionality and credibility of Colorado's current system of judicial discipline that needs to be remedied,” Ryan said.

Despite this, he offered his own suggestions for changes to be made within the department to help with better transparency and more accountability.

Ryan’s testimony comes as state lawmakers consider whether to pursue new legislation to reform the way disciplinary actions are taken within the department. Wednesday’s hearing was the latest discussion on possible reforms.

“I believe that this committee’s opportunity to address the deficiencies of the disciplinary process can improve the environment of judicial and correct the extreme imbalance of power between the staff and those who wear the black robes,” Ryan said.

Some of the changes may be statutory while others may necessitate constitutional changes. Some of the discussions include adding an ombudsman position to oversee the complaints and discipline process, adding an anonymous reporting system and more.

Even before state lawmakers craft legislation for the potential changes, though, court administrator Steven Vasconcellos testified that the department is working on fixes of its own.

“To the degree to which folks had personally observed retaliation was extraordinarily troubling. The cornerstone of our work ahead is building a strong culture based on shared values,” said Vasconcellos. “Our ultimate goal is to repair the foundations of a safe workplace, increased public trust and confidence in the judiciary.”

Both he and lawmakers agreed, however, that there was more work to be done.