A long-running conflict between Douglas County’s elected leaders could continue after county Commissioner Lora Thomas signaled she might take action to have her legal bills paid back if the county doesn’t decide to pay the cost.
Her two fellow commissioners on the board appeared not to entertain that idea.
“If you want to sue the county and cost the taxpayers more in legal fees, that is entirely up to you,” Commissioner Abe Laydon responded during a Jan. 31 meeting.
Thomas accused Laydon and Commissioner George Teal of conducting a “witch hunt” investigation into whether Thomas created a hostile working environment. Thomas said the investigation “exonerated me of any wrongdoing.”
Thomas under scrutiny
At the center of the conflict are multiple layers of legal wrangling that stem from an investigation Teal and Laydon initiated after accusing Thomas of circulating an anonymous letter that criticized specific employees in the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, allegedly creating a hostile work environment. They also accused her of emailing county legal representation with a request not authorized by the full board.
The $17,000 investigation into Thomas by outside legal counsel found that while Thomas had distributed the letter, doing so did not create a hostile work environment. It also found she did direct legal representation to provide her with information the board had determined to keep secret.
Thomas appeared in a CBS Colorado news story in July discussing the confidential report that showed the results of the investigation, prompting the Douglas County government’s attorney to find that Thomas could have broken the law by doing so.
Thomas had asserted multiple times in meetings and in her newsletter to constituents that she believes the privileged nature of the document had already been broken by Laydon discussing parts of it publicly.
A second investigation ordered by Laydon and Teal — this time conducted by the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office — did not find probable cause to believe that Thomas committed the crime of first-degree official misconduct.
“The Colorado criminal code does not specifically prohibit a waiver of privileged and confidential information by a privilege holder. In this case, as a member of the Board of County Commissioners, Lora Thomas is a privilege holder,” Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Bruce Peterson wrote in a memorandum.
Thomas held a news conference in November and called the probe “yet another bogus investigation.”
‘Forced to find legal remedies’
Whether the county is obligated to pay Thomas’ legal fees depends on whether she was acting in the scope of her duties or her actions were “willful and wanton.”
“If you believe that the actions of (Thomas) were purposely pursued in order to likely result in harm to the county, then that would be willful and wanton,” Chris Pratt, interim Douglas County attorney, told the commissioners during the Jan. 31 meeting.
Laydon argued Arapahoe County “got it wrong” in evaluating Thomas’ actions, saying “the privileged holder of a confidential document is the board” and not just one member of the board. He based his point on Pratt’s understanding of the law.
“The release of a privileged document is not something an individual (commissioner) can do. Leaking something to the press is highly inappropriate,” Laydon said. “Commissioner Thomas has never indicated that she did not do that. Which, again, I think that lack of candor really speaks to the lack of trustworthiness that we’ve experienced here. So no, I am not interested in asking the taxpayers to spend money to defend willful and wanton action.”
An old court case that involved a dispute between a public official and a board of county commissioners came up during the conversation.
“It was an argument over salaries for employees,” Pratt said. “In that case, the court ordered the board to pay for the legal fees for the treasurer’s office. The court felt it was inappropriate for the board to create a legal dispute and then require another elected office to pay.”
But Pratt was not sure the case applies to Thomas’ situation, given that the current dispute is within the Douglas board of commissioners itself rather than two different entities, he said.
Thomas was undeterred, arguing the situation is still the county’s responsibility.
“What I am saying is that if you decide to not follow the law and pay my legal bills, then I will be forced to find legal remedies to be made whole as the law allows,” Thomas said.
Thomas also said she was “willing to offer a compromise” to Laydon and Teal.
“If you two are willing to split the almost $23,000 that you cost the taxpayers, and you write a check to the county by Feb. 15 — if you’re really concerned about taxpayer dollars here — you each write a check for almost $11,500 to pay the county back for the frivolous $23,000 bill you charged them,” Thomas said. "After those personal checks clear, I will waive my right to my attorney’s fees.”
Laydon responded: “I want to be unequivocal that it was you that cost the taxpayers $23,000.”
“It’s your behavior. I don’t think George and I have any interest in engaging counsel to deal with misconduct of a commissioner,” Laydon said.
The allegations toward Thomas were based on the use of an anonymous letter sent to the commissioners on April 29, 2019, and whether the information in the document was used in her unsuccessful 2022 campaign for Douglas County sheriff.
Recently, Laydon again accused Thomas in a Jan. 31 letter of leaking “classified” materials, pointing to the content of a story written by Colorado Community Media. Laydon did not specify what exactly in the CCM story he was referring to as being classified.
This story draws from Colorado Community Media reporting by Elliott Wenzler and Haley Lena.