A multimillion-dollar Judicial Department contract awarded to a high-ranking employee facing firing was not the result of her threatened tell-all, sex-discrimination lawsuit but rather a desire to simply keep her employed, according to an eight-month investigation into the deal released Wednesday.
The $2.5 million judicial training contract awarded to Mindy Masias in early 2019 was the brainchild of three people: Masias, who was the department’s chief of staff, State Court Administrator Christopher Ryan and Eric Brown, its human resources director, and it had been discussed for months before the lawsuit threat ever materialized, the 70-page report says.
The investigation by RCT did find problems, however — in the political structure of the office and a secretive climate that allowed it to foster — and made more than a dozen recommendations for change.
“The internal culture of the SCAO [State Court Administrator's Office] was characterized by toxic relationships, factionalism and a lack of accountability for key leaders,” RCT found. “Several department leaders made critical errors in judgment or engaged in outright misconduct.”
And although then-Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan “Ben” Coats was on board with Masias getting the training contract, despite her being fired over financial irregularities, Coats did not agree to the deal in an effort to silence any lawsuit, the report by RCT concluded.
Ultimately, RCT said Ryan was wrong to think problems in the SCAO would be solved by giving Masias the contract.
“He misjudged that a contract with Masias would solve the problem, and he chose the worst of the tactics common in that culture to get the Contract approved,” the report says. “He lied to Coats about Masias’ history of reimbursement misconduct. He lied to Coats about the justification for a sole-source contract. … He hid Masias’ surreptitious recording of Rice from Coats. … He intimidated [SCAO Chief Legal Counsel Terri] Morrison so she would not interfere with his plans. Ryan thus gradually built an increasingly fragile edifice of deceits that eventually imploded.”
In the end, "the contract was ill-advised, did not serve the interests of Coloradans, and should never have been approved," RCT wrote.
RCT is led by former Colorado U.S. Attorney Robert Troyer.
Ryan on Wednesday said he was "not shocked" by RCT's findings and was "just appalled."
"I wholeheartedly dispute the characterizations and statements form the judicial department justices and staff and stand by my previous statements," Ryan told The Denver Gazette. "As has been demonstrated repeatedly by the actions of the Supreme Court and the Judicial Branch as a whole ... they will take whatever action is necessary to control the narrative and protect the black robes."
A two-page memo that Brown authored, which contained a laundry list of judicial misdeeds Masias was allegedly prepared to air in a lawsuit, had little impact on whether she obtained the contract, RCT said. The company did not look into whether the allegations of misconduct were true.
“Contrary to allegations made and repeated in news media coverage, Troyer and his investigators concluded that the contract was not a 'payoff' to silence Masias from filing a discrimination lawsuit or revealing supposed evidence of judicial misconduct,” Chief Justice Brian Boatright said in a press release issued with the report.
“There is no way to sugarcoat the uncomfortable findings of RCT’s investigation,” Boatright said in the release.
Faced with losing a longtime employee with valuable experience, officials in the department’s financial section refused to sign off on a state audit if Masias was allowed to keep her job, the report found. Ryan and Brown determined she could be given the judicial training contract if she were to resign, RCT investigators say.
“Coats had already tentatively agreed with the proposal to contract with Masias at least three months before Brown presented the alleged ‘dirt’ in his talking-points list,” the RCT report says. “Therefore, we conclude that the ‘dirt’ did not motivate Coats’ thinking at that time.”
An internal audit in August 2018 had found several problems with Masias’ expenses dating back several years, and Ryan barred her from any travel or out-of-pocket reimbursements, as well as signing any department contracts. Ryan told state auditors that Masias “likely violated Colorado law.”
Coats and his counsel, Andrew Rottman, agreed the contract was a workable idea, but only if additional investigation into Masias’ conduct revealed no other problems, the report concluded.
The entire deal unraveled in July 2019 when Coats learned Masias months earlier had secretly recorded a conversation between herself and former Chief Justice Nancy Rice discussing how Masias was too feminine-looking for the chief administrator’s position she wanted but didn’t get.
“Coats was misled, and his judgment failed him on other fronts, but he did not approve the contract to silence Masias,” the report says.
The memo and contract are at the center of at least six investigations and legislative hearings into whether Colorado’s system of judicial discipline requires extensive reform.
The long-awaited RCT report is a direct contrast to accusations that Coats agreed to the deal as a way of stopping Masias from suing and airing the department’s dirty laundry.
Allegations that Coats was read portions of a memo that enumerated various degrees of misconduct by judges and other high-level officials in the Judicial Department, and his reaction to those details — that he waved his hands and asked how to prevent the disclosures — were not accurate, the report concludes.
However, people familiar with the probe said RCT investigators never interviewed the three key players: Ryan, Brown and Masias. That’s probably because the three faced criminal investigation by the Denver district attorney at the time RCT was doing its inquiry, those sources said.
RCT investigators were forced to rely on the other two people at the memo meeting: Coats and Rottman.
RCT made 14 recommendations for changes in how the department does business, including better training for the chief justice and to have an ethics officer.
“We are already evaluating how best to implement these recommendations to ensure an organizational culture of professionalism, accountability and transparency worthy of the thousands of hard-working and dedicated people of our branch,” Boatright said in the statement.
He added that the department has “new channels” for employees to file complaints and report misconduct and imposed “increased rigor” to sole-source contracts.
The DA’s criminal inquiry was closed, prosecutors said, because they received a heavily redacted copy of an audit that months earlier had already found evidence of what appeared to be fraud. Additionally, prosecutors said the lag in getting the report left them with insufficient time to investigate and potentially bring charges before the statute of limitations had expired.
Much of the delay in referring the matter to the Denver district attorney — auditors are required by law to make a referral to law enforcement immediately upon discovering anything that could be a crime — was because state government lawyers with the Attorney General’s Office and the Judicial Department bickered over what the word “immediately” actually meant.
The report comes seven months after the Colorado Judicial Department hired RCT to delve into the circumstances of the contract.
RCT’s $75,000 deal was signed in November 2021, eight months after Chief Justice Boatright publicly promised a transparent and immediate inquiry into allegations of a quid pro quo arrangement to silence a threatened tell-all sex-discrimination lawsuit by a department official.
The department also hired Investigations Law Group for $350,000 to look into allegations the department has long fostered a culture of sexual harassment and discrimination.
The two investigations are among a half-dozen that were launched following the disclosure in February 2021 that a company Masias had formed was given a no-bid judicial training contract two years earlier. The contract’s base value was slightly more than $2.5 million and could have reached $2.75 million over five years with the department’s permission.
In a related development, the Legislature last week began the first of several public hearings into whether the state’s method of investigating and disciplining judges needs reform. That came because the state’s Commission on Judicial Discipline ran into repeated roadblocks in its inquiry into the scandal.
Although Masias faced firing, discussions had been continuing on how to award her the training contract. When Coats expressed concern over how much Brown seemed to be representing Masias’ interests, he asked Ryan to intercede and let Brown know he needed to back away, the report says.
That’s when the memo materialized with the threat of a lawsuit if Masias was actually fired. In it were dozens of instances where the misconduct of judges and other department officials through the years went unpunished or unreported.
One of the allegations was the quiet settlement of a harassment complaint — “per the chief justice,” the memo said — against an appellate court judge so as not to affect his potential, and eventual, Supreme Court appointment.
Another was a Supreme Court justice’s demand that Masias ignore and destroy an anonymous letter alleging sexism and harassment within the court.
The memo, purportedly authored by Brown, also contained several allegations of how women in the department had been generally mistreated and harassed.
The memo quoted Rice from the recording Masias had, telling Masias she was “a small woman” who didn’t “look the part” of the state court administrator, a job for which Masias had unsuccessfully applied.
Rice also told Masias that she needed to “dress less like a woman and more like an attorney on 17th Street.”
Although newspaper stories uncovered the Masias contract in July 2019, the existence of the memo, its contents and Ryan’s assertion that it was the reason for the contract wasn’t revealed until February 2021. Ryan and Brown resigned in the wake of the revelation and the court canceled the deal.
The seven Supreme Court justices at the time publicly denied there was a quid pro quo and that the idea Coats and Rottman “would ever authorize the use of state resources to silence a blackmailer is simply false.”
The justices at the time also said Masias “was not promised any contract prior to her resignation.”
Masias and Brown were close associates for several years, frequently giving lectures together at conferences for the National Center for State Courts.
Masias had been the department’s human resources director and Brown her assistant director until she was promoted to chief of staff, a position that was created for her when she did not land the state court administrator’s post. Brown was promoted to Masias’ former job.
The relationship between the two was often the fodder for department gossip, so much so that the chief of building security, Jane Hood, was asked by her superiors to keep track of their movements in the judiciary’s new office building downtown.
The building has an elaborate electronic-monitoring system that allowed Hood to watch the pair on video surveillance as well as monitor the use of their personal security cards.
Hood was let go from her job after Masias and Brown learned of her tracking activities. Hood was given a severance package that included a year’s salary, an agreement that later came under scrutiny by state auditors.
The judicial leadership-training contract was already something the department was planning on putting out for public bids. Two companies that previously handled the job were specialized in corporate leadership training but not in a court setting, so the department was seeking a change.
Once it was agreed Masias could get the contract — Ryan said he insisted it be put up for public bid rather than given to Masias outright — the department published a solicitation for bidders.
Several weeks earlier and while technically still employed with the department, Masias had reserved with the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office the name of the company she eventually formed for the contract: The Leadership Practice.
More than 400 companies were eligible to bid on the five-year deal. A handful downloaded bid documents. None made an offer, not even Masias.
The RCT report found that Brown largely authored the bid solicitation and that qualifications for the contract were so narrowly written that no company could have landed the deal except for Masias.
Rather than being fired, Masias resigned in March 2019 with back pay and additional benefits. The next day, Brown wrote a formal recommendation for Masias’ newly formed company to be awarded the contract.