A contentious campaign to be the Pikes Peak region’s top prosecutor comes to a head this month, pitting a nine-year veteran of the District Attorney's Office touting courtroom bona fides against a former lawmaker who has attacked his opponent’s integrity.
Michael Allen, a senior deputy district attorney, and Mark Waller, an El Paso County commissioner and former state representative, are vying for the Republican nomination that will decide the race.
“Honesty, integrity and ethics,” Waller said. “I think that’s what it comes down to.”
Said Allen: “People need to decide whether they want a politician running the DA’s Office, or a proven prosecutor.”
With no Democrat in the race, the June 30 primary election will determine who succeeds term-limited 4th Judicial District Attorney Dan May, now completing his 12th year in office. The district attorney oversees criminal prosecutions in El Paso and Teller counties.
A gloves-off race began more than a year ago, and nears its conclusion weeks after Waller was cleared of an allegation that he violated residency requirements for the county’s Board of Commissioners. Waller tied the probe to Allen, calling him “corrupt,” while Allen accused Waller of deflecting blame and resorting to negative campaigning.
The rivalry has split key players in El Paso County’s increasingly fractured Republican Party. Allen has endorsements from the Colorado Springs Police Protective Association and three of the past four top prosecutors, including May and Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, who also served as state attorney general and U.S. attorney for Colorado. Waller has support from El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder and former Colorado Springs police chief Pete Carey, now Elder’s undersheriff.
The race goes to a vote against the backdrop of a national outcry over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis police custody on Memorial Day, sparking protests calling for sweeping reforms of police and criminal justice system, including in Colorado Springs.
On the issue of police reform, both candidates said few changes were necessary in the Pikes Peak region.
“I haven’t heard many grievances at all, legitimate or otherwise, when it comes to policing in El Paso County,” Waller said. “Whatever demographic you’re in, whether regular society or a large group of officers, there are going to be bad apples. That’s not some sort of systemic, widespread issue.”
Allen, likewise, reported hearing few complaints about policing here, saying that was “not surprising” given that he works closely with law enforcement agencies.
“I think that we need to be listening to our minority communities, and we need to hear what they’re saying. As a community, as a country, we’re always striving to improve,” he said. With a Hispanic mother from the San Luis Valley, Allen said he’s “sensitive” about including minority voices in matters of public policy.
When officers are found to have violated departmental policies, that information should be disclosed to the public, they agreed.
Both said they supported the right to protest peacefully, but that arrests were necessary when protests cross the line into criminal activity.
Waller and Allen agreed the charges against several dozen Colorado Springs protesters — most for obstructing a police officer — should be pursued on a case-by-case basis.
“If there is not any sort of property damage being done or physical interaction with the police, then that probably falls more under First Amendment rights,” Allen said.
Waller said he would “absolutely” be open to dismissing charges against protesters, depending on individual circumstances.
Regarding the case of De’Von Bailey, a 19-year-old black man who was shot in the back in August 2019 while fleeing Colorado Springs police, both expressed support for the how the shooting was handled. But differences in tone emerged.
“Absolutely those officers were justified,” Waller said, citing police body-camera footage he said proved it was a "justified shoot."
He argued that officers involved had no clear alternative, given that they knew Bailey was armed and were at risk of being fired on.
“What were they supposed to do?”
Calling Bailey’s death a “tragedy,” Waller said the role of the district attorney is to hear out those who disagreed and “work to promote calm.”
Allen deferred to the grand jury that reviewed the case.
“I would say to those people that are having lingering doubts, that this was a decision made by members of the community. The case was taken to the grand jury and they had a chance to look at all the evidence. I think that we should respect the grand jury’s findings in that case. It’s rare, but in that case, they actually issued a report detailing the factors they considered in making their decision. It’s not like that case was about law enforcement ‘circling the wagons.’”
Both candidates said they supported releasing police body-camera footage to the public as a matter of transparency, though Waller added that he objected in "very rare" cases where it might affect ongoing investigations.
Experience for the job
In vying to become district attorney, Allen, a Navy veteran, pointed to his 16 years of experience as a prosecutor in Kansas and Colorado, saying he had won every homicide case that was taken to trial, securing lengthy sentences against killers.
“I’ve handled every type of case there is,” Allen said, arguing that such experience is necessary to ensure public safety in El Paso and Teller counties.
If elected, he said he would continue to carry two to four homicide cases at a time, similar to the case load handled by May. He also vowed to play a visible role in the most high-profile cases handled by the office.
Waller, an Air Force veteran who served three terms in the Colorado House, from 2008 to 2014, has pledged to harness his political savvy to strengthen laws in Colorado. He served as a military prosecutor in Iraq, pursuing insurgents in the Iraqi courts, and was a deputy district attorney in the 10th District Attorney’s Office in Pueblo for two years, beginning in 2005.
He has not brought a murder case to trial, but downplayed the role of courtroom prowess, saying he would rely on seasoned prosecutors to argue homicide cases.
“Prosecutorial experience is important but this job is so much more than that. This is a leadership position,” Waller said.
Administering the DA's office
In administering the DA’s office, Waller said his focus would be on training new prosecutors and “empowering” them to do the job. He cited turnover as the top challenge facing the DA’s Office, saying that prosecutors must feel sufficiently supported to do the work.
Waller said he would “constantly fight for more funds to keep people there.”
Allen identified Colorado Springs’ rapid growth as a top challenge, saying the trick will be to allocate resources to continue the office’s track record of “good outcomes.”
During a public candidate forum this month, Allen suggested creating a new animal cruelty unit and said he would direct high-profile and complex murder cases to the most experienced prosecutors, rather than rely on an “on-call rotation” that may leave less experienced attorneys with the most difficult cases.
“I do not see turnover as a problem,” Allen said, arguing that prosecutors' offices have long served as a place to get trial experience before moving on to private practice. Pay will never be competitive with private firms, leaving the most dedicated to turn the job into a career, he said.
Both spoke in favor of expanding problem-solving courts, such as Veterans Trauma Court, in which criminal convictions are set aside if defendants adhere to addiction treatment, counseling and other requirements meant to address the root of their crimes.
They also pledged to be visible when it comes to explaining, and defending, their decisions.
“You’re the one that’s responsible,” Waller said. “You’re the one that should be in front of the cameras taking responsibility for what happens.”
Allen said he envisions taking a more aggressive role than his predecessor in holding community forums to meet residents, hear their concerns and build trust.
“We haven’t done a good job of going out to different areas of the community,” he said.
The candidates exchanged sharp words over a complaint filed against Waller in April by prominent anti-tax crusader Douglas Bruce, which alleged that Waller lives in Palmer Lake, in violation of a requirement that he reside in the district he represents as a county commissioner.
Had the complaint been upheld, Waller would have been immediately removed from his post on the Board of Commissioners.
But Waller was ultimately cleared of the charge by Pueblo County District Attorney Jeff Chostner, whose office investigated after Dan May recused his office, citing May’s endorsement of Allen. Chostner found that Waller had recently purchased a home in Palmer Lake, but also highlighted evidence that Waller continues to live in a rental property in his district in Colorado Springs.
Bruce, who served time in jail in 2012 for tax evasion, told an investigator with Chostner’s office that he filed the complaint at the behest of Jim Bensberg, a former El Paso County commissioner and an Allen supporter. Bensberg, however, denied asking Bruce to file the complaint.
Jill Gaebler, a Colorado Springs city councilwoman and an Allen supporter, told an investigator that she conducted her own probe into Waller’s living arrangements, and that she informed Allen’s campaign manager she was “looking into this.” She denied Allen’s campaign played a role.
Gaebler also alleged that if Waller wasn't living in Palmer Lake, he was in violation of a residency requirement on a Department of Veterans Affairs loan he used to purchase the home. The report did not reach a conclusion on whether Waller was abiding by the terms of his VA loan, and Chostner declined to answer questions about the loan.
Waller said he has abided by terms of his loan and argued that he "earned" the right to a VA loan through his service.
Chostner’s report fueled attacks by Waller — on Facebook and the website corruptprosecutor.com — alleging that the Allen campaign “colluded” with Gaebler and Bruce to “abuse the criminal justice system for political gain.”
During his interview with The Gazette, Allen denied advance knowledge of the complaint against Waller, saying that “rumors” about the commissioner’s residency were widespread. He accused Waller of trying to redirect blame in a bid to “deflect accountability.”
“This is not a surprise that he would use negative campaign tactics,” Allen said. “Every single campaign he’s been involved in he has used negative campaign tactics.”
Waller said the dustup has revealed critical differences between the candidates, revealing Allen’s “significant ethical lapse.”
“As a deputy district attorney, you should know better, without a doubt,” he said. “We need to have breadth and depth.”
Allen called Waller a “politician” and said that the rancor would be a sign of things to come if Waller is elected district attorney.
“The big thing that people need to understand is that we are going to set the tone in our region for potentially the next four years, or 12,” Allen said.
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