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Douglas County DA’s answer to complaint admits some allegations, shifts focus to former employees

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The Douglas County district attorney on Tuesday filed her answer to a disciplinary complaint, admitting some of the core allegations against her but adding further context and placing some blame on former employees of the office.

DA Suzanne Valdez, who took office in January 2021, was about two months into her term before a conflict between Valdez and Douglas County District Court Chief Judge James McCabria over how jury trials would be handled became public.

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The formal complaint filed last month by special prosecutor Kimberly Bonifas alleged that Valdez had violated rules of conduct, including making a statement “that the lawyer knows to be false or with reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity concerning the qualifications or integrity of a judge.”

The complaint also alleged that Valdez “continued to exhibit discourteous conduct and makes personal attacks” toward McCabria during the disciplinary process, which in her answer, Valdez denied.

The Office of the Disciplinary Administrator provided a file-stamped copy of Valdez’s answer Wednesday afternoon.

Several pages of the 25-page answer to the 9-page complaint detail alleged conduct of three former prosecutors who had worked for the DA’s office.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many long-pending criminal cases in early 2021 needed to go to trial. Douglas County District Court employees and other county staff members had come up with a plan to try cases at the Douglas County Fairgrounds, where jurors would be able to safely distance from each other. McCabria announced in a news release on March 18, 2021 that jury trials would resume the following month, saying that the court had consulted with all stakeholders about the plan. Valdez, however, has contended that she was not “consulted” about the plan, but rather “told” what was going to happen in meetings that February and March. 

Valdez’s answer, filed by her attorney, Stephen Angermayer, states that during a Feb. 24, 2021 meeting to discuss jury trials, Deputy DA Joshua Seiden and former Deputy DA David Melton sat in chairs facing McCabria. “District Attorney Valdez sat in a chair in the corner of the judge’s chambers and said very little due to her belief that Judge McCabria would be dismissive of her concerns,” the answer states, though it does not elaborate directly about why she believed that.

The answer states that Melton and Seiden “expressed serious concern with the District Court’s month-to-month manner of determining whether jury trials would proceed, which created uncertainty in scheduling and imposed heavy personnel costs upon the District Attorney’s Office. Prosecutors continued to prepare for jury trials uncertain if the trial would proceed.”

Valdez requested a meeting on March 5, 2021, with McCabria and Judge Amy Hanley. Valdez presented her concerns about health and public safety, “as well as the lack of input from her office as to jury trial protocols,” according to the answer.

It says Valdez was not aware of the press release the county sent out a couple of weeks later about resuming jury trials until she read about it in local media. Douglas County Sheriff Jay Armbrister, who had also taken office in January 2021, was quoted in the release, but Valdez was not mentioned or contacted for comment, her answer states.

The complaint alleged that on March 22, 2021, Valdez texted McCabria: “You should be ashamed of yourself. We were TOLD, not consulted. The only reason you commented is because I am a Hispanic female (in) a position of power. … I will shine the light of truth on everything.”

Valdez’s answer states that after Valdez won the August 2020 Democratic primary election and was presumed the next district attorney as there was no Republican challenger, she and McCabria would occasionally text back and forth on their personal cellphones. It states that “During one text exchange, Chief Judge McCabria described her becoming District Attorney as ‘exhilarating’ to him.”

The answer continues on to say that Valdez has deleted McCabria’s contact and text thread from her phone and she cannot access the messages. It also says that “Believing that she had an open text dialogue with the Chief Judge on an informal basis, she believed that she could informally ‘vent’ her frustration over the decision-making process leading up to the announcement that jury trials would resume.”

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Valdez’s answer states that she was also concerned about emails McCabria had released to media, which gave the dates of the meetings to discuss jury trials but also included information about a defendant’s criminal history. “She was concerned that the disseminated information would be circulated to the potential jury pool for the first jury trial since the Covid-19 shutdown,” the answer stated.

The complaint mentioned that defendant’s attorney’s concern that Valdez had been discussing her client in an email to judges requesting the March 5, 2021 meeting without including her on the correspondence, which the defense attorney saw as improper “ex parte” communication. The answer states that neither judge added the defense attorney to the email chain, and that the judge presiding over the case had said during a court hearing that there was no prejudice to the defendant in that meeting.

Valdez in a statement Tuesday also wrote that her political speech should be entitled to heightened protection under the First Amendment, though the formal answer does not raise that issue.

The formal complaint also alleged that Valdez’s behind-the-scenes response to the conflict essentially created a toxic work environment for employees and said many employees left the office “in part or in whole, because of the Respondent’s unprofessional conduct.” County records show that 10 attorneys’ employment with the DA’s office ended during her first year in office, including six who were hired by the previous administration and four who Valdez hired herself. Just one attorney whose employment began prior to 2021 remains with the office now. 

Valdez in her answer denied the allegation regarding her own conduct, but stated that a former prosecutor had made disparaging comments about judges and had called one an “idiot.”

About 10 pages of Valdez’s answer focus on the alleged conduct of a few former employees who had worked under the previous DA, Charles Branson, as well as under Valdez during her first year in office.

Valdez’s answer alleges that one of the former prosecutors was bad for morale, spoke about a need to “train” a new judge, had treated several people poorly and “generally opposed alternative programming, which is a major initiative of District Attorney Valdez’s administration.” It also blamed that prosecutor for the issue at the center of a separate complaint filed against Valdez by a rape survivor who was upset that the DA’s office had not made her aware that her rapist was resentenced to a shorter sentence. (That complaint was recently dismissed.)

The answer alleges that another former prosecutor was rarely in the office, was frequently late, and had failed to respond to emails from defense attorneys looking to resolve cases. It also alleges that the prosecutor had “significantly undercharged” a defendant in a sex crime case with multiple victims.

Lastly, it alleges that another former prosecutor failed to disclose key information about a law enforcement officer’s integrity issues (Brady-Giglio information) in a felony domestic violence case, resulting in the DA’s office having to dismiss the case the day before it was set for a plea hearing. It also alleges that the former prosecutor, a woman, believed McCabria treated one of her male colleagues better than he treated her.

Bonifas has listed all of these former prosecutors as witnesses she might call during Valdez’s disciplinary hearing.

The complaint alleges that Valdez said on the record that she believed McCabria had lied and violated ethical codes. In an interview with Ronald Wurtz, the investigator for the Office of the Disciplinary Administrator, Valdez had “denied that she called Judge McCabria a liar, but in that same interview actually said, ‘He is a liar’ and then badmouthed him further,” the complaint alleged.

Valdez in her answer denied calling McCabria a liar, both in court as well as during her interview with the investigator.

“Mindful of her requirement to comply with the disciplinary rules and answer questions posed by the investigator, District Attorney Valdez told the investigator that her opinion was that Chief Judge McCabria did not accurately represent the facts about the jury trial plan in the court’s press release,” the answer states.

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Valdez partially admitted the complaint’s allegation that she had referenced McCabria as a “sexist” in an email to the ODA, a copy of which was included in a separate filing from Bonifas.

The answer said it was admitted “insofar as District Attorney Valdez has frequently pointed to a pattern of disparate treatment from Chief Judge McCabria when she is alongside similarly situated males.” The answer mentioned Valdez not being included in the press release about jury trials resuming as an example. The emails in Bonifas’ filing did not include specific context.

Valdez’s answer admitted, without added context, the complaint’s allegation regarding a Facebook post she made about the public jury trial dispute.

On March 23, 2021, Valdez reposted a news release that her office had sent out on her personal Facebook page, captioned “Women of the world – be prepared! If you are hardworking, outspoken, honest, AND in a position of authority, the INSECURE MAN will try to tear you down. Not me, says I!”

The complaint also included allegations about Valdez’s and Seiden’s conduct regarding the batch dismissal of nearly 1,000 traffic cases in recent months. Valdez’s answer denies the allegations but says Seiden had told a judge that the DA’s office would suspend work on the project as a quote in a newspaper article had “created unnecessary discord.” Read more about that in this article.

Valdez also put out a statement Tuesday after filing her formal answer. Read more about her statement at this link.

The county had paid Angermayer, the Pittsburg, Kansas-based attorney representing Valdez for the disciplinary complaint, $11,183 through Friday, according to information from Cheryl Cadue, spokesperson for the DA’s office.

If the disciplinary hearings proceed as scheduled, a panel will listen to evidence from both sides and issue a report that will include a recommendation regarding discipline. The panel will include Stacy L. Ortega, Gaye Tibbets and Sylvia B. Penner. All are attorneys with Wichita-based firms, according to the complaint. Read about the witnesses and exhibits Bonifas intends to use at this link.

The case is set for a prehearing conference at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 19, which will be held virtually by Zoom. The hearing will be open to the public. Requests to attend the Zoom hearing can be emailed to Krystal Vokins, counsel to the Kansas Board for Discipline of Attorneys, at vokinsk@kscourts.org or by calling her at 785-435-8200. 

The formal hearing is set to begin at 9:30 a.m. Oct. 12 and 13. It will also be open to the public, but whether it will be held in person or virtually will be decided during the prehearing conference. 

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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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