Our view: Closing a chapter | CraigDailyPress.com

Our view: Closing a chapter

Overshadowed by the hoopla of Election Day was a report from a special prosecutor who investigated allegations that Moffat County commissioners didn’t follow state law in budget matters.

The investigation began 18 months ago, when Stan Hathhorn of Craig filed three affidavits alleging wrongdoing against commissioners past and present. Hathhorn alleged that commissioners mishandled a telecommunications contract and made illegal transfers to make debt payments on the jail.

Lawson Wills, an assistant district attorney with the 9th Judicial District, handled the investigation. He concluded that the commissioners had committed “technical violations” of laws that govern budgeting and expenditures.

But Wills chose not to file criminal charges against commissioners because he concluded that they didn’t violate laws with malicious intent or improperly benefit from the violations. He noted that the commissioners took immediate steps to correct certain problems, which factored into his decision not to press charges.

Commissioners naturally were defensive about Wills’ conclusions and thought he didn’t investigate thoroughly because he never contacted them to get their comments. Wills never questioned the commissioners’ integrity, though.

“My take on it was they were very straightforward on problems that came up. … Their intentions were always good,” he said.

We take issue with several aspects of the investigation. Wills had 18 months to put his report together and issued it just days before a district judge had set a hearing to get an update on the investigation’s status.

Moreover, the report included factual errors, which raises questions about how thoroughly Wills investigated the issues.

Wills admitted he had no previous experience with state laws about budgetary matters. His conclusion that at least a portion of the allegations “have merit” should have included an explanation of exactly what the commissioners did wrong. But he didn’t specify. Commissioners, on the other hand, refuted his findings with hard facts that lead us to question whether the report had any validity.

More troubling is the middle-of-the-road approach he took, which neither exonerated the commissioners nor specified the extent of the violations they committed. The report looks like an attempt to appease Hathhorn and the commissioners.

That’s unfortunate, because the commissioners have being doing business under a cloud for the past year and Stan Hathhorn has used the investigation as a club during an election year.

So, what to make of the investigation? The commissioners are adamant that they did nothing wrong.

And they took corrective action — before the investigation — when they thought they didn’t have to.

In his conclusion, Wills wrote: “The affiant (Hathhorn) in these cases presents several technical violations of the budget and expenditures process mandated by Colorado law. His claims are not without merit. These processes and law exist for good reason, and the elected officials of any county need to operate within these constraints. In my view, the citizens of Moffat County should take comfort that at least one person monitors the process.”

Hathhorn has proved to be a good agitator, and we acknowledge that he was willing to go to great lengths to make sure the commissioners were following the letter of the law.

But even his meticulous scrutiny was insufficient to find great wrongdoing in this matter. It seems that a lot of time and energy were wasted here.

Maybe this will close an ugly chapter in county politics that saw a faction of citizens trying to oust commissioners based on Hathhorn’s research.

We’re getting two new commissioners who had nothing to do with the allegations made by Hathhorn.

Having the benefit of a clean slate, and incorporating what was learned in this episode, they — and their successors — will be able to avoid the problems that led to this investigation.

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