By Jim Frazier
Ken Buck, Weld County District Attorney, a US Senate candidate, and former assistant US Attorney, last week revealed contents of a reprimand he received in 2001 from his supervisor, the US Attorney for Colorado, John Suthers. “I want to be transparent on this issue and get everything out to the public now,” Buck said. His opponent in the Republican primary, Jane Norton, has brought up the issue on radio shows. The Denver Post published an article last week with documents provided by Buck. Buck also provided contents of the reprimand to the Greeley Gazette.
Excerpt from the formal reprimand by John Suthers
“I concur with the OPR’s conclusion that you acted in reckless
disregard of your obligation under Rule 1.6, Colorado Rules of
Professional Responsibility, and its finding that your actions were
detrimental to the case. Accordingly, I find it necessary to address
your conduct with this reprimand in order to impress upon you the
seriousness of this matter.”
“I have chosen not to impose any more serious consequences on the
basis of my determination that your conduct was not intentional, my
review of mitigating information you have presented and in
consideration of your previous record as an AUSA. For more than a
decade you have provided dedicated services to the United States as a
line AUSA, as a Senior Litigation Counsel and Chief of the Criminal
Division. This incident appears to be an aberration in your
Colorado’s US Attorney, John Suthers – December 14, 2001
“I didn’t believe I had done anything wrong,” Buck said. “so I refused to resign, and I knew that an investigation would be started. But, I truly felt I had done the right thing and would be justified.” In the end, Buck’s evaluation of the case turned out to be accurate. More than 37 felony charges against two defendants were dropped, and the third man — the main defendant — walked out of court with a misdemeanor conviction, a $25 dollar fine, and one day of probation.
“A lot of financial resources were wasted to prosecute a felony case that merited only a misdemeanor charge,” Buck said. “That’s exactly what I said in the beginning. I was right. That’s what people need to know.”
Last week, Pat Waak, Chairperson of the Colorado Democratic Party, called for Buck to resign his Weld DA position and give up his primary race with Jane Norton. Waak said, “The people of Weld County can’t trust Ken Buck.”
“That comment is ridiculous,” Buck said. “Absolute nonsense.” Other Democrats are calling Buck’s judgment into question.
“I don’t know if I was demoted,” Buck said. “First of all, we rotate positions. No one stays as Chief of the Criminal Division forever. We all move around. So, I may have been demoted, or it may have been a standard change. Secondly, the reprimand was removed from my personnel file on the day I resigned. So, nothing was in the file to be released. Thirdly, I didn’t think it was relevant then, and I don’t think it is important now,” he said. “My focus is on the political issues affecting Colorado citizens.”
When the issue began, Buck was Chief of the Criminal Division in the US Attorney’s Office in Denver. He had won a national award as one of the top Criminal Prosecutors in the nation – perhaps the best of 93 in the United States. He had also received a commendation from his Colorado boss and had been steadily promoted for a decade. In short, he was a rising star as a federal prosecuting attorney. However, that all changed not long after Buck backed Republican Wayne Allard in the Colorado U.S. Senate race against Tom Strickland who would later become Buck’s boss as U.S. Attorney for Colorado. Strickland took office the day after the Columbine School Massacre and determined that his legacy would be one of being tough on gun crimes.
Prior to Strickland taking office, Buck supervised prosecution of federal criminal cases in Colorado. Police and BATF agents had conducted a two-year sting operation on an Aurora pawn shop, ABC Loan. In 1997, ABC loan sold 242 handguns to customers buying two or more at the same time. In 1999, one lady purchased 33 guns “for a friend.” A few weeks later, she purchased a dozen more. The facts seemed overwhelming. ABC loan was selling guns at a rate 17 percent greater than the national average. Federal agents believed many of the guns were purchased by females for male felons who could not own guns. They turned the evidence over to the US Attorney’s office.
An Assistant U.S. Attorney, Stephanie Villafuerte, was assigned to the case. After studying the details, she wrote a memo that described numerous weaknesses, especially the evidence gathering process. Villafuerte refused to prosecute. “The case was discussed in-house and all the other career prosecutors in the office also refused to prosecute the case,” Buck said. The top boss, and U.S. Attorney at the time, Henry Solano, decided not to prosecute, and the process stopped. “It was just too weak,” Buck said. “Everyone felt the same.”
Why was the case weak? Buck won’t provide details today because that is not appropriate, he said, but U.S. District Court records show BATF agents had documented many straw purchases of guns. A “straw purchase” is when one person buys a gun for another, perhaps a felon, and gives them the gun. Sounds like a strong case, but, BATF agents apparently had trouble with some tape recordings, and some participants in the sting were considered to be unreliable and not credible. Recorded conversations in Russian needed to be translated, and that eventually led to problems. Other problems may have existed, but were never mentioned in court records.
After the case was declined by Solano and all the other Assistant US Attorneys, the Columbine tragedy shocked Denver on April 20, 1999. Two heavily armed high school boys walked into their high school and killed 13 people with illegally purchased guns.
The next day Tom Strickland became Buck’s boss as U.S. Attorney for Colorado. Strickland, a Democrat and former U.S. Senate candidate, had lost the 1996 Senate election to Republican Wayne Allard, whom Buck had supported. They clashed politically, according to some reports.
Due to the public outcry over Columbine, Strickland quickly formed Project Exile to focus on illegal gun purchases. Illegal guns became the new focus and Buck recognized the change. “When Solano was the U.S. Attorney, we focused on white collar crime.” Buck said. Strickland decided to re-activate efforts on the Denver pawn shop case.
A subpoena from the Grand Jury caused the pawn shop owner, Gregory Golyansky, to look for a defense attorney.
Here’s where the accusations against Buck get a bit fuzzy. Buck had actually met Golyansky a few times at conservative discussion groups in Denver. “They were not Republican meetings, but discussion groups on conservative issues,” Buck said. People voiced their concerns about issues. Golyansky strongly favored 2nd Amendment rights for Americans as an immigrant Russian-Jew who believed people should be able to protect themselves with guns.”
“That’s all I knew,” Buck said. “We weren’t friends. We never had lunch together. These were discussion groups and people spoke up about their beliefs. Golyansky was very outspoken,” Buck said. Golyansky was also a fundraiser for Republican Steve Forbes, a candidate for President. In fact, he was named Chairman for Steve Forbes’ campaign in Colorado. Buck said he knew nothing about the Forbes campaign, or Golyansky as a Republican fundraiser.
After the subpoena to Golyansky, a friend asked Buck to recommend a defense attorney for Golyansky. Buck suggested Stephen Peters, a defense attorney in Denver. Golyansky quickly hired Peters who contacted Buck and asked about the case. “It was an informal, off the cuff, off the record conversation. I didn’t go to him. He just asked me what I thought of the case,” Buck said. “That’s all.”
Buck informally told attorney Peters that the case was weak, and merited only a misdemeanor charge. He suggested that a plea-bargain was probably appropriate. But, Buck also told Peters a memo had been written describing the weaknesses. That was the mistake. Buck revealed the existence of an in-house memo to a defense attorney for a felony suspect.
Buck says he did not discuss the memo with Peters, and did not even know the details. He had never received a copy. However, when legal procedures began, attorney Peters asked for a copy of the memo in a court document. “I had no idea he would ask for the memo,” Buck said. The formal request for the memo became a major issue. How could Peters have known about a secret ‘privileged’ internal memo? “That is the core of the complaint,” Buck said. At the next step in the process, the formal request by Peters was denied by a judge as ‘private internal information.’ Thus, no additional information from the memo was ever given to Peters. “It’s not unusual for attorneys to chat about cases off the record,” Buck said. “I felt it was a weak case. I felt a felony case in federal court was a waste of resources and would lead to embarrassment. In the end, I was right,” Buck said. Buck was not involved in the case, and could not have impacted the outcome, he said.
After Strickland departed the office to return to private practice, John Suthers, a Republican appointed by George W. Bush, assumed the top spot in August of 2001 as U.S. Attorney. An investigation by the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) was finally completed and Suthers issued the formal reprimand. Buck was ordered to take a one day class in ethics. “In hindsight, I was wrong in talking to Peters,” Buck said. “But it was not intentional and it was the only reprimand on my record after a decade of service on hundreds of cases.”
The actual reprimand by Suthers clearly states that the issue was “not intentional” and seemed to be a one-time event, “an aberration in your career.” Buck said he was not proud of the reprimand, but he was not pressured to quit. “I could have stayed there and had a long career,” he said. “I did not resign because of the reprimand. I was not pressured in any way to resign.”
He had been living in Greeley and commuting daily to downtown Denver. “My wife Perry and I decided it was a good time to change, and perhaps to focus on the Weld County District Attorney position.” Buck resigned and worked for Hensel Phelps Construction in Greeley as he prepared to run for the local office. In 2004, when Weld DA Al Dominguez ended his term, Buck ran against Assistant DA,Tom Quammen, in the Republican primary. Despite Quammen’s many years of experience in Weld County, and awards as a prosecutor, Buck won easily. He stepped into the office without any Democrat challenger.