The first paragraph of this story was amended to attribute the investigation report findings to Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon's comments. A sentence was also added that the county would not release the report to the public.
By Mike McKibbin/NewsBreak Denver | July 27, 2022
[DOUGLAS COUNTY, COLO.] — Based on Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon’s apparent reading of an outside investigation report, fellow Commissioner Lora Thomas abused her authority as commission chair when she sought personally identifiable information about San Luis Valley residents who planned to meet with Laydon about a controversial water project..
After a closed-door session Tuesday to receive a report on an investigation into Thomas' actions, the commissioners discussed one of the findings.
Following several comments from all three commissioners about issuing a statement or releasing a report, the county released a brief statement Wednesday afternoon. The statement said the report would not be released to the public.
The statement noted the investigation “validated that Commissioner Thomas gave direction to contracted legal counsel contrary to a prior vote by the balance of the board of county commissioners.” That resulted in her removal as chair by fellow commissioners Laydon and George Teal on April 26.
The statement said the investigation was unable to determine if Thomas wrote an anonymous 2019 letter to the commissioners, “but her writing of that letter could not actually be ruled out. The investigation did clearly find that Commissioner Thomas exploited that letter for political purposes. Specifically, she distributed that letter in order to advance her political campaign for Douglas County sheriff.”
Thomas finished last among four Republican candidates for sheriff in the June 28 county primary election.
The investigation also found it was “more likely than not” that Thomas did not create a hostile work environment or cause a former employee to be fired.
The investigation was conducted by the Sherman & Howard law firm as outside counsel.
A recording and transcript of the open portion of Tuesday's meeting provided by the county — after an open records request — focused on Thomas’ actions regarding the Renewable Water Resources project.
Earlier this year, officials with Renewable Water Resources asked the county for $10 million in federal pass-through money for their plan to transport about 22,000 acre-feet of water per year from southern Colorado's San Luis Valley to Douglas County. The commissioners recently denied the request.
Thomas denies 'doxing' claim
Laydon said Tuesday that Sherman & Howard noted the board discussed valley residents who feared personal and financial retribution for speaking out about the proposal. They also found the board acted to ensure "those vulnerable individuals were protected from disclosure of their personal identifying information."
Laydon added Thomas drafted correspondence to an attorney hired by the county to help with the water project that was contrary to the board's direction without informing the board and signed it as the chair.
Thomas denied she asked for personal identifying information.
"The letter that I wrote asked for a list of the people that were going to be in that (April 23) meeting and the organizations that they represent. That is not doxing anybody," Thomas said.
Doxing is a term for publicly revealing previously private personal information about a person or organization.
"Somebody's personal name is not personal identifying information," Thomas continued. "Personal identifying information is releasing somebody's address, their phone number, their email address, their date of birth, their Social Security number. That is not what I asked for and as one of three county commissioners, I have absolutely every right to know who this board is meeting with, along with paid counsel, in order to make a decision. And that is what I asked for."
Laydon responded he did not doubt that "somebody's name alone is sufficient for anyone to do an internet search and find out where they live and what they do. Especially in a really small community like the valley, where we were specifically told loans would not close and people would not get the services they needed if they spoke out. So, protecting those vulnerable individuals was a priority of the board. We had that discussion and we had very clear board direction."
Thomas wanted results public
Thomas also noted the information was to be only for the three commissioners.
"It was not just for me, and it was not to be released," she said. "Eventually that was released, not by me. But I had every right as a commissioner to know whom you were meeting."
Thomas asked that the investigation results be publicly available, along with a July 1 email she wrote to county attorney Lance Ingalls. That email reportedly said Thomas would participate in the investigation if provided legal counsel "the same way my fellow commissioners hired counsel for themselves."
"Commissioner Laydon went on several media outlets and said I was being investigated for a criminal activity," she said. "And I am not going to be involved in discussing anything without counsel when I'm being threatened with criminal charges."
Laydon immediately denied he and Teal hired counsel for themselves or had stated Thomas was subject to a criminal investigation.
"Any public communication that I made very clearly stated that I would not speak to any pending criminal investigation," Laydon said. "I never said there was a pending criminal investigation, I said I would not speak to one, so I did not disclose any information associated with that and I want that to be very clear."