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By William Breathes
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By Melanie Asmar
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After prosecuting cases for the City of Denver for thirteen years, Toya Dawson thought she knew the rules. And the most important rule was also the most basic one: innocent until proven guilty.
But then Dawson discovered that the city attorney's office has a different set of rules for its own employees. In 1998, after being arrested and charged with drunk driving, Dawson was fired by then-city attorney Dan Muse. Accused but never convicted, Dawson has battled for four years to clear her name and win back her job -- and has learned a few things about human nature in the process.
"I had been a decent and upstanding city prosecutor," Dawson says. "When I got this charge, people wouldn't look at me. People who I worked with in the courthouse -- judges, clerks -- wouldn't talk to me. It's amazing what you learn when you fall out of grace."
Dawson appealed her termination to the city's Career Service Board, which upheld Muse's decision, then to district court. Her attorneys argued that the city gave Dawson less consideration than it routinely affords the accused wife-beaters, shoplifters, potheads and traffic scofflaws Dawson prosecuted in the county courts.
Denver District Judge Frank Martinez thought so, too. Last month, Martinez overturned the Career Service Board's ruling and ordered Dawson reinstated with back pay. "It defies reason to punish someone for a crime they were merely accused of but later exonerated of," Martinez wrote in his decision. Noting that other prosecutors in the city attorney's office "have been convicted of alcohol-related offenses and yet kept their jobs," the judge blasted the city for violating Dawson's due-process rights and singling her out for dismissal.
Based on Dawson's $6,300-a-month salary at the time of her firing, the total amount of the back-pay award may well exceed $300,000. But she's still waiting for her check and a call back to work. Last week, the city appealed Martinez's order, arguing that the behavior that led to Dawson's 1998 arrest and a previous brush with police in 1996 provided more than sufficient grounds for her dismissal. The case raises thorny questions concerning the city's ability to dictate the off-duty conduct of its employees, as well as questions about whether the office that's supposed to seek justice for thousands of citizens can be fair to its own people.
"If you file a grievance against the city attorney's office, even if it's a minor employment thing, they flat-out refuse to negotiate," Dawson says. "You go to the mat. They certainly didn't do right by me, and they don't care. And it shows in how they work with the public, too."
Hired as an assistant city attorney in 1985, Dawson had achieved senior status in the office by the time of her firing. She had a long history of solid performance evaluations and an "excellent" relationship with her co-workers, she says. But her relationship with the city attorney was strained and ultimately ruptured by two off-duty incidents that Muse considered deeply embarrassing to his office.
In 1996, security guards at a Capitol Hill King Soopers detained Dawson and accused her of shoplifting a videotape and four packages of shrimp. According to store employees, Dawson was belligerent and appeared to have been drinking; she allegedly called one employee a "dumb asshole" and flaunted her prosecutor's credentials. The encounter resulted in a police summons and a four-week suspension from her job without pay.
Dawson insists she wasn't drunk that day. Years earlier, she'd been diagnosed as manic depressive, but her bipolar condition has been successfully treated, for the most part, with a regimen of daily medication. A letter from her doctor suggests that her uncharacteristic behavior at the supermarket may have been the result of mixing a new medication with "a modest amount of alcohol." In any event, the charges against her were dismissed after she produced a receipt showing that she had paid for the items in question.
At the time, Dawson declined to accept a proposed disciplinary action at work that would have resulted in a less severe suspension but required her to enter treatment for alcohol abuse. She did not believe that her drinking problem, which she'd admitted to some co-workers, was affecting her job performance. The following year, though, she voluntarily entered a treatment program and completed it. She was sober for almost two years, she says -- right up to the day of her second off-duty transgression.
On November 8, 1998, Dawson attended a Broncos game with a supervisor from her office. She drank several beers at the game. That evening, witnesses saw her car plow into a parked SUV in a Blockbuster parking lot. The police officer who responded to the scene found Dawson quietly sitting in her car "eating sushi from a plate." A breath test yielded a blood alcohol level of .193, well above the legal limit.
Dawson was arrested and charged with a DUI. While being booked, she became agitated; one officer would later testify that she told him, "You don't know who you are dealing with. I will have your job." Dawson denies making any such statement.
The next morning, Dawson reported her arrest to her superiors. At first she was told not to worry about the situation, that everything would work out. But on Christmas Eve, she was put on administrative leave. She never went back to work.
In February 1999, a letter arrived from City Attorney Muse, informing her that she was being dismissed for violating several departmental rules, including those prohibiting "gross misconduct" and "deliberate discourtesy and rudeness toward the public." Muse cited the previous shoplifting case as well, stating unequivocally that it "also involved the excessive consumption of alcohol." Furthermore, Muse added, since the Denver District Attorney's Office stripped Dawson of her "special deputy DA" status, a cross-deputization that allows assistant city attorneys to prosecute state cases, her ability to perform her job "has been significantly reduced."
As it turned out, the DUI charge never went to trial. Witnesses to the accident couldn't identify Dawson as the driver of the car, and a judge decided the police had lacked probable cause to arrest her. The breath test was thrown out, the DUI charge dismissed. Dawson ended up pleading guilty to a single city ordinance violation of careless driving. But by the time the case was resolved, Dawson had already lost her job.
"What surprised us the most was that they made such a hasty decision, based on the allegation of the DUI," says Robert Bruce, Dawson's attorney. "I don't know why they were eager to get rid of her, but throughout the process, it's been clear that they don't want her working there. You would think that, after she wasn't convicted, they might rethink their position, but there's been no movement."
Dawson has her own ideas about why her superiors were so adamant about her termination. "To be real frank about it, Dan Muse is black and I'm black," she says. "When I got this DUI, he pulled me into the office and said, 'You embarrassed me.' He got real close to my face and whispered it to me. It was said with such disgust. I interpreted it as, 'You're black and I'm black, and this ain't gonna look good for me.'"
Muse, who stepped down as city attorney two years ago to return to private practice, denies that he treated Dawson differently than he would any other attorney in his office. "That's absurd," he says. "Her behavior was outrageous. She did not avail herself of the opportunities she was given to deal with some very serious personal issues. I never had any incidents with anyone else that were remotely similar to the events that resulted in her termination. I have no regrets, no misgivings about how I handled that situation at all."
Officials in the city attorney's office declined to comment about the case, citing the ongoing nature of the litigation, as did Gary Jackson, the outside counsel retained by the city in the matter in order to avoid potential conflicts of interest. But in its appeal of Martinez's order, the city contends that the judge should not have considered evidence that wasn't presented at the Career Service Board hearing, including the fact that Dawson's shoplifting and DUI charges were dismissed.
Other assistant city attorneys who were actually convicted of alcohol-related offenses have fared much better than Dawson. One longtime supervisor, who joined the office around the same time as Dawson, was hired despite his disclosure of a previous driving-while-impaired conviction. Another assistant city attorney, now a county magistrate, escaped discipline for a 1991 DWAI conviction for the simple reason that, unlike Dawson, he never reported the arrest to his superiors. Although Muse cited a number of vague rules about misconduct and rudeness in firing Dawson, there are no specific regulations prohibiting city attorneys from drinking to excess when they're not on the job.
"They never have added rules to this day which deal with DUIs," Dawson notes. "That's why I think this was personal. There's not a rule that says anyone who gets charged with this would be looking at losing their job."
Dawson lost far more than a paycheck. "I couldn't find any work at all," she says.
"As long as I had a job that was very structured, I could do just fine. But when they took my job away, the structure went out the window. I was hospitalized three times [for her bipolar condition]. I ended up on unemployment; then I didn't have any income whatsoever. I couldn't even get clerical work. I had to file bankruptcy. I lost a twelve-year relationship. You talk about losing everything -- I was crushed."
Two weeks ago, Dawson marked four years since her arrest in the Blockbuster parking lot -- four years of sobriety, she adds proudly. The prospect of returning to the stress of a prosecutor's job makes her nervous, but she's eager to get back to work. Although the loss of her deputy district attorney status could prevent her from working in traffic court, which involves a high percentage of state charges, she believes she could handle most types of cases in general sessions or other courtrooms with minimal assistance. Provided, of course, that the city attorney's office is willing to accommodate her.
"I think many people in the city attorney's office look at the judge's ruling as a very positive thing, because they're terrified to go up against these guys," Dawson says. "It's not because of what they did but in spite of it that I've been able to pick up my pieces and move on."