This past summer, Joe Smith, a young, up-and-coming Colorado deputy attorney general, decided to run for the top law enforcement job in the state. He has already gotten off to a rocky start. For beginners, on the day that he notified the secretary of state's office of his intention to run for attorney general, he apparently broke the law.
Two weeks ago, in a Thursday-morning meeting, Smith's boss and political ally, Attorney General Gale Norton, finally bailed him out. But her solution has raised plenty of eyebrows.
Smith's possible violation of the federal law known as the Hatch Act is only one of his potential liabilities. There's also a messy--literally--landlord-tenant dispute. "There was blood splattered all over his kitchen walls. It was a fine spray all over," recalls Smith's former Washington Park landlord, Robin Reade. "And there was urine and feces on the bathroom floor, too."
The women's underwear Smith and his male roomie left lying about also perplexes Reade.
Smith, who boasts a sterling academic pedigree (Yale, University of Chicago law school), was appointed deputy AG for natural resources by Norton in early 1997, at the age of 31. In that capacity, he oversees assistant attorneys general working on, among other projects, hazardous-waste cleanup and environmental-protection projects in which the State of Colorado has a legal stake.
Although he publicly announced his bid to run for attorney general in late February, Smith, a registered Republican, actually filed his intention with the secretary of state on July 15, 1997. (Since then the field has broadened to include three other Republicans--former El Paso County district attorney John Suthers and state senators Jeff Wells and Dick Mutzebaugh--and a lone Democrat, former state Department of Natural Resources director Ken Salazar.)
It was on that July day that Smith probably violated the Hatch Act.
"It was originally enacted to protect government employees from coercion from their bosses and to protect the integrity of the electoral process," explains Karen Dalheim, a Hatch Act specialist for the U.S. Office of Special Counsel in Washington, which enforces the law.
The act mainly prohibits federal employees from running for partisan political office. But it also bars state and local government employees who work with federal money from seeking those offices. And as deputy AG for natural resources, Smith personally directs the state's enforcement of such federal programs as the Clean Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Coal Program--work for which the AG's office receives hundreds of thousands of dollars of federal money.
Richard Westfall, solicitor general for the AG's office, says Smith's apparent Hatch Act violation "only came onto our radar screens very recently." One reason, he says, is that most, if not all, of the federal money Smith works with doesn't come directly to the attorney general's office. Rather, Westfall says, it "flows through" different state agencies that administer the federal programs, such as the state health department and the Department of Natural Resources.
"We had some interpretations to wrestle with," Westfall says. Smith himself contends that the law is "vague" and that he is not at all certain he was in violation.
Still, by mid-March, Westfall says, the question of whether Smith, one of five deputy attorneys general, was violating a federal law had become uncomfortable enough that Norton decided to take action. So at a meeting on March 19, the office's top administrators crafted a solution.
"It's an administrative reorganization," Westfall explains. Specifically, he says, Smith will be removed from those duties that require him to oversee any work being conducted by the attorney general's office using federal money. Another administrator will assume those responsibilities. "We wanted no room for argument," says Smith.
While the solution, approved by Norton herself, technically will permit Smith to skirt the Hatch Act ban on running for political office, it has raised other questions. That of favoritism, for example: Would Norton orchestrate such administrative contortions for her other employees who wanted to run for public office and still keep their state paychecks?
"We'd try to keep any good employee," insists Westfall. "We're not trying to hamstring somebody from practicing their First Amendment rights."
Still, the question of special treatment hits closer to home with Smith. A close political ally of Norton's, Smith worked as director of opposition research for Norton during her 1994 re-election campaign and was her director of research when she unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate in 1996.
Moreover, since Smith announced he would be seeking her job, Norton has left many with the impression that the young deputy is her handpicked successor. Smith says Norton has not yet endorsed anyone to follow in her footsteps, but sources say it was Norton herself who announced Smith's candidacy to other deputy attorneys in her office. Norton also selected Smith to work with her on the state's lawsuit against tobacco companies.
Although it is early to begin handicapping the race, Smith, who has raised $55,000 and garnered the support of former U.S. attorney general Edwin Meese, seems to face an uphill battle--beginning with name recognition. "Joe who?" asks veteran local pollster Floyd Ciruli. "I think his announcement was a surprise to a lot of people."
One person who definitely was surprised was Robin Reade.
Reade is the owner of the 1,500-square-foot Washington Park house that Smith and a friend rented for about three years beginning in December 1992. Reade says that as a young, well-compensated professional, Smith was an ideal tenant--until it came time for him to leave.
Smith and his friend moved out in January 1996. Smith says only that his disagreement with Reade was a dispute over facts and that he doesn't care to discuss the details of the quarrel.
Reade does. And depending on how you interpret her story, Smith either is a tenacious attorney who will fight for what is right no matter what the cost, or he's a vindictive young lawyer.
Reade speculates that the blood on Smith's kitchen walls may have been nothing more than the result of a hunting trip. As for the "urine and feces" on the bathroom floor, she says, "maybe someone had missed the toilet and not cleaned it up."
But Reade says there were also missing and broken items--"it looked like there had been some rough-housing"--and a lot of things left behind for her to deal with, as if Smith and his roommate had quit moving out in midstream.
For instance? "There was a lot of women's underwear," Reade recalls.
Her walk-through of the residence was only the beginning of her troubles with Smith, Reade says. During the tour, Reade says, she was accompanied by Smith's former roommate, who, surveying the condition of the house, agreed to forfeit most of the $1,000 security deposit to cover the cost of cleaning the place up.
Not Smith. "The next thing that happens is I get this incredibly nasty letter from Joe--very threatening, very aggressive, like he was preparing to sue me," Reade recalls. In fact, a subsequent letter informed Reade that if Smith didn't receive the entire security deposit back, he was, indeed, going to take her to court.
As the dispute dragged on, Reade says she tried to compromise with Smith, at one point offering to return $800 of the $1,000 deposit. Smith refused; it was time to go to court, he told her.
"So I said, 'Fine, let's go to small-claims court and argue it out and let a judge decide,'" Reade recalls. "But then he goes and sues me in district court."
The reason, she says Smith later told her, was that he and his attorney calculated that their time spent doing legal work on the security-deposit case was going to run upwards of $15,000, which they now wanted from Reade, as well as the original $1,000.
"I was pretty panicked," Reade says. "My lawyer told me that district-court fees can add up very quickly."
Reade had other worries as well. When the legal tiff hit, Smith had just been appointed deputy attorney general for natural resources. Reade works as an administrator in the state Oil and Gas Commission--which meant that Smith was now her office's chief lawyer. "He knows what I do and he knows where I work," she remembers thinking.
On the advice of her lawyer, Reade returned the security deposit. "He's a pretty likable guy," she says today of Smith. "But the way he handled this made me feel as though he had no experience with real people."
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