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Lora Thomas: Ethics complaint highlights bitter feud between coroner and sheriff

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Any way you slice it, the very, very, very strained relationship between Douglas County Coroner Lora Thomas and Sheriff Dave Weaver can't be good for homicide investigations in the county. Both sides have accused the other of interfering with and jeopardizing their work, and now a backer of the sheriff has filed an ethics complaint against Thomas that raises questions about the use -- or misuse -- of public resources in both agencies.

Kory Nelson, a Denver assistant city attorney and Parker resident, wants Douglas County officials to investigate Thomas for, among other things, allegedly engaging in political campaigning during office hours. Nelson is a member of Douglas County Residents for Professional Law Enforcement, or DC ProLaw, which is pushing Resolution 1A, a term-limit exemption on the ballot that would allow Weaver to run for a third term as sheriff.

Nelson claims that last month Thomas was photographed by "two high-ranking command officers" of the sheriff's office on a Friday morning in the parking lot of the Christiansen Justice Center in Castle Rock as she was handing out "No Way on 1A" signs "to an unknown elderly white male."

Thomas says she hadn't yet gone into her office that day and had agreed to meet the man in a public place to give him the signs. She says the county vehicle that drew up next to her had heavily tinted windows, but she suspects Weaver was inside -- and wonders why "high-ranking command officers" were expending public resources and equipment conducting surveillance of her.

"I've never been stalked by so many men in my life," she says. Nelson says the parking lot incident is only the latest in a series of issues about the coroner's conduct. "I believe in 1A, but beyond that, I'm not too happy with her ethics," he says. "There's a pattern of behavior of hers that causes me great concern."

Thomas, a former Colorado State Patrol major who was newly elected to the coroner's post this year, says the bad blood with Weaver goes back to well before last fall's election. She was instrumental in defeating a mill-levy hike that Weaver wanted, she explains, and the sheriff backed her opponent, Carter Lord, in the Republican primary. (Weaver has denied endorsing Lord; Thomas says she has pictures of the sheriff embracing Lord at a campaign event.) Upon her election, Thomas discovered that she and her staff would no longer have access to areas of the justice center controlled by the sheriff's office, including gym facilities and vending machines.

That chilly welcome was followed by a bizarre incident last February, when Weaver complained that Thomas had released sensitive information about a double-murder investigation -- after first offering to withhold it if she and her staff could get their gym and vending privileges back. Thomas later admitted to 7News that the move was "a terrible mistake on my part."

Nelson brings up the gaffe in his ethics complaint and also mentions another sore point between the coroner and the sheriff -- the effort of coroner's investigators to search death scenes and seize items without a search warrant. Thomas says the sheriff isn't her supervisor, and that his efforts to keep her investigators from doing their work at death scenes is contrary to practice in other counties. "It's impacting my office's ability to do our work," she says. "The fact is, no one outranks a coroner at a death scene. And we have a wonderful working relationship with all the other law enforcement agencies in the county."

A memo from a deputy county attorney opines that Thomas "does have an independent duty to investigate the cause of death" but that she is "likely subject to the same Fourth Amendment restrictions as law enforcement officers." Historically, the deputy adds, coroner's investigators have waited for sheriff's officers to obtain a search warrant before launching their investigation. Thomas has consulted attorneys hired by the Colorado Coroners Association and expects an opinion from the Colorado Attorney General's Office to clarify the matter soon.

Nelson speculates that the coroner's opposition to 1A stems in part from her own ambition to be sheriff. "She knows she has no chance against the incumbent," he says.

Thomas declines to discuss her future ambitions. "I believe in seeing where I fit best," she says, "and right now I fit very well in the coroner's office."

More from our News archive: "Douglas County school allows parents to opt out of letting their kids watch President Obama's speech to the nation's schoolchildren."

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