Trinidad DA Frank Ruybalid Gets a Reprieve in Ethics Case

Prosecutor Frank Ruybalid isn't going to lose his law license over the mishandling of several criminal cases — and that means that the embattled district attorney for Las Animas and Huerfano counties will be able to finish his term at the end of this year despite stinging criticism of his office for persistent ethics violations. 

Colorado Supreme Court presiding disciplinary judge William Lucero has decided to extend Ruybalid's probation for another year, noting that the DA has made some strides in catching up with a backlog of cases, turning over evidence to the defense in a timely manner and addressing other deficiencies in his office's performance. The case dates back to a 2013 complaint by the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel that Ruybalid and his subordinates had violated the rules of professional conduct in several prosecutions that eventually had to be dismissed — cases ranging from theft and drugs to sexual assault and second-degree murder.

In exchange for admitting to thirteen counts of ethical violations, Ruybalid was spared suspension of his license and put on a 23-month probation. However, ongoing problems complying with discovery rules and missed court dates led to a subsequent complaint — and a hearing before Lucero in June to determine if his license should be pulled for violations of his probation's terms.

Ruybalid recently lost his bid to be reimbursed by taxpayers for the $200,000 in legal fees he amassed defending himself in the ethics case. He's also taken heat for his office's role in a bungled 2013 drug sting in Trinidad that led to the arrests of dozens of innocent people and civil-rights lawsuits against the city filed by the ACLU and others. 

Ruybalid has always maintained that the problems in his office are largely a function of a skimpy budget that has made it difficult to attract and retain qualified attorneys in economically troubled southern Colorado. His office's 2015 budget of $340,000 works out to less than one thousand dollars allotted to each felony prosecution that year. One of the candidates running to succeed Ruybalid this fall, former DA Jon Neil Barclay, dropped out of the race in May, saying that the office is so badly underfunded by state and county officials that "the safety of the citizens of this district is at peril.” That leaves only one contender for the office in the heavily Democratic district, former U.S. Attorney for Colorado Henry Solano.

The Colorado District Attorneys' Council, which represents all the elected prosecutors in the state except for the Denver DA, has weighed in on Ruybalid's behalf, too, noting that the Third Judicial District Attorney's Office is "poorly funded and severely understaffed" — particularly in comparison to the state public defender's office, "whose budget has grown by more than 315 percent since 2000."

CDAC president George Brauchler, who also happens to be the 18th Judicial District Attorney, notes in a prepared statement that budget issues "cannot excuse any failure to comply with the rules of discovery or any other prosecutorial obligation." But Brauchler contends that southern Colorado prosecutions need a boost in the budget "if the public is to be adequately represented against those who do harm in the community." 
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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast

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