Rich Bowles rarely shies away from a fight.
The Woodland Park resident and one-time candidate for county commissioner has been a thorn in the side of Teller County authorities for some time, raising hell about everything from tax assessments on mobile homes to vote counts in local elections.
So when Bowles got hauled off to jail in April and charged with check fraud, he saw it as retribution by the local powers that be.
"They wanted to shut me up," Bowles said in an interview. "They want to get rid of their enemies."
Claiming the check-fraud charge is a conspiracy against him, Bowles has filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against his prosecutor, the City of Woodland Park. He has also sued a police officer, a municipal judge, a local newspaper publisher and a local bank, claiming the defendants all participated in concocting the fraud charges.
The defendants -- none of whom would comment for this story -- have made several attempts to have Bowles' lawsuit tossed out. But as of press time, the suit was still alive and scheduled for trial in March in Denver.
Time for a change
A 58-year-old Internet salesman, Bowles has feuded with local government officials since 2001, when he joined a partially successful effort to roll back Teller County's tax assessments on mobile homes. Bowles was secretary and treasurer of the Teller County Mobile Home Association, which was formed after County Assessor Al Jordan raised property-tax valuations on some mobile homes by more than 2,000 percent.
Last year, Bowles fought Teller County's attempt to sell Catamount Ranch, the county's only public open space, by speaking at meetings and writing letters to the editor in local newspapers. The sale has since been held up by disagreements between Teller County and Great Outdoors Colorado, a state agency that helped finance the county's purchase of the property in 1997.
Bowles also ran for Teller County commissioner last year as an independent, seeking to end the Republican Party's longtime monopoly on elected partisan offices in the county.
"I thought it was time for a change," Bowles said. "We've had one-party rule in Teller County for 20 years."
During the campaign, Bowles challenged a proposed ballot measure that would have raised local taxes to pay for county road maintenance. Bowles filed a complaint with the Colorado secretary of state, alleging that county funds were being spent illegally to pass the measure.
Though his objection went nowhere, the tax proposal failed spectacularly at the polls. But voters also rejected Bowles' own bid for office. He received only 27 percent of the vote, while his Republican opponent, Bob Campbell, received 73 percent.
Bowles tried to challenge those numbers, claiming irregularities in the vote count. Again, Bowles complained to the secretary of state. But again, his grievance was dismissed.
"Good old boy" regime
Although Bowles has primarily taken on county officials in his many battles, he still claims the current check-fraud charge which is pending in Woodland Park's municipal court -- is an effort to silence him. Woodland Park city officials and Teller County officials, he claims, are all part of the local Republican "good-old-boy" regime. All of the elected partisan officials in Teller County are Republicans.
"This case is really about political payback for telling the truth about defendants and their corrupt political allies in the last election," Bowles asserts in his lawsuit.
The fraud charge against Bowles stems from his campaign for commissioner. In October of 2002, he wrote a check in the amount of $144 to the Ute Pass Courier, a local newspaper, as payment for political advertisements. The check, however, bounced due to insufficient funds in Bowles' bank account.
When the newspaper asked Bowles to make good on the check, he refused, saying the paper had violated an agreement to display his advertisements prominently in its pages. Bowles says the matter was a contract dispute and should have been treated as such.
"What they should have done is just take this to a small-claims court," Bowles said.
The newspaper, however, pressed check-fraud charges against Bowles. A Woodland Park police officer assigned to the case, James Halloran, obtained Bowles' personal account statements from his bank, Vectra Bank, and determined that Bowles had intentionally written a bad check, saying the statements showed there wasn't enough money in the account.
Halloran took his evidence to municipal judge Douglas Price, who agreed to issue a warrant for Bowles' arrest. On April 10, a Teller County sheriff's deputy pulled Bowles over, arrested him and took him to jail, where he was booked and released on bond.
There was, however, a problem with the case against Bowles: Halloran had misread Bowles' account statements. The statements, Halloran would later admit, show that Bowles in fact did have enough money to cover the check at the time when it was written.
"This was a clerical error on my part," Halloran admitted in an affidavit.
As it turned out, the check had bounced because the Ute Pass Courier waited 10 days to cash it, at which point Bowles' account lacked sufficient funds.
Yet despite the discovery of Halloran's error, the city has declined to drop the case against Bowles, which is scheduled for trial in January.
And that's not the only problem with the charges, according to Bowles. Bowles says Halloran and his bank violated his rights when Halloran obtained Bowles' account statements without having either a subpoena or a warrant for the records.
In his lawsuit, Bowles alleges he is the victim of a false and malicious prosecution, in violation of his constitutional due-process rights. In addition to the City of Woodland Park, he is suing Officer Halloran, Judge Price, Courier publisher Rob Carrigan, the Courier's owners, and Zions Bancorporation, which owns Vectra Bank.
"I fully realize what a long shot this is," said Bowles, who is representing himself. "This is a real David and Goliath thing."