As the Rev. Don Armstrong faces sentencing this week for a case that's part of the biggest illegal taking of church property in Colorado history, it might be easy to forget the involvement of local elected officials who've stood by Armstrong.
Then-4th Judicial District Attorney John Newsome and former El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Bob Balink served on the Grace Church and St. Stephen's Episcopal Church vestry, or board of directors, when the diocese investigation uncovered massive theft and as the vestry planned the parish's secession from the diocese.
As the judicial district's chief prosecutor at the time, Newsome eventually resigned from the vestry citing a conflict of interest, but only months after red flags suggested possible criminal prosecution. Newsome didn't return a phone call or an e-mail seeking comment on his involvement in the case.
Here's how the first year of the case played out, according to criminal court records and other records, including vestry minutes, that became exhibits in the civil property trial.
In March 2006, after receiving information from a former bookkeeper, the Colorado Episcopal Diocese retained a forensic accountant who went to the parish and took possession of the parish's financial documents.
On Dec. 8, 2006, parish attorney Derry Adams issued a memo to the vestry, including Newsome, outlining the offenses with which the diocese can charge, try and place a priest on administrative leave. She also outlined ownership of the church property as being "held in trust for the national Church (ECUSA) and for the Diocese in which the Parish is located." (Adams resigned as the vestry's legal counsel the following March.)
At a Dec. 18, 2006, special meeting, with Newsome in attendance, the vestry voted to have the church fund Armstrong's legal fees. Two weeks later, on Jan. 2, 2007, the vestry, including Newsome, would specify that the church would pay those fees up to $20,000, with the option to pay more in the future.
On Dec. 28, 2006, Adams notified the vestry by e-mail, including Newsome, that Bishop Robert O'Neill had issued a 90-day order barring Armstrong from the church property and from contact with church and vestry members. The basis was "results from the forensic auditors' preliminary findings" involving financial matters.
At a vestry meeting two days later, which Newsome attended, the bishop said the audit "suggested further investigation of possible financial improprieties and mismanagement of funds by the Rector." Here, Newsome moved, and Balink seconded the motion, to continue Armstrong's pay during his leave of absence. Newsome also moved for the vestry to meet with an investigator hired by Armstrong's attorney.
In January, rather than stepping aside, Newsome deepened his involvement by becoming Grace's junior warden, the vestry's vice chair.
On March 15, 2007, the diocese's attorney, Martin Nussbaum, outlined for the vestry, with Newsome in attendance, evidence of Armstrong's possible embezzlement activities discovered during the audit.
Sometime between March 15 and March 17, Newsome resigned, based on vestry members' e-mail exchanges. He announced his resignation and cited a potential conflict of interest in an e-mail to the media, saying, "It is well-known that Father Armstrong has been my priest and friend for over a decade." He added that he'd seek a special prosecutor should a law-enforcement agency decide to file charges.
(Not) by the book
On March 26, a portion of Grace members voted to secede from the diocese. That election used six county voting booths and a ballot box provided by Balink, the county's chief election official at the time, at a cost of $35. He says there was no conflict of interest, because such equipment is loaned to help other small elections.
In May 2007, the Colorado Springs Police Department began investigating Armstrong.
The following year, Newsome sought re-election. On June 12, 2008 — 11 days before the 10th Judicial District Attorney's Office was appointed as special prosecutor — Newsome accepted a $400 donation from Armstrong.
Armstrong's wife, Jessie, also gave Newsome $400 in August just before the primary election. Newsome lost to Dan May, who faced no general election opponent, and left office in January 2009. He reportedly attends church, renamed St. George's, with the breakaway group.
May says it's unclear when a special prosecutor was requested, because the book in his office used to track requests for or assignments of special prosecutors contains no entry for the Armstrong case. "We've gone totally through that book and cannot find a log sheet asking for a special prosecutor, which would be the normal habit," May says.
Balink, who is now county treasurer, voted with other vestry members on March 26, 2007, to move the church into the Convocation of Anglicans in North America. He later sat through the five-week civil trial where Armstrong's breakaway group attempted to lay legal claim to Grace's properties. Still a member of Armstrong's group, Balink says in an e-mail that he did not compromise his integrity during the Grace ordeal.
A grand jury was seated in late February 2009 and returned a 20-count indictment against Armstrong three months later.
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