Waking up the morning of May 6, John Newsome might have thought life was pretty damn good.
The 39-year-old was finishing his first four-year term as district attorney for El Paso and Teller counties, and no one was planning to challenge him as the region's chief prosecutor. He had found ways to relax in his work, enjoying afternoon beers with co-workers, even a football game at Notre Dame with a police detective.
Yes, life might have seemed downright delectable.
Then, on that evening of May 6, KOAA-Channels 5/30 unveiled hidden-camera footage showing Newsome drinking about a gallon of beer on a workday evening before driving away in his county-owned Jeep.
Newsome's change of fortune was swift: Dan May, his rival in the 2004 Republican primary, announced days later that he might start a drive to petition his way onto the Aug. 12 primary ballot.
The following weeks were no kinder to Newsome. May easily amassed enough signatures. Then reports surfaced alleging Newsome used county funds to extend a trip for a homicide investigation last fall so he and a detective could take in that Notre Dame-Southern Cal football game in Indiana.
Finally, last week, just as thousands of Republicans received their mail-in primary ballots, police announced the Colorado Bureau of Investigation will look at whether Newsome's use of public money broke the law.
Democratic state Sen. John Morse, Fountain's police chief when he endorsed May in 2004, can take some credit for Newsome's most recent headache. Morse requested an investigation of Newsome's 2007 trip in a July 14 letter to Colorado Springs Police Chief Richard Myers, citing Colorado's law against embezzlement of public property, a felony.
Speaking after the CBI investigation was announced the next day, Morse says the allegations, if true, are a clear violation of the law even if Newsome paid the county back for the expenses, as he claims to have done.
"You can't convert public money to private use," Morse says, suggesting Newsome should have resigned after news first broke about his drinking exploits. "I think he's clearly violated the public trust."
Other elected officials disagree, and have come out vocally in support of Newsome. El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa says Newsome has improved communication between prosecutors and law enforcement agencies during his time in office. Maketa dismisses recent news stories as part of a political "smear campaign," noting Newsome has "taken responsibility" for the behavior shown by the May 6 story.
Newsome's side trip to Notre Dame might sound bad, Maketa says, but it made sense to leave an open day at the end of their trip in case interviews had to be rescheduled. Newsome says he "flagged" expenses from the last day of the trip after the game, with plans to repay them. Maketa says it's arguable if that was necessary, since the trip was already justified.
"He didn't get any tangible benefit," Maketa says.
County Commissioner Sallie Clark also suggests the news reports are a distraction: "I think John has a great track record," she says. "I think we need to focus on the job he's doing."
Maintaining that focus can be tricky: Newsome submitted to an Independent interview but so far has not agreed to debate May, so each candidate's sales pitch can only be assessed in isolation.
Four years ago, Dan May was the establishment candidate. During 22 years as a prosecutor in the 4th Judicial District, he rose to second in command under DA Jeanne Smith. Facing term limits, Smith had recommended him as her successor in the 2004 election.
Newsome, who at that point had worked in the office for about 10 years, announced his insurgent bid in 2003, claiming he would reduce prosecutor turnover while putting extra emphasis on white-collar crimes and good relations with law enforcement agencies.
The tables have clearly turned, and squishing underneath is a debate over how deep the politics run. Newsome will not say if he believes May was behind KOAA's investigation, but does note that his opponent called the office a week or two before the story aired to request a policy manual.
"I should have known something was afoot, politically," Newsome says.
In the end, he adds, it's beside the point whether or not May was involved: "It definitely worked out for him."
May flatly denies any advance knowledge of the story, but he admits requesting a policy manual after a KOAA reporter called him. May says he only decided to run as people urged him on after the story broke. If he'd planned a run earlier, he suggests, he wouldn't have waited days to request petitions to get his name on the ballot, or weeks to start thinking about a Web site. After finally starting a campaign, he found the Web address he used in 2004, danmayforda.com, had been purchased anonymously on May 29.
May's campaign registered its own site, danmayforda.org, on June 7.
If May ran a timid campaign as the 2004 frontrunner, the 52-year-old came out swinging this year. He argues the drinking story matters since it has damaged public trust and has created difficulties for prosecutors, particularly in DUI cases.
"It's affecting his ability to do the work," May says of Newsome.
After losing in 2004, May went to work as chief deputy prosecutor in the 18th Judicial District, which comprises four counties south and east of Denver. There, he tried two murder cases.
If elected as DA, May says, he will continue trying cases as a way of staying active and "leading by example."
Turnover in the DA's office is a contentious issue. May argues it has been worse under Newsome, with experienced prosecutors moving on or getting fired in the first few months, then a steady trickle since. Newsome counters that he's slowed attrition amid county budget struggles that have stretched the gap to "ridiculous proportions" between what prosecutors make here and in comparable Front Range DA offices.
It's hard to get far away from issues tied to money or morale. May says the office is wasteful by using attorneys in roles that could be played by paralegals. He says he could save money by privatizing a program to put troubled kids back on the straight and narrow.
The money game
Newsome has the edge in money. His contributions from May 27 through July 2 total nearly $14,000, giving him almost $20,000. Since May 27, Maketa's given $200, Clark $100 and Christine Bussey, wife of noted local DUI attorney Timothy Bussey, $400. (Bussey's check was apparently returned after it was discovered she had already given the $400 maximum during the current election cycle.)
May, starting the same period with almost nothing, received contributions of more than $15,000, some coming from several former colleagues.
Will Bain is one of those supporters. He worked under Newsome until September 2007, then left for the Colorado Springs city attorney's office.
"I had planned to stay on as a career prosecutor," Bain says. He adds that Newsome is more concerned with image than substance, and points to erosion of office morale and talent.
Newsome claims support from many still inside the office, and says he's been innovative and effective. News stories have been distracting, he admits, but he adds the experience will make him a better prosecutor.
And he assures it won't happen again. When asked if he drinks at home, he replies, "I'm married to a very strong and forceful woman."
Newsome notes his office just set a record for the number of felony cases tried, and says he's enhanced the office with diversion programs and other new services.
"I think the debate has to be what does the future hold for the DA's office," Newsome says. "And I think that it has to be something more than just beer."
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