Villafuerte Withdraws as Nominee for Colorado US Attorney

Yesterday, less than a week after her name came up in questioning by Senate Judicary Committee Ranking Republican Jeff Sessions (Ala), Stephanie Villafuerte withdrew her name from consideration for the position of US Attorney from Colorado.

Her nomination — from the post of deputy chief of staff to Colorado Governor Bill Ritter  — reopened a simmering scandal in Colorado. It’s a saga which, even with Villafuerte’s withdrawal, may threaten not only the Ritter Administration but also several senior federal law enforcement officials in the Denver Office of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (“ICE”).

Last week, Sessions sent a letter to Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) asking that Villafuerte’s nomination be kept off the Committee’s agenda.  Senator Sessions gave as his reasons that Villafuerte’s record is “incomplete” and that he wanted to wait for an answer from Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano whom Sessions had asked on Wednesday about the case of Cory Voorhis.

The case of former ICE agent Cory Voorhis, which has been detailed on these pages HERE and HERE, revolves around Voorhis giving out information regarding a policy of the Denver District Attorney’s office under then-DA Bill Ritter which Voorhis and other ICE agents believed to constitute obstruction of justice. The policy was to allow aliens (legal and illegal) who were arrested for felonies to plead down to misdemeanor offenses such as “trespassing on agricultural land”, with such pleas allowing the aliens to avoid deportation.  In particular, Voorhis told a representative of congressman (and then candidate for governor) Bob Beauprez about the policy and gave him names of certain illegal alien criminals along with advice on how to do further research.

The Beauprez campaign made a television ad about one such alien, Walter Noel Ramo who was arrested for dealing heroin in Colorado and then allowed to plead to agricultural trespass, thus avoiding deportation. He went to California where he was arrested (while using the name Carlos Estrada-Medina) for sexual assault on a minor.  The Ritter campaign — and this is where Stephanie Villafuerte enters the picture — determined that there was no way the ad could have been made without Beauprez having been provided information from the National Crime Information Center (“NCIC”), a federal law enforcement database.

Voorhis was eventually charged with and acquitted of misdemeanor charges, but the case remains an open wound in Colorado, both within state government and the federal ICE. Indeed, the wound which was slowly healing for everyone except Cory Voorhis was ripped open by the ill-conceived nomination of Villafuerte.

Prior to Governor Ritter’s campaign, Stephanie Villafuerte was a Chief Deputy District Attorney in Denver. She took a leave of absence from her position to work on Ritter’s campaign staff.  When the Beauprez ad was released, the Ritter campaign went into a frenzy, calling their friends at the FBI, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, and especially the Denver DA’s office.  Villafuerte appears to have taken on the task of determining the veracity of the ad and the source if its information.  She made multiple calls to the DA’s office within 48 hours after the ad’s airing, but strains credibility with claims that those most of the calls were about such things as office health insurance and leave-of-absence policies.

Villafuerte sent a letter to Colorado’s two Democratic Senators, Mark Udall and Michael Bennett — the latter of whom was appointed to his Senate seat by Bill Ritter — in which she says she was “at all times careful to obtain for the Ritter Campaign material that was only available from public sources, and never from the NCIC or other non-public databases.”  However, the phone log of one of the calls’ recipients, Denver DA Communications Director Lynn Kimbrough noted that at least one call from Villafuerte was about Estrada-Medina. In a radio interview in November, 2007, Kimbrough admitted that she asked for and received confirmation based on the NCIC database that Ramo and Estrada-Medina were the same person, and she passed that information on to the Ritter Campaign.  

According to Dick Wadhams, Chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, “A young ICE agent lost his job and his livelihood for doing the very same thing that Stephanie Villafuerte, Bill Ritter, and the Denver DA’s office did, but in their case there were no repercussions whatsoever.”  Wadhams called for Stephanie Villafuerte to “answer questions in a public forum” but her withdrawal makes that unlikely.  Not wanting to answer questions which might hurt many of Bill Ritter’s friends and allies is a strong motive for her withdrawal.

And although Congressman Mike Coffman (R-CO) has also asked Attorney General Eric Holder to “initiate a Department of Justice investigation into this matter,” it was not just Republicans who wanted to know more. The Denver Post, whose Editorial Board endorsed Bill Ritter in 2006, has said Villafuerte “owes the public some answers” and that her letter to Senators Udall and Bennet “reveals a nagging inconsistency about her recollection of events.”

On the federal side, Senator Sessions alluded to ICE malfeasance in his questioning of Secretary Napolitano: “ICE presented a supervisor for criminal prosecution to the US Attorney for felony offenses including perjury….But apparently ICE is yet to take any action against the supervisor but they’re continuing to seek to remove Mr. Voorhis.”  

The supervisor, Tony Rouco, was indeed found to have lied (and confessed) during a July, 2008 polygraph examination. Indeed, an FBI agent close to the case told Cory Voorhis that if Rouco had told the truth initially (about Voorhis having informed Rouco right away about his contact with Beauprez’s office), Voorhis would most likely have not been charged with a crime and there would not have been a trial.

Although the Senate Judiciary Committee will not hear more from Stephanie Villafuerte, and her withdrawal takes the pressure off Colorado’s Democratic Senators, there must still be several nervous people in Denver today.  While Rouco’s is the only name among senior Denver ICE officials to have received public scrutiny, several others have reportedly also been investigated for perjury and other violations of rule and law. And members of the Denver District Attorney’s office must be aware that they did the same thing for which Cory Voorhis was prosecuted.

If there is a serious investigation — something which has been stymied both at the state and federal levels so far — officials of both state and federal government will have some hard questions to answer.