Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas sues colleagues to recoup fees

The players are different, the county is different, but the question is the same: Should a local elected official be forced to pay her own legal costs to defend against actions taken by other elected officeholders in the same jurisdiction — even the same building?

Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas sued her commissioner colleagues Aug. 29, the latest turn in more than two years of public bickering with George Teal and Abe Laydon over her conduct. It follows a recent vote by Teal and Laydon to censure her.

Thomas wants to recover $5,715.50 in legal fees she racked up defending herself against county-launched investigations that ultimately found no wrongdoing on her part. Douglas County has refused to cut her a check.

“I was elected by 129,000 people,” Thomas told The Denver Post in an interview Friday. “And the tyranny of the majority continues to marginalize my ability to govern. They need to pay my legal bills and we can all move on.”

The situation in the conservative county south of Denver echoes a dispute that played out last year nearly 50 miles to the north, ending up in front of the state’s high court. In October 2022, the Colorado Supreme Court ordered Adams County to pay the legal fees incurred by then-Treasurer Lisa Culpepper after she was sued by that county’s commissioners for alleged incompetence on the job.

Key to the justices’ ruling was the idea that the county attorney could not represent both the commissioners and the treasurer in adversarial litigation. So Adams County had an obligation to cover the legal charges billed to Culpepper, “who, but for the conflict of interest, would be represented by the county attorney’s office.”

J. Kirk McGill, the Denver attorney representing Thomas, said the same principle is at play in Douglas County — except that it’s commissioner versus commissioner, rather than separate county elected offices being pitted against one another.

McGill, who also represented Culpepper in the Adams County case, said the issue goes further back than Adams County last year. Thomas’ suit cites a 50-year-old case, Wadlow v. Kanaly, in which the high court determined that the Mesa County treasurer’s office could recover attorney’s fees from a legal fight it had with the commissioners over the setting of staff salaries.

“If you’re going to use the legal system to target other officeholders, then either you have to pay those legal bills out of your own pocket, or you have to pay everyone’s legal bills out of the public’s pocket,” McGill said. “And then you have to explain to the public why you’re doing that.”

Infighting on the Douglas County Board of Commissioners is longstanding and bitter. Back in the spring of 2021, Laydon and Teal were on the cusp of censuring Thomas for “conduct unbecoming” before deciding at the last minute not to.

But a year later, they demoted her from her position as board chair. They paid law firm Sherman & Howard nearly $24,000 in county funds to look into whether Thomas helped contribute to a hostile work environment at the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office while she was running for sheriff.

A deputy who resigned cited the dissemination of a letter containing “false information” about her. Thomas acknowledged circulating the anonymous employee letter, which outlined a wide array of leadership deficiencies and conflicted relationships at the agency, at the 2022 Douglas County Republican Assembly.

She denied any wrongdoing. Sherman & Howard cleared Thomas in July 2022 in a 12-page report obtained by The Post.

According to Thomas’ suit against her colleagues, Laydon and Teal didn’t stop there. The two commissioners directed then-County Attorney Lance Ingalls to launch a second probe of Thomas for “alleged criminal and civil misconduct,” the complaint states.

That investigation was handed over to the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office, the lawsuit states, and it found no probable cause to believe misconduct was committed by Thomas.

“None of the investigations into Commissioner Thomas launched by Commissioners Laydon and Teal have identified any illegal conduct on her part — despite significant expenditure of public funds and, at best, questionable legal authority for launching the investigations in the first place,” the lawsuit says.

Less than two weeks ago, on Aug. 22, Laydon and Teal voted to censure Thomas.

In a statement to The Post, Laydon said: “Lora Thomas expecting the people of this county to pay her for her own malfeasance, which has already cost this community too much, is a continued reflection of her habitual poor judgment.”

“I sincerely hope that our colleague will return her focus from herself back to serving the people in her final months on the board of county commissioners,” he said.

Teal said Thomas is “spinning the lawsuit as an act of free speech and that she is some kind of whistleblower.”

“It needs to be made very clear that Commissioner Thomas is, in fact, suing the people of Douglas County,” he wrote in an email to The Post. “No matter how this lawsuit goes, it’s the people of Douglas County who will be paying for Commissioner Thomas’s childish and petulant lawsuit.”

Thomas’ legal fees, Teal said, are related to an accusation of wrongdoing while she was running for sheriff last year.

“Simply put: Her failed run for sheriff does not fall within the duties and scope of Lora’s employment as a county commissioner,” he said.

The county attorney declined to comment through a spokesperson, citing the fact that Douglas County is hiring outside counsel to deal with the litigation.

Adams County has paid 90% of the $750,000 it owes Culpepper in legal fees under the Supreme Court’s order last October, McGill said. Whether the faceoff in Douglas County will go to the Colorado Supreme Court is not yet known, he said, but the argument is clear.

“Does an individual commissioner have rights or is it just majoritarian rule and the minority has no rights?” McGill said. “The tyranny of the majority is a bad thing in our system.”

As for Thomas, she said she isn’t going anywhere until her term expires in January 2025.

“These bullies will not get rid of me,” she said.

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