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From wolves to abortion, soft money drives wedge issues in Colorado House District 26 race

Whether wolf reintroduction, political extremism or abortion access, outside groups spending thousands on the Colorado House District 26 race would like voters to believe each candidate is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

A purple mailer paid for by Republican-supporting group Restore Colorado Leadership Fund includes a computer-edited picture of Democrat Meghan Lukens with her hands over her ears, as it claims she urged voters to support the reintroduction of gray wolves in Colorado.

In response, Lukens has repeatedly said she opposes wolf reintroduction and voted against it.

The Better Colorado Alliance can use photo-editing software, too. A mailer from the Democrat-supporting group features Republican Savannah Wolfson in a sheep’s costume next to U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert and a grinning wolf, both in matching getups. The mailer claims Wolfson wants to be “another Lauren Boebert” and only cares about political attacks, not the constituents of House District 26.

“If they have to tie me completely to everything (Boebert has) ever said or done, that proves they don’t have any dirt on me,” Wolfson said of the mailers.

While both candidates say they are running positive campaigns, focusing on their qualifications and on the issues, outside groups — which are not allowed to coordinate with the candidates — have been more than happy to throw mud for them.

According to a Steamboat Pilot & Today analysis, Better Colorado Alliance has spent more than $100,000 as of Oct. 4 supporting Lukens or opposing Wolfson. At the same time, Restore Colorado Leadership has spent about $11,000 so far, and Wolfson is one of 19 candidates the group Unite for Colorado Action has spent over $150,000 to support.

“I signed up for this,” Wolfson said during an interview Wednesday, Oct. 12, in Oak Creek, where she lives. “I knew that side of it was going to happen; it’s not surprising.”

“Outside money is something that I have no control over,” Lukens said Wednesday from Steamboat, her hometown. “Given that we are such a competitive seat and will be for the next 10 years, whether I’m running or not, outside money is expected politically.” 

This mailer from the Restore Colorado Leadership Fund says Meghan Lukens “urged” people to support wolf reintroduction in 2020.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Wolves on the Western Slope

Prop. 114 mandating the state reintroduce gray wolves was approved by Colorado voters in 2020 by less than a 1% margin. Just 37% of Routt County residents favored the measure, and every county on the Western Slope, where wolves would be reintroduced, had a majority of its voters say no. Lukens, who was a vice chair for the Boulder County Democratic Party at the time, said she voted no as well.

“What Democrats, I feel like across the state, were focused on was getting (Donald) Trump out of office,” Lukens said. “I did not ever try to convince other people that they should vote for this. I was more focused on making sure people voted in general.”

Lukens said she didn’t campaign for people to vote against Prop. 114, either. Her role with the party was fundraising and outreach, and she was able to raise enough to have two paid Latino outreach directors.

“Wherever I am living, I’m always involved in local politics,” Lukens said. “My two main focus areas was fundraising and outreach and inclusion, so ‘get out the vote’ was not necessarily something I was directly involved in.”

Still, Restore Colorado Leadership Fund cites a “now deleted Facebook post” as it claims Lukens “urged” people to vote yes on Prop 114. Katie Kennedy, the registered agent for the group, shared a screenshot of that post with Steamboat Pilot & Today.

his Facebook post from October 2020 is the source for Restore Colorado Leadership Fund claiming that Democratic Meghan Lukens “urged” voters to support wolf reintroduction.
Restore Colorado Leadership Fund/Courtesy image

Wolf reintroduction is not mentioned in the post. Instead, Lukens wrote if “you want to know how I’m voting, check out bocovoter.org,” which linked to the county party’s voter guide that recommended voters support Prop. 114.

“I did more research after I got my ballot and decided I disagreed with Prop. 114, so I voted against it,” Lukens said in a text.

Lukens said she has met with a variety of agricultural producers including the Gittleson Family, who have lost cattle to a wolf pack in North Park near Walden. Those relationships will be important when advocating for compensation and mitigation funding in Denver, Lukens said.

For her part, Wolfson has promised to introduce legislation to stop wolf reintroduction if she is elected.

“This is a huge burden on the taxpayers and there’s, at the moment, no plan for how they are going to compensate ranchers,” Wolfson said. “I think, as we’re looking at the budget and we want to prioritize funding education and roads, a lot of people are going to start wondering why we’re spending money to reintroduce something that’s obviously already here.”

Wolfson said that short of stopping reintroduction, it will be crucial that Colorado Parks and Wildlife is able to obtain an exemption from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which would give the agency more options when managing wolves. Wolfson also said all wolves in Colorado need to be collared and lethal management should be one of the tools at CPW’s disposal.

“I think it’s really sad … they are really beautiful,” Wolfson said. “And we’re setting them up to be shot.”

Lukens said she wouldn’t support the legislature trying to overturn the 2020 referendum, but she would support posing the question to voters again.

“I would be supportive of sending (Prop 114) back to the voters, and I would be proud to talk to voters all over the state in regard to how this issue and how wolves are negatively impacting the Western Slope already,” Lukens said.

A screenshot of an ad running on YouTube paid for by the Better Colorado Alliance seeking to portray Republican Candidate Savanah Wolfson as the same as Lauren Boebert.
Screenshot/YouTube

Buddies with Boebert?

While she didn’t become a Republican until 2020, Wolfson told the Steamboat Pilot & Today in May 2021 that she was enthusiastic about voting for Boebert the first time and would vote for her “even more enthusiastically” in 2022.

She won’t get the chance to vote for Boebert next month because Wolfson’s Oak Creek home is no longer part of Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, but that hasn’t stopped outside groups from trying to draw a connection between the two.

“Lauren and I are different in certain ways,” Wolfson said. “I work really hard to communicate in a way that doesn’t put people on the defensive.”

Wolfson doesn’t openly carry guns either. Wolfson explained that she and Boebert have never spoken on the phone and said she only sees the congresswoman when Boebert comes to the district, and even then, not every time.

Mailers generally site a May 2021 story as they try to make a connection between the two. That story was part of a project to speak to voters who supported and opposed Boebert. In that story, Wolfson said she liked Boebert because Boebert “ruffles feathers.”

One claim made in mailers calls Wolfson an extremist and then uses statements from Boebert to try to support that claim. For example, the ad points to comments Boebert made in June about separation of church and state.

“I’m tired of this separation of church and state junk,” Boebert told the Cornerstone Christian Center in Basalt, according to reporting from The Hill.

However, Wolfson said she believes in the separation of church and state and that religious institutions shouldn’t have a leading role in government. Wolfson added that her family is raising their children Jewish. As for her religion, Wolfson said, “I don’t have a name for whatever I am.”

“People have their freedom of belief, but I don’t believe in a religious institution running the government,” Wolfson said.

Mailers also claim that Boebert sides with backers of the Jan. 6 insurrection, but Wolfson said she condemns all political violence. She also said that she believes Joe Biden is the rightful president of the United States.

“I think people did not vote for Donald Trump here, and they don’t like him, and he lost,” Wolfson said. “I’ll accept the election results in my own election.”

Republican candidate for Colorado House District 26 Savannah Wolfson speaks during Steamboat Pilot & Today’s Election Forum on Monday, Oct. 10.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Access to abortion

Most mailers opposing Wolfson site her stance on abortion as a reason to support Lukens. 

Wolfson has said she believes Democrats went too far when they passed the Reproductive Health Equity Act in April. The law, which passed just before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, codified protections for access to abortion and reproductive health care that were already in place in Colorado.

“I do make exceptions,” Wolfson said. “Early exceptions for rape, saving the life of a mother always … I don’t want anyone to die, so we definitely should put the woman’s health first.”

Wolfson admitted that a bill rolling back abortion protections in Colorado would have little chance of making it to the Colorado House floor. Still, she said she wants more parental knowledge and consent around abortion, and feels pro-choice moms agree.

“I have lots of friends who have had abortions. We all love each other. We’re great friends,” Wolfson said. “I know all of them would want to hold the hand of their daughter when she went through that.”

In May, Real Vail reported that Wolfson wrote online to members of the group Eagle County Grassroots Conservatives that she would introduce “legislation to require burial for aborted children, to make a point.”

Wolfson said she feels Real Vail is “left-leaning” and didn’t post the full context of those comments, which she said pertained to a discussion about partial-birth abortions. She said none of the bills she plans to introduce if elected have anything to do with abortion.

Asked if she planned to introduce legislation requiring burial of aborted fetus, Wolfson said no.

Lukens has said she is proud to be the pro-choice candidate in the race and emphasized that protections on women’s reproductive rights are decided at the legislature following the reversal of the half-century-old federal ruling. Lukens has also said she believes the legislature should start the process to ask voters about an amendment to the Colorado Constitution to further protect reproductive rights.

“State legislatures across the country are truly at the front lines protecting these basic rights,” Lukens said. “I look forward to being part of protecting our basic rights that are at stake, especially in this election.”

Democratic candidate for Colorado House District 26 Meghan Lukens speaks at Steamboat Pilot & Today’s Election Forum on Monday, Oct. 10.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Critical Race Theory

In a May 2021 email, Lukens said “teaching Critical Race Theory is imperative to dismantling the racism that plagues American society today.”

Some local Republicans, including those writing letters to the editor of Pilot & Today and at least one party official, have been trying to make Critical Race Theory an issue in the race.

The statement came in response to an email from Steamboat resident Ken Mauldin to members of the Steamboat Springs Board of Education and then-Superintendent Brad Meeks. Mauldin, who unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the school board last year, said he was hearing concerns about the district teaching what he called “toxic Critical Race Theory.”

Lukens responded after being forwarded the original email. In her response, Lukens said that Critical Race Theory is an essential part of the social studies curriculum in the Boulder County School District, where she taught advanced placement U.S. government and politics classes at Peak to Peak Charter School.

Lukens moved to Steamboat when she saw an open position as a social studies teacher at Steamboat Springs High School in 2021.

“I have always taught to Colorado state standards, and I have always taught the curriculum at my school,” Lukens said. “I feel very proud of my classroom. I feel very proud to be a teacher that is inclusive and gives students the opportunity to ask questions and think critically.”

Critical Race Theory is not part of the curriculum in the Steamboat Springs School District, and communications director Laura Kubitz said the district is “not contemplating adopting or teaching Critical Race Theory in the future.”

In Lukens’ long reply, she explains what she called misconceptions about Critical Race Theory, stating that since “racism already poisons our society,” not talking about race with students will make it “extremely difficult to combat the racism that poisons our society.”

While Lukens said she taught Critical Race Theory at Peak to Peak, two experts in Critical Race Theory questioned whether that was the case, saying that what Lukens described in her email is actually not Critical Race Theory, which the experts added is a high-level topic generally studied by graduate students.

“What she is describing is an honest and accurate education for all students in a democratic society,” said Marvin Lynn, dean of the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Colorado Denver, in an email. “Asking children to critically interrogate issues of race and racism within the context of K-12 classrooms is not Critical Race Theory.”

Jennifer Ho, director of the Center for Humanities and the Arts at the University of Colorado Boulder, likened what Lukens says she teaches to teaching students about electricity.

“Someone may be learning about electricity in the seventh grade, but they are not being taught electrical engineering,” Ho said.

Lukens said she thinks the issue of Critical Race Theory is being blown out of proportion by the right and should have nothing to do with her candidacy for the Legislature.

“It’s no surprise that this (email) is going around,” Lukens said. “It has nothing to do with the results that I hope to get for the people of House District 26.”

Education is one of the three “E’s” that Lukens said she is running on, but her main focus is school funding. She said experts in the field, not the state Legislature, should make decisions on curriculum.

“I do think that there are actually a lot of categories of people that do not feel seen in our curriculum and I don’t see the Legislature as being the place to really mandate anything like that,” Lukens said. “I don’t plan on bringing a bill in that regard.”

Meghan Lukens’ full email about Critical Race Theory

Hello Mr. Mauldin,

I am Shannon Lukens’ daughter, Meghan, and she forwarded me your email with a few questions herself regarding Critical Race Theory. The reason she passed this along to me is because I am a current AP US Government and Politics teacher at Peak to Peak Charter School in Boulder Valley School District, I have a Master’s degree in Leadership in Educational Organizations with an emphasis in Equity and Educational Justice, a Colorado Principal’s Licensure, and a Bachelor’s degree in History. Additionally, teaching Critical Race Theory is an essential part of the social studies curriculum at my school as well as schools throughout Boulder Valley School District. As a human who graduated from Steamboat Springs High School and also someone who deeply cares about the education of American youth, teaching Critical Race Theory is imperative to dismantling the racism that plagues American society today.

I was happy to be forwarded this email because it articulates concerns that I have increasingly been hearing regarding Critical Race Theory, and your email also articulates a fair number of misconceptions about Critical Race Theory, of which I hope to further explain so you and other interested in a potential recall can consider before moving forward with a negative campaign. I have no idea if Steamboat Springs School District is planning on implementing Critical Race Theory, and from my understanding many teachers throughout the school district already do a brilliant job of teaching a multi-faceted, critical analysis focused, anti-racist teaching of social studies, but I do want to clear up a few misconceptions.

At its roots, Critical Race Theory asserts that the legacy and impact of slavery continues to impact American society. This throughline can be traced to many racist systems and structures that are still upheld in all aspects of American life (check out “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates which articulates this throughline by explaining many of the racist systems still in place). As articulated by Oxford Research Encyclopedias: “Race has historically been, and continues to be, a significant issue in all aspects of American society. In the field of education, racial inequality is prominent in the areas of access, opportunity, and outcomes. Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a framework that offers researchers, practitioners, and policy-makers a race-conscious approach to understanding educational inequality and structural racism to find solutions that lead to greater justice. Placing race at the center of analysis, Critical Race Theory scholars interrogate policies and practices that are taken for granted to uncover the overt and covert ways that racist ideologies, structures, and institutions create and maintain racial inequality.”

By teaching Critical Race Theory and incorporating anti-racism and anti-oppression into the curriculum, teachers are ensuring that all students are seeing themselves in the curriculum, in addition to White students who have traditionally always been the center of American history curriculums. In addition to this, teaching Critical Race Theory allows for a more truthful, meaningful, and relevant teaching of American history, one that doesn’t ignore certain narratives, but instead analyzes how all narratives make and shape our unique country and how different narratives can intersect and impact the United States as we know it today. It doesn’t erase aspects of our students’ identities; rather, it incorporates and centers our students’ identities. Additionally, it ensures that all students are seen by the curriculum, and it is just as important for a Black student to see themselves in the curriculum and for White students to see Black students in the curriculum (and many more identities in addition to their own).

Furthermore, teaching Critical Race Theory also teaches students critical analysis and critical thinking skills, which is imperative to prepare students to be contributing, thoughtful humans in this ever-changing world. In fact, by not teaching Critical Race Theory, we are doing our students a disservice by not preparing them to engage in these conversations at the collegiate level and in the workplace. As written in the Atlantic’s Homeroom, “I’m Concerned About Wokeness at My Child’s School”, by Abby Freireich and Brian Platzer: “Curricula should allow all students to see aspects of themselves reflected and affirmed, and also illustrate how their lived experiences may differ from one another’s. Part of an educator’s job should be to question and broaden what is considered a classic. Successful schools teach children to contemplate, evaluate, and question ideas in order to better understand the world around them and their role within it. Race must be part of this discussion. That’s the opposite of diluting your child’s education. If anything, it’s making that education richer and more accurate.” If we truly want to prepare students for their future, it is imperative that we give them the skills to access higher levels of thinking rather than ignoring critical aspects of our society.

Mr. Mauldin, you mentioned, “I hope you will protect our children from such racist poison as the Critical Race Theory curriculum.” Please know that Critical Race Theory is not racist poison. Racism already poisons our society, and by not talking about this amongst adults and also amongst students, it will be extremely difficult to combat the racism that poisons our society.

Please read the linked scholarly articles that may be helpful:

Respectfully,

Meghan Lukens

District 5 judge finalists have been selected

Fifth Judicial District Judge Russell Granger will be retiring Nov. 1. Anticipating the bench opening following his retirement, Colorado’s Judicial Department has posted a call for applications to the position. Having completed interviews and other procedures with qualified applicants, the Fifth Judicial District nomination commission met Friday to select the finalists to be nominated to Gov. Jared Polis for appointment. 

According to the Colorado Office of Judicial Performance Evaluation, Granger served within the Fifth Judicial District since 1998, when he first sat on the Clear Creek County bench. In 2006, Granger was appointed to the District Court bench, where he has worked within Eagle County since. In the 2020 Retention Survey Report on Granger’s performance, it was noted that Granger is “proficient at complex trials” and advocates for out-of-courtroom solutions to problems. Forty-one written evaluations, including 39 completed by attorneys, evaluated Granger on various aspects of his performance. 

“The survey results found that Judge Granger meets performance standards, higher than the 83% rating for all district judges,” the evaluation read. “Judge Granger scores slightly higher than the average for all district judges on case management. The commission noted that Judge Granger scored lower than average for all other district judges in fairness; however, there were multiple survey respondents who praised him for his fairness. Granger noted that fairness is important to him in his work on the bench. He stated that he recognizes that people in court need to be heard and understood and he works to provide that for each person who appears before him.”

Following in Granger’s footsteps, the incoming Fifth Judicial District judge will also be faced with balancing sides in a trial.

The Colorado Judicial Department on Oct. 11 released the names of three candidates the nominating commission chose to move forward in the appointment process. Inga Causey of Gypsum, Courtney Holm of Edwards and Rachel Olguin-Fresquez of Gypsum were selected to be the candidates Polis will evaluate and eventually choose from to sit on the district court bench following Granger. 

Causey explained that like Granger, she believes a district court judge needs to prioritize effective listening in order to make fair decisions. 

“Over the years, you sometimes see judges that are worn down, that are fatigued and oftentimes, they stop listening to the people before them,” Causey said. “I believe that as a judge, we are here to serve the community. We are here to serve others and that mandates serving with compassion, empathy, creativity and resourcefulness.”

Causey, like the position’s other nominees, has deep roots within the counties that make up the Fifth Judicial District. She noted that this kind of community connection is essential to a better understanding of issues presented and resources available to make decisions. 

“When you understand the heartbeat of a community, you’re better able to serve that community,” Causey said. 

Causey is currently the town prosecutor of Vail, a magistrate judge for the 13th judicial district, a deputy judge for Minturn, an associate judge for De Beque and a partner at Causey & Howard Attorneys and Counselors at Law. She said she believes her background in law qualifies her to fill Granger’s position. Along with her 20-plus years of experience, Causey shared that her passion for what she does is tethered to her every move in the courtroom. 

She described how this sentiment was inspired, telling a story about how she was tasked with representing an entire Louisiana parish while a third-year law student.

“I walk into the courtroom and it is packed,” Causey said. “It’s full of TV and news and I see people in the community are just wall-to-wall. I’m terrified. I’m thinking, ‘oh my gosh, this entire parish is depending on a law student to help them.’ I started walking to the podium to give my oral argument and I was nervous; my voice was shaking and my ears get hot when I get nervous. But behind me, this community, with each sentence, I would hear their words of encouragement. ‘That’s right,’ ‘you tell it,’ those kinds of things. At that point, I knew that what we did matters and that our work is meant to serve others. I wanted to carry that with me today and I will keep that perspective on the bench.”

Per the Colorado Constitution, Polis has 15 days following the nominations on Oct. 10 to select the new Fifth Judicial District judge. 

Depending on who Polis appoints to the position, the future of the seat is up to the candidate’s available start date. Robert McCallum, Public Information Officer at Colorado’s judicial department, explained that the selected candidate may need to wrap up a private practice as well as personal affairs before moving to serve on the bench. Because of this, the judgeship may be temporarily filled until the incoming judge is able to take the seat. 

McCallum also explained that a start date before Election Day results in a difference in initial term length compared to a start date after midterms. 

“If this person started on Nov. 1, in two years they would be eligible to stand for retention again, because it would be prior to the next election,” McCallum said. “If the person started, say Nov. 15, after this year’s general election, that person would actually have to wait four years to sit for the provision because there wouldn’t be an election cycle.”

Colorado judges are appointed, but voters can remove them at a general election.

The two-year window around elections is given to those at the beginning of their judgeship before a retention evaluation for judges to get their footing and tackle the new-position learning curve, McCallum explained. 

“It’s a big job to take the bench and be a judge,” McCallum said. 

Veterans stump in support of Camp Hale becoming new national monument

Anticipating President Joe Biden’s announcement of a new national monument at Camp Hale and the Tenmile Range, the Vet Voice Foundation gathered 10th Mountain Division veterans and local representatives Thursday to discuss the environmental, educational and ceremonial impacts such a designation would have.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visited the historic World War II training site in August accompanied by Gov. Jared Polis, Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, and Rep. Joe Neguse. During the visit, Vilsack pledged to recommend to Biden that he use his authority granted by the Antiquities act of 1906 to create the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument.

During a press call on Thursday, Vet Voice Foundation CEO Janessa Goldbeck said the organization joins Colorado representatives in urging the president to ensure Camp Hale’s permanent protection. 

“This action would continue a longstanding tradition of bipartisan support for protecting our nation’s most special places, historic landmarks and objects of historic and scientific interest,” Goldbeck said. 

As a former training site for the U.S. Army, Camp Hale fostered what was originally activated as the Alpine segment of the Army’s 10th Light Division before being redesignated the 10th Mountain Division in 1944. The officers who trained for harsh temperatures and conditions at Camp Hale were responsible for key defeats of German forces in Italy.

The 10th Mountain Division is now located at Fort Drum, New York, and, since 2001, has been the most-deployed division in the U.S. Army. Despite their geographical separation from Camp Hale and the Continental Divide, recent veterans of the 10th Mountain Division spoke on the connections they have to the land and to their predecessors who trained there.

Retired Maj. Gen. Galen Jackman served for three years with the 10th Mountain Division as chief of staff and assistant division commander. Having communicated with descendants of the World War II 10th Mountain Division and having served with the 10th Mountain Division himself, Jackman explained how crucial Camp Hale is to American history and veteran legacy.

“All the soldiers in our army today are following in the historical footsteps of those who have gone before them,” Jackman said. “The 10th Mountain soldiers are no exception. The heritage, legacy, spirit and ethos of today’s 10th Mountain Division springs from its beginnings at Camp Hale.”

Along with recognizing its historical impact, 10th Mountain Division veteran Mike Greenwood directly addressed President Biden in the press call Thursday. He shared a personal account of Camp Hale’s importance. Having served in Afghanistan and Iraq, Greenwood said the wilderness at Camp Hale is a sanctuary from the impacts of war. He explained that Camp Hale and the Continental Divide is not only a historical site of a legendary division’s training ground, but the land is also a place for veterans like himself to recreate, reflect and heal. 

“(Camp Hale) is not just a place to look at and admire,” Greenwood said. “It’s a place to go and heal. So, I urge you, President Biden, to give Camp Hale the distinction that it deserves.”

Aside from the connection 10th Mountain Division veterans have to the history and healing nature of Camp Hale, skiers and locals may also find connections to the history of the proposed national monument. The nation’s modern ski industry finds its roots at Camp Hale. Many 10th Mountain veterans returned from World War II to found the iconic ski resorts — Vail among them — that are at the forefront of the American outdoor recreation economy, which thrives in Colorado today.

Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry is in support of Camp Hale’s projected national monument distinction and explained why she thinks it is important to recognize the foundation that much of Eagle and Summit counties are built upon. 

“Over the past few years, the outdoor recreation industry has blossomed to a point where we need to put some protections in place to steward this part of our heritage,” Chandler-Henry said. “Heritage is part of our history, our environment and it’s our economy. We’re hopeful that this designation of the national monument status by President Biden will lead to those protections and allow us to recognize that heritage, history and love of nature and the outdoors that all of us in Eagle County have.”

Like many locals, Rep. Julie McCluskie who serves Delta, Gunnison, Lake, Pitkin and Summit counties at the state Capitol, said she and her family have fond memories of recreating in this “pristine and important part of Colorado’s beautiful wilderness.” She explained that protections offered with the national monument distinction would assist in preserving populations of endangered wildlife that live in and migrate through the area, such as bighorn sheep, black bears and moose.

“Particularly in the face of climate change, protecting these corridors and these beautiful mountains is very important to our communities,” McCluskie said. “We have been challenged over this last decade to lift up and help others understand how much we love these great outdoors and why it is so important to protect them.”

Annual Eagle River Cleanup brings athletes and volunteers together for a day of restoration

On Saturday, Sept. 10, the Eagle River Watershed Council held its 28th annual Eagle River Cleanup. Along 70 plus miles of local waterways, volunteers picked up trash on the banks of Eagle River, Gore Creek and stretches of the Upper Colorado River.

The event, complete with live music and a barbecue, hosted around 250 volunteers from across the valley who are passionate about maintaining clean water systems throughout Eagle County. Split into teams, the Eagle River Cleanup’s volunteers removed substantial amounts of debris from the water, preventing it from continuing downstream.

The health of the Eagle River Watershed and the Upper Colorado River is not only a concern to the Eagle River Watershed Council, it’s also a concern to anyone who chooses to recreate in or around the waterways. 

Anna Nakae, the programs director for the local nonprofit, said the council’s goal for the annual Eagle River Cleanup is to not only maintain the health and cleanliness of the county’s waterways, but also to connect those recreating in local rivers to resources to understand and care for them.

People enjoy live music and free food after the Eagle River Cleanup Saturday, Sept. 10, at Arrowhead in Edwards. The post-cleanup barbecue was brought back this year.
RiverCleanup-VDN-091122-3

“Oftentimes, (the volunteers) are people who understand the river really well, especially anglers, rafters, other kinds of boaters, so getting their involvement is key in protecting our watershed,” Nakae said.

For this year’s cleanup, the Vail Valley Foundation, a sponsor of the cleanup, recruited Mountain Games athletes in the area to assist in the efforts. Ross Leonhart, a marketing and multimedia manager with the Vail Valley Foundation, said the nonprofit gathered 60 people to assist in the cleanup. That included Mountain Games athletes, AmeriCorps members, staffers, high schoolers with YouthPower365 and other community volunteers.

The Mountain Games’ Protect our Playground initiative aims to engage those who recreate around the valley in efforts to preserve and protect the area so it can continue to be enjoyed for years to come. To create more of a positive impact on the “playground,” Leonhart said this year the VVF wanted to include service days where hands-on help will directly affect where Mountain Games athletes and volunteers alike love recreating. 

Three of the Vail Valley Foundation teams focused specifically on stretches of the Eagle River where Mountain Games events like downriver kayak sprints and fly-fishing competitions occur.

“What makes visiting and living here so special is the outdoors,” Leonhart said. “So, we just want to do our part and contribute to preserving what we have out here, it’s really important to us. Obviously, the Mountain Games is a celebration of the outdoors, so it’s important to do our part.”

Compared to years past, the 2022 Eagle River Cleanup did not disappoint, bringing around the same amount of volunteers to the banks of the Eagle River, Gore Creek and Upper Colorado River. Though, unlike the past two years, Nakae said the Eagle River Watershed Council was happy to finally be able to host the celebratory barbecue again, after a hiatus due to COVID-19. She explained how the barbecue has been a way for the nonprofit to give back to those who put their time into the cleanups.

“We just have such dedicated volunteers who have been coming back to do this year after year, and it’s pretty amazing to see people get so excited to pick up trash,” Nakae said. “I don’t think I’ve been a part of a community that is so dedicated to doing that year after year, so to see teams coming back that have been doing it for 20 plus years is just pretty amazing.”

Aspen resident Barrack Jr. and ex-assistant to stand trial this month for illegal lobbying

An Aspen resident who led fundraising efforts for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016 will stand trial in Brooklyn federal court later this month on allegations he illegally worked on behalf of the United Arab Emirates to lobby the U.S. government.

Trial for Thomas Barrack Jr., 75, and his former assistant Matthew Grimes, 29, an ex-Aspen resident, is scheduled to begin Sept. 19 with jury selection.

Barrack Jr. and Grimes have been free on respective bonds of $250 million and $5 million since their July 2021 arrests in California. They both also must wear monitor bracelets despite filing unsuccessful motions seeking their removal.

Barrack Jr.’s bond is secured partly by his home on Eagle Park Drive at Buttermilk, which he purchased for $15.5 million in November 2017, according to property records. Grimes also is free on bond secured by property his parents own, according to court records.

Both have pleaded not guilty to charges they worked secretly as agents on behalf of United Arab Emirates, from April 2016 to April 2018, to influence President Trump’s foreign policy. The third person indicted was Rashid al-Malik Alshahh, who reportedly fled the United States.

Barrack Jr. and Grimes were originally indicted by a grand jury in June 2021. A new indictment issued in May said an equity investment company run by Barrack received $374 million in commitments from two UAE sovereign wealth funds in 2017. The indictment does not identify the company owned by Barrack, who in 1991 founded the real estate and private equity investment firm Colony Capital, which was rebranded as digital equity firm DigitalBridge Group in June 2021.

Grimes reported directly to Barrack Jr. while at Colony Capital. “Bank records and telephone records reflect that, prior to his arrest, the defendant (Grimes) listed Barrack’s $15 million home in Aspen, Colorado, as his primary residence by the prosecution,” said a pleading in November. “Further, thousands of emails and text message communications obtained during the course of this investigation further confirm that the defendant and Barrack have a close, albeit asymmetrical, relationship.”

What evidence the jury will see is being argued over in motions in front of Judge Brian M. Cogan.

Lawyers for Barrack Jr. have filed motions asking the judge to not allow the prosecution to introduce at trial evidence related to Barrack Jr.’s background and wealth. Showing the jury photos of Barrack’s homes and personal plane could taint the jury, their motion filed Sept. 6 argued.

“The Government has no legitimate purpose for offering this evidence. It
has no bearing on whether Mr. Barrack allegedly acted or conspired to act as an unregistered foreign agent. Instead, the Government’s proffered evidence invites the jury to convict Mr. Barrack based on improper emotional appeals and creates a substantial risk of class bias,” the motion said.

A filing by prosecutors Friday argued that some evidence Barrack wants kept out of trial is “highly relevant to matters at issue in this case,” including one exhibit that put Barrack Jr., UAE officials and President-elect Trump in the same room at Barrack’s home in Santa Monica, California.

“The government anticipates that the evidence at trial will show that, in December 2016, Mr. Barrack held an event to which he invited several co-conspirators, including Rashid Al Malik and a member of the United Arab Emirates Supreme Council for National Security, as well as multiple members of the incoming Trump Administration, including the President-Elect and multiple Cabinet-level officials,” the pleading said.

Several motions from Barrack Jr. and Grimes’s lawyers are under seal. One aims to preclude the prosecution from presenting evidence related to funds managed by Colony Capital and DigitalBridge.

Barrack Jr. served as chairman of the 58th Presidential Inaugural Committee and was senior adviser to Trump’s campaign. He is credited with raising more than $32 million for Trump’s campaign. He introduced Ivanka Trump at the Republican National Convention in 2016, and he stood behind the Trump family when Donald Trump was sworn in as president.

Barrack paid $41,253 in property taxes on his Eagle Pines home to Pitkin County on May 5, according to property records.

Abortion rights protesters ‘rage’ at Friday rally in Eagle

EAGLE — Around 100 pro-choice protesters gathered at the Eagle County campus on Friday evening to rally in support of reproductive rights. 

Black-clad protestors lined the East lawn along Sixth Street, chanting and waving signs with pro-choice messaging (often witty and often written in pink). Activity at the rally went on from 7 p.m. through around 8:30 p.m., eliciting almost exclusive support in the form of honks and thumbs-ups from cars driving past. Counter-protesting came in an unconventional form as a single motorcyclist sped by with a revving engine. The rider was promptly pulled over by Eagle police.

Remove the Eagle County building from the background, and the image could be mistaken for any number of parallel protests across the country. 

The demonstration kicked off what organizers called the “Summer of Rage” in the Eagle River Valley, a nationwide protesting movement borne of the Supreme Court’s recent Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling. The landmark decision cleared the way for states to reshape abortion rights in the U.S, overturning Roe v. Wade nearly 50 years after the court first held that women have a fundamental right to abortion under the United States Constitution.

In Colorado, access to abortion at all stages of pregnancy remains legal. Gov. Jared Polis signed an executive order on July 6 strengthening abortion security statewide. The mandate implemented new protections for individuals and organizations that provide abortions, including those who have traveled to Colorado from out of state to obtain the procedure.

Protesters encourage drivers to honk for abortion rights during Friday’s rally in Eagle.
Tess Weinreich/Vail Daily

Outside of Colorado, roughly half of the states in the country have enacted (or are in the process of enacting) legislation to ban or severely restrict abortion. Neighboring states such as Arizona, Kansas, Nebraska, Utah, and Wyoming have uniformly sought to implement anti-abortion laws, leaving Colorado and New Mexico as strongholds for legal abortion care. 

Dylan Roberts, who represents Eagle and Routt counties (District 26) in the Colorado House of Representatives, and is running for the District 8 seat in the state Senate, was among the crowd at the Eagle protest. Roberts commented on Colorado’s unique geopolitical relation to the issue of abortion.

“In Colorado, the right to reproductive health care is the law of the land. I’m very thankful that this is a place where women haven’t lost their freedom,” Roberts said. “As a state, we have a responsibility to the people who live here and also the people who come here from across the country seeking health care. We have to do what we can to protect them and make sure that their freedom and liberty are not taken away by other states trying to persecute them for making certain choices,” he continued.

‘It feels like a funeral for our rights’

According to Nancy Tashman, a rally organizer and precinct committee person for the Eagle County Democrats, one of the primary goals of the rally was to make local Coloradans more aware of the important role their state will play in a Dobbs-era America.

“We have to encourage each other to continue the fight. We’re not going to give up on what we can do to help women in other states,” she said.

A crowd gathers outside of the Eagle County campus of buildings for Friday’s “Summer of Rage” protest in support of reproductive rights. Parallel protests have been happening across the country since the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion last month.
Tess Weinreich/Vail Daily

Tashman added that she, Ross and co-organizers Jennifer Filipowski, Lisa Lewis, Megan Peyton hoped that the rally would provide time for community members to process the ruling collectively.

“It feels like a funeral for our rights. We need a space to express our sorrow and anger that this has happened,” Tashman said.

Indeed, for protestors on Friday, “Summer of Rage” signified more than a banner head or rallying cry. Many expressed feelings of disappointment, disbelief and indignation in reaction to the court’s decision.

“Women have been delegated to second-class citizens and that’s not OK with me,” said Hannah Ross, a member of the Eagle County Democrats and co-organizer of the demonstration. “We can’t be silent.”

For many present, the issue of abortion is more than legal abstract, but rather a deeply personal issue.

Kay Delanoy, a longtime Eagle Valley resident recalled feelings of triumph when Roe was initially passed in 1973. Her mother suffered lifelong health complications after undergoing two illegal abortions during the Great Depression.

“We’ve been fighting this fight for a long time, too long a time,” she said. 

According to Stephen Gordon, a former doctor of obstetrics and gynecology who attended the protest, medical problems from unsafe, illegal abortions are not something from a bygone era. 

Gordon practiced for almost 40 years in Missouri and Kansas before retiring to Eagle five years ago. While the duration of his career was post-Roe, he recalled professors and mentors’ “horror stories” of women suffering sometimes-deadly complications caused by illegal abortions.

“It’s going to happen again,” he stated. “If women can’t get safe abortions … women are going to die. It should be their choice between them and their doctor.”

“I spent 36 years of my life taking care of women, and their daughters, and their mothers, and their granddaughters. It worries me as to what’s going to happen next,” Gordon said.

Thousands of Colorado patients put in peril due to risky prescribing of psych medicine

Gene Estes looks out over the mountains his son, Shayn Estes, loved as he has a smoke outside his Crested Butte condo Thursday, May 5, 2022. Gene found his son dead Oct. 17, 2020, from an overdose and believes benzodiazepines are responsible.
Christian Murdock / The Denver Gazette

Gene Estes implored his son, Shayn, to go to the emergency room that day, fearful he was having another reaction to his psychiatric medication. Shayn was forgetful, dropping things throughout the day, combative and disoriented during simple conversations.

“I wanted him to see any doctor available,” Estes said.

Gene was worried the dosage was off again. But Shayn, 33, brushed off his father’s concerns as an overreaction. He jumped out of the car after the two argued at the post office and took off walking the six blocks to his Crested Butte apartment.

That was the last time the father would see his son alive. He found Shayn the next morning, on Oct. 17, 2020, dead in his bed, lying on the top of the sheets, still clothed.

Nearly six months after Shayn’s death, a psychiatrist at Mind Springs Health, the community mental health center that runs West Springs Hospital, the Grand Junction psychiatric hospital where Shayn sought psychiatric care, filed a complaint with a state oversight contractor alleging potentially fatal prescribing of benzodiazepines at West Springs and potential harm to patients like Shayn.

An investigation into those claims by the state contractor, Rocky Mountain Health Plans, would eventually force the resignation of Dr. Thomas Newton, another psychiatrist at West Springs. Newton resigned in May 2021 after an investigation found he engaged in “aberrant prescribing” of benzodiazepines — the same drug he had prescribed Shayn Estes. It’s a drug the father now suspects caused his son to fatally overdose while sleeping, though he has no definitive answer.

“If Hippocrates could be found, he’s probably rolling around in his grave,” he said, referring to the ancient Greek physician credited with the Hippocratic Oath, which is still voiced today: “First, do no harm.”

‘A broken system’

The heavy reliance on benzodiazepines at Mind Springs has been alarmingly common in Colorado, with state reports identifying thousands of patients as at potential lethal risk because of unsafe prescribing practices, an investigation by The Gazette has found. Known as “benzos,” the anti-anxiety drugs include trade names like Klonopin, Valium, Xanax, Ativan and others, and they are soaring in popularity.

Mind Springs is one of 17 regional community mental health centers statewide that have long made up the core of Colorado’s safety-net system. The center serves people in 10 Western Slope counties: Eagle, Garfield, Grand, Jackson, Mesa, Moffat, Pitkin, Rio Blanco, Routt and Summit.

Even as state officials are seeking to rein in the use of benzodiazepines, prescriptions for the drugs nearly doubled over the past two years during a time when the COVID-19 pandemic battered psyches, said Dr. Robert Valuck, executive director of the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention, housed at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

“These are now the most commonly prescribed controlled substances in Colorado,” Valuck said.

Medicare prescribing data show that 98 practitioners in Colorado had a single year in which they had a higher volume of prescribing benzodiazepines than Newton in the years between 2013 and 2019. Of those, 1 in 5 had their medical license sanctioned by the Colorado Medical Board, and the board cited nearly a dozen specifically for risky benzodiazepine prescribing.

The Gazette also found heavy prescribing of benzodiazepines to Colorado nursing home residents, despite benzodiazepines putting the elderly at increased risk of disorientation, falls and broken bones. One doctor who worked for one of the top prescribers of benzodiazepines to nursing home residents in Colorado said he saw nursing homes he worked with use the drug to cover up staffing shortages and to inappropriately sedate restless residents.

“It’s a broken system,” said Dr. Hugh Batty, now retired and living in Sheridan, Wyoming, referring to what he termed excessive reliance on benzodiazepines he said he saw in nursing homes in Colorado.

Doctors who heavily prescribe benzodiazepines say the benefits outweigh the risks. The drugs are popular, because they quickly quell severe panic attacks and help with seizures and insomnia. But studies have found them to be addictive and disorienting, especially in the elderly, who are at increased risk of falls and fractures when they take them. Benzodiazepines also increase the risks of overdose when taken with opioids, alcohol or other drugs that can suppress breathing.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has placed a black-box warning, the most serious label from the agency, on benzodiazepines. The warning cautions that benzodiazepines significantly increase overdose risk when combined with opioids, and that they can also lead to physical dependence, addiction and misuse.

Benzos were among the 10 drugs found in the body of Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins, who died in March in a Bogota, Colombia, hotel room.

A 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that benzodiazepines were involved in about one-third of the fatal narcotic overdoses nationwide in 2010.

“Typically, where you run into challenges is when you combine anything else that can depress the central nervous system, like opioids or alcohol, with benzodiazepines,” said Dr. Christopher Jones, who co-authored the CDC study and is the acting director of the agency’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

Another 2019 CDC study found benzodiazepines were involved in about a quarter of overdose deaths due to kratom, an herbal extract that is unregulated and requires no prescription that can also suppress breathing.

Despite the risks, state officials have found widespread reckless prescribing of benzodiazepines by Colorado doctors.

The Colorado State Auditor’s office reported last year that in 2018 and 2019 nearly 13,000 prescribers in the state prescribed a benzodiazepine to a patient already prescribed an opioid from a different prescriber. Nearly 18,000 prescribers ordered an opioid for a patient with a benzodiazepine prescription from a different prescriber in those years, the audit found.

The audit also found that during those years, the 20 prescribers who created the most prescribing volume for such dangerous drug combinations in Colorado allowed nearly 3,000 patients to obtain more than 13,000 concurrent prescriptions of benzodiazepines and opioids.

The Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing, which runs the state’s Medicaid program, reported to federal regulators that it similarly found benzodiazepines were “widely prescribed” in 2018 with other drugs in Colorado, despite evidence that shows doing so is a major risk that leads to “increased central nervous system depression and respiratory depression.”

Valuck, the executive director for the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention, said recent data show Colorado prescribers are doing a better job of ensuring opioids and benzodiazepines aren’t prescribed in tandem. So far this year, about 6% of patients in Colorado were co-prescribed opioids and benzodiazepines, down from 14% two years ago, Valuck said.

“People who are writing opioid prescriptions are changing,” he said. “The co-prescribing is starting to drop this year.”

A father mourns

Newton heavily prescribed the benzodiazepine alprazolam, which goes by the trade name Xanax, for Shayn Estes, according to prescriptions provided by Shayn’s father, Gene, and reviewed by The Gazette. Gene Estes blames the benzodiazepines for the death.

“The prescriptions he was on left him pretty strung out,” Gene Estes said. “I would put it to the medication.”

Shayn Estes’ autopsy concluded that he probably died from an accidental overdose of kratom, though benzodiazepines prescribed by Newton were also among the drugs found in his body. The autopsy also stated that bottles of prescribed opioids, along with other medications for anxiety and depression, were found in Shayn Estes’ apartment, where the father found his son’s body.

Shayn struggled with epilepsy, which caused him to have seizures, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He was in and out of West Springs Hospital in Grand Junction, where Newton treated him, according to his father.

Gene Estes and his son, Shayn Estes, pose outside Crested Butte shortly before Shayn’s death. Gene found his son dead Oct. 17, 2020, from an overdose and believes benzodiazepines are responsible. Shayn grew up close to his father after his mother died from breast cancer when he was 7.
Christian Murdock / The Denver Gazette

Shayn had struggled with his psychiatric medications before, Gene Estes said. Once, four months before Shayn fatally overdosed, an air ambulance had to take Shayn to St. Mary’s Medical Center because he was having trouble breathing, the father said. That time, doctors warned that Shayn was on double the normal dosage, according to the father.

Newton and officials with Mind Springs did not respond to requests for an interview. Mind Springs officials in response to earlier articles said in written statements that they have put in place a 17-point corrective action guide demanded by Rocky Mountain Health Plans that will limit and put new oversight over the prescribing for Mind Springs patients. RMHP is the private company that the state’s Medicaid program contracts to oversee Medicaid benefits on the Western Slope.

Gene, now 81, was 45 when Shayn was born. Shayn’s mother died when Shayn was 7. Gene and Shayn Estes were close and saw each other daily.

“He was virtually my only life, particularly from the time his mother died,” Gene Estes said.

Shayn, who took up photography at age 14, turned down a scholarship to study photography at the Savannah College of Art and Design in South Carolina that he was offered after winning second place in a local art contest. Gene Estes remembers Shayn saying he couldn’t take the scholarship because it would mean he would have to leave the mountains of Colorado, which he climbed and hiked every chance he got.

“He was on top of every single mountain in the valley at least once,” the father said. “There’s no place I can go from Crested Butte to Grand Junction that there aren’t memories along the way.”

He still hasn’t had the emotional strength to go through the more than 6,000 photos, many of them of scenic wilderness, that Shayn had taken. A high school friend of Shayn’s put all the photos on a thumb drive and left it for Gene so he could look at his son’s work when he is ready.

“I haven’t gone through them because of the emotion,” Gene said. “I’m getting to where I can. I’m getting to a point where I can start thinking about doing it.”

‘Holy Trinity’ prescribed to addict

Heavy prescribers of benzodiazepines sanctioned by the state medical board include Dr. Andrew Ho, who practiced internal medicine in south Denver. He prescribed what addicts on the street call the “Holy Trinity,” a dangerous combination of muscle relaxants, opioids and benzodiazepines, court documents show. Although the combination is in high demand on the streets, it carries potent dangers, because it depresses the central nervous system and breathing.

One patient told investigators Ho repeatedly prescribed the “Holy Trinity” drug combination to her at a time when she was addicted and “popping pills like candy.” Even after pharmacists warned Ho to stop the dangerous prescribing, he continued to do so, court documents state.

Ho was sentenced in January 2020 to five years of probation after he pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to one count of prescribing without a legitimate medical reason in a plea agreement that resulted in the dismissal of 20 other criminal charges.

Ho remains licensed as a doctor, though he’s currently barred from prescribing and has been ordered by the Colorado Medical Board to take classes on proper prescribing practices before he can resume giving out prescriptions.

Ho, who did not return messages seeking comment, claimed in court documents that he was naïve and that “it was easier to prescribe medications than to engage in the difficult discussions that could result from conducting the necessary investigation to root out these issues.” Prosecutors argued Ho’s “rationalizations underscore the casual recklessness of the defendant’s serious crime.”

Another facility in Colorado with heavy benzodiazepine prescribing in the data, Springbok Health Inc., a substance abuse treatment center with clinics in Colorado Springs and Pueblo, and its owner, Mark Jankelow, last month agreed to pay between $125,000 to $335,492 to settle a whistleblower claim filed in U.S. District in Denver alleging health care fraud. The settlement, obtained by the U.S. Justice Department, settled allegations of fraudulent billing of Medicare and Medicaid for high-complexity and prolonged medical evaluation and management services never actually rendered. Jankelow did not return messages seeking comment.

When Congress in 2006 created Medicare’s drug program, called Part D, they decided not to pay for anti-anxiety medications like benzodiazepines. But lawmakers later reversed that payment policy in 2013 under pressure from patient groups and medical societies.

Medicare patients younger than 65 still can qualify for drug coverage due to a disability. Patients with disabilities made up about a quarter of Part D’s enrollees nationwide, but they use benzodiazepines disproportionately, according to studies.


The Gazette analyzed Medicare Part D prescribing data from 2013 through 2019 to identify who prescribed the drug heavily in Colorado during those years. The Medicare data represents only a portion of the prescribing in the state. The Gazette did not have access to data on prescriptions paid by Medicaid or private insurers.

Colorado’s heavy benzo prescribers include Dr. John Hardy, a Pueblo psychiatrist who specializes in child and adolescent treatment. He was among the top 10 prescribers of benzodiazepines in Colorado from 2013 through 2019, prescribing an amount that what would equate to providing more than 960 patients, each, a half year’s supply of the drugs. At a time when others in the top 10 have begun to cut back on their prescribing of benzodiazepines or kept their prescribing consistent, Hardy has increased his prescribing of the drug, the Medicare data show.

Drug companies paid Hardy nearly $900,000 from 2014 to 2020, records show. The drug company payments include consulting and speaking fees as well as travel, lodging and meals.

“I’ve been practicing for many years, and if you stay in the same place, you end up taking care of a lot of people,” Hardy said, denying that drug company pay shapes his prescribing decisions. “I’ve never spoken for a benzodiazepine company.”

Dr. Lora Shirar, a doctor who owns Golden-based Rocky Mountain Senior Care, which provides medical care to more than 650 nursing homes and assisted-living facilities in Colorado, had the highest peak-prescribing year for benzodiazepines in the state, according to the Medicare data. In 2016, she prescribed an amount equal to providing roughly 400 patients, each, a half a year’s supply of the drug, 45% more than the peak year for any other prescriber in Colorado, according to the federal data.

Shirar said she thinks the numbers are inflated, because they may include prescribing by other doctors who work for her business. Since 2016, benzodiazepine prescriptions from her dropped precipitously, down to what would equate to roughly eight patients, each, receiving a half year’s supply of the drug in 2019.

Four other doctors who worked for Rocky Mountain Senior Care had a higher peak year volume of prescribing than any peak year for West Springs’ Dr. Newton for the years analyzed.

The state medical board suspended the medical practice of one of them, Dr. Kurt Wever, in June 2018, when he worked for Rocky Mountain Senior Care, because it found aberrant and dangerous prescribing for four patients in 2011 through 2015.

Three of Wever’s patients — a 45-year-old female, a 48-year-old male and a 62-year-old female — had been taking opioids and benzodiazepines in tandem, documents show. Wever continued prescribing drugs after one patient overdosed and after allegations surfaced another patient was selling morphine, according to medical board documents.

The board also found that Wever didn’t taper drugs, evaluate “medication-induced” seizures in another patient or adequately investigate why another patient’s heart rate soared to 136 while on prescribed medications.

In July 2018, the board reinstated Wever’s license to practice medicine, concluding “that the public health, safety or welfare does not require emergency action at this time.”

Wever did not return telephone and email messages seeking comment. Wever’s prescribing issues occurred years before he worked for Rocky Mountain Senior Care, Shirar said, noting that the medical board had found no ongoing danger.

“When the reality of the case was fully disclosed and investigated, there was no concern,” she said.

Shirar said she and other doctors at her business take precautions when prescribing benzos for nursing home residents. She said there are monthly reviews in nursing homes to monitor prescribed medications.

“There is a check and balance,” she said. “And there is a balancing in the system where patients have rights and need to be engaged as long as possible. They have to have decision making. You can’t just stop everything. Sometimes you have to taper them off and get patient engagement. You have to respect their ability to make decisions.”

But Hugh Batty, who worked for Shirar’s business for two years, said he saw widespread misuse of benzodiazepines during his time in Colorado due to staffing shortages in nursing homes.

“It’s just a pervasive problem,” Batty said of the use of benzos he saw at the facilities where he worked. “The nursing home structure is broken. It’s one of the greatest liabilities we have in our society. People have just jumped in to make money.”

He said doctors like him and Shirar try to limit the use of benzodiazepines for nursing home residents, but nursing home administrators want them prescribed heavily because they don’t have enough employees to monitor residents. The benzos sedate residents and make them easier to control, Batty said. The nursing home administrators will fire doctors if they don’t go along, he said.

“The patients don’t have enough one-on-one care,” he said. “That’s the problem. In order to make ends meet and address the bottom line in a business model, they go short on staffing in nursing homes.”

“You put them on too many benzos, and they are more at risk of falling. It’s not the prudent practice of medicine,” he said.

“You get someone 85, and you give them Xanax — Christ almighty, unless you have someone on each side of them when they’re walking, they’re going to fall down,” Batty said

He added elderly nursing home residents are prone to broken bones if they fall. “And a broken hip at that age is essentially a death sentence,” he said.

State regulators try to limit use

The heavy use of benzodiazepines in Colorado has generated debate over whether state regulators are doing enough to rein in their use. An audit released by the Colorado State Auditor’s Office in 2021 recommended that state regulators and law enforcement be allowed access to prescribing data in Colorado to identify medical practitioners with aberrant prescribing of benzodiazepines.

Regulators in 37 states can access such prescribing data, according to the audit, and 22 other states allow law enforcement access. But Colorado doesn’t allow police to access the data without a subpoena, and regulators in the state can only obtain prescribing data after a complaint is filed against a prescriber.

The Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies is still exploring whether easing access to the data could be a solution, though that’s unlikely to happen, given all the pushback from doctors and patients who fear intrusions on patient privacy, Valuck said.

The Legislature is also considering ways to encourage more doctors to use Colorado’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program. State law requires prescribers to use the program to check a patient’s prescription history to ensure a patient isn’t taking other drugs, such as opioids, which enhance the risks of prescribing benzodiazepines. Despite that law, a 2021 audit from the Colorado State Auditor’s Office found that 18% of prescribers in Colorado aren’t even registered to use that program.

House Bill 22-1115, sponsored by Rep. Cathy Kipp, D-Fort Collins, and Matt Soper, R-Delta, requires the state to spend $2 million to reimburse doctors and pharmacists who integrate the PDMP prescribing check system with their electronic medical records. Supporters of the legislation, which passed the Legislature and is awaiting signature by Gov. Jared Polis, say ensuring prescribing history checks are done automatically would save time for practitioners who balk at doing the checks manually because they say doing so takes too much time.

In February 2021, Colorado’s Department of Health Care Policy and Financing required prior authorization from state officials before a medical practitioner can bill Medicaid for prescribing benzodiazepines in excess of 90 days for patients 65 years or older.

The agency in 2019 previously put in place prior authorization for Medicaid patients taking opioids long-term and receiving a new prescription for benzodiazepines and vice versa.

Legislation passed last year also requires licensing boards for medical practitioners in Colorado to create new rules limiting how many days a benzodiazepine can be prescribed to patients not already prescribed the drug, with exceptions allowed for patients with severe disorders and neurological conditions.

One patient’s fight

Even with the new laws and regulations, Colorado needs to do more to ensure benzodiazepines are properly prescribed, said one former chronic user of the drug who contends benzos diminished her health for years.

Terri Schreiber, who runs the Schreiber Research Group, an advocacy group seeking to limit benzodiazepine prescribing, said the state needs to make sure patients prescribed benzodiazepines are signing consent forms that warn them of the risks. She said the state also needs to do a better job of identifying heavy prescribers of the drug and educating them of the risks of heavy use.

Schreiber said she struggled with chronic back pain and severe insomnia that only became exacerbated when she sought out medical help more than 20 years ago. She was prescribed benzodiazepines in 2001. Then six years later, while still prescribed benzodiazepines, she received a new prescription for opioids. She took combinations of the drugs for a decade before realizing at age 54 that they were harming her health. The doctors who prescribed the drugs never warned her of the dangers, she said.

“I became disabled from the medication,” Schreiber said. “I had to use a walker. And I became bedridden. I said, ‘I’m too young for this. This cannot be my destiny.’”

An allergist and a pharmacist in 2016 helped her to taper the use of the drugs until she was able to eventually stop using them completely. She said she struggled with withdrawals for 18 months. She could only sleep two to four hours a night and struggled with heart palpitations and a sore throat.

Now, she’s gotten over those side effects and manages her pain through massage, diet, exercise and by practicing mindfulness. She said she no longer must use a walker and doesn’t languish long hours in bed.

“I’m very lucky,” she said. “Very lucky. The fact was that I didn’t know what was happening or how I was at such a high risk until the public figures started to die, and then I started asking questions.”

Whistleblowers say they falsified patient records at Mind Springs mental health centers

FINDING HELP

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A troubled Western Slope mental health care center falsified assessments of its patients’ conditions for at least nine years in an effort to make its treatment programs seem more effective and secure funding from the state, whistleblowers say.

The state overlooked what former workers describe as a long practice by the Grand Junction-based Mind Springs Health of intentionally writing bogus patient evaluations. The three departments tasked with regulating Colorado’s mental health safety net system failed to notice the allegedly falsified reports during a recent multi-agency audit of the center, and over years of lax oversight.

“You’ve got to wonder how closely these so-called regulatory agencies are really looking,” says Sunny Sullivan, one of 29 current and former Mind Springs workers who have come forward to tell the Colorado News Collaborative (COLab) what they see as legal and ethical breaches.

Among the allegations, Sullivan and five other former workers say their supervisors had them and their colleagues fill out mental health assessments of patients they knew little or nothing about and hadn’t actually evaluated. The whistleblowers, who were not trained in behavioral health care and had no clinical licenses or experience at the time they worked for Mind Springs, say their bosses also told them to:

  • Make up diagnoses for patients to justify treating them
  • Diagnose certain patients with disorders they did not have in order to qualify them for costly, Medicaid-funded treatment they did not need
  • Show progress among all patients they were assigned to assess — including those whose symptoms had not actually improved — because state funding for the center hinged partly on the success of its treatment
Sunny Sullivan, a former team leader in the admissions department of Mind Springs' psychiatric hospital, West Springs, blew the whistle on a long pattern of falsifying patient records.
McKenzie Lange/Grand Junction Sentinel

Mind Springs’ longtime CEO Sharon Raggio and two of its other top executives resigned following a Colorado News Collaborative investigation about access to and quality of the center’s care. Interim CEO Doug Pattison and the center’s spokeswoman had not returned multiple emails and phone calls over several months about these latest allegations before the deadline for this story.

The former workers’ accounts span from 2012 to 2021, suggesting that falsifying records wasn’t merely a one-off or an occasional mistake in a state where the law is silent about specifically who should complete those records and how. Rather, whistleblowers say this was an intentional practice of concocting patient information that gave state regulators and policymakers a distorted view of Mind Springs’ effectiveness and, most likely, resulted in the center reaping more public funding than it would have otherwise.

“I’m no legal expert, but I’m pretty sure what we were doing was fraud,” says former case manager Amy Jensen, who estimates she took part in doctoring at least 1,000 patient assessments between 2014 and 2018.

“I’ve wondered how long it could go on without anyone at the state bothering to do something about it.”

“CCAR parties”

Mind Springs is one of 17 regional community mental health centers statewide that have long made up the core of Colorado’s safety-net system.

The center serves people in 10 Western Slope counties: Eagle, Garfield, Grand, Jackson, Mesa, Moffat, Pitkin, Rio Blanco, Routt and Summit. Its last financial disclosure, from 2019, shows it received $26 million annually to provide inpatient hospitalization, intensive outpatient treatment, outpatient psychiatric care, counseling, and other forms of treatment for Medicaid recipients and indigent people under its exclusive contracts with the state.

Mind Springs serves people in 10 Western Slope counties: Eagle, Garfield, Grand, Jackson, Mesa, Moffat, Pitkin, Rio Blanco, Routt and Summit.
Courtesy photo

Those contracts — and the contracts of the 16 other community mental health centers — will no longer be exclusive under a massive bill passed last week to reform Colorado’s safety net system. The law creates a new set of policies that will be carried out by a cabinet-level agency called the Behavioral Health Administration, which, upon its launch in July, will replace the state’s current Office of Behavioral Health within the Department of Human Services.

The Behavioral Health Office long has required the centers and other mental health care providers complete evaluations called Colorado Client Assessment Records, or CCARs for short, for each person receiving Medicaid or other publicly funded care. One CCAR must be filled out upon intake for treatment and another when treatment has ended. Care providers must submit additional CCARs for clients in long-term therapy and for psychiatric patients who are medicated or hospitalized long-term.

The 8-page evaluation asks, among other information, for the client’s diagnosis. It also poses 25 subjective questions meant to assess their current mental health status: their levels of depression or hope, their grasp on reality, and their ability to function without treatment, for example. The person filling out the questionnaire is supposed to interpret often complex and contradictory answers, synthesize them with what they know about the client’s current mental health status, and rank each on a severity scale from 1 through 9 — 1 meaning wellness and 9 indicating crisis.

Clients typically don’t see their CCARs. They’re mainly administrative records to help guide the state in paying providers for services through Medicaid and tax-funded grants.

From a policy perspective, the evaluations help state agencies track who’s getting state and federally funded mental health treatment and the extent to which it’s helping. The state also uses aggregated data from the reports to inform lawmakers about the efficacy of Colorado’s overall mental health safety-net system. The clarity of that picture depends on the accuracy — and truth — of the information providers like Mind Springs submit.

From a clinical standpoint, the mere mention of a CCAR form can trigger groans among psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses and other care practitioners who often complain the assessment and other mandatory state paperwork take too long to complete. Because the need for publicly funded mental health care services far exceeds the number of clinicians available, the people most familiar with patients’ cases and who are most qualified to assess them often are slow to fill out the reports. That leaves backlogs of CCARs that need to be completed and submitted to the state in order for a provider to get paid.

At Mind Springs, management passed at least some of its CCAR backlog to employees in its hospital admissions office and to other workers who lack the behavioral health care training and experience most experts say is needed to diagnose people with mental health challenges and assess their well-being. They also lacked access to direct communication with patients, which state policy requires of people doing CCARs.

Sunny Sullivan says she has little faith in state agencies' willingness to meaningfully inspect and regulate the troubled Grand Junction-based community mental health center.
McKenzie Lange/Grand Junction Sentinel

By the time they were assigned to fill out a CCAR, whistleblowers say the patient usually was long gone from treatment or discharged from Mind Springs’ psychiatric hospital. And so they typically filled in clients’ diagnoses blindly, often guessing that they had conditions such as general anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, or schizoaffective disorder. Sullivan — then a team leader in the hospital admissions office — says her supervisor told her and her staff to write in “adjustment disorder” under the reasoning “that everyone has trouble adjusting to something, so nobody would be questioning that diagnosis.”

Mind Springs’ objective, as whistleblowers tell it, was speed, not accuracy.

“They said just put down your best guess, and fast,” says Sarah Mackie, who also worked in hospital admissions. “I had no sense of who these patients were. I had no clue how they would (have) answered these questions about themselves. And I had no idea what I was doing.”

“I had zero business — zero, zero, zero — diagnosing people,” adds Jennifer Hector, another former employee of the admissions office.

Each of the whistleblowers says she was encouraged to work on CCARs whenever she had downtime on a shift. Some were called in to work evenings or weekends to complete hundreds of the assessments in Mind Springs’ backlog. Supervisors referred to those occasions as “CCAR parties,” says Hector, who estimates she completed about 700 of the questionnaires in one year alone, 2015. “You just sat there, put your head down and did nothing but fill out those forms.”

The single mother of seven says she told her supervisors “I don’t want to do this” and “I’m not comfortable … messing with the state of Colorado and funding.”

To her many objections, she says they had the same response:

“That I didn’t have a choice.”

Jensen, the former Mind Springs case manager, also struggled with signing her name to phony assessments of people she wasn’t even sure were still alive. She says supervisors assured her the assignment was legal and urged her to stop raising objections.

Amy Jensen is a former case worker at Mind Springs who estimates she took part in falsifying at least 1,000 patient assessments.
McKenzie Lange/Grand Junction Sentinel

“They had us flat-out making stuff up, then came down on us for asking if it was legal or even ethical,” she says. “I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone. Like, am I nuts? Why does everybody think this is OK?”

Asked why she did not come forward about the falsified reports sooner, Jensen says she had no confidence in state regulators to do anything about it and says she feared that publicly acknowledging her own role in defrauding the state could damage her new career and license as a professional counselor.

Financial incentives

Four of the five whistleblowers say supervisors instructed them, when working on a client’s discharge evaluation, to answer all 25 questions about mental health symptoms at least one number lower in severity than the corresponding number on that client’s intake CCAR. Mind Springs’ goal, they say, was to document that clients had improved from its treatment, whether or not that was actually true.

“We’d ask, ‘can we go read their treatment plans or their charts,’ and they’d say ‘no, just mark them better, just mark them a point or two lower on all the questions,’” Hector says.

Mind Springs’ preoccupation with showing improvement sometimes caused tensions between employees and departments. Sullivan recalls terse emails from an inpatient nurse asking why a CCAR evaluation blindly filled out by a staffer Sullivan supervised did not mention the patient’s extreme psychosis.

“She was frustrated. She had a hard time showing he had improved because what was written didn’t reflect his real symptoms,” Sullivan says.

Mental health care records are protected under HIPAA, leading the state to refuse the Colorado News Collaborative’s requests for CCARs submitted by Mind Springs and for certain data gleaned from them. Without what likely would be a prolonged — and expensive — legal battle, there is little chance someone outside the system could ascertain how many of Mind Springs’ clients have been misdiagnosed, mistreated or treated unnecessarily because the center falsified their assessments.

“What this means to people who needed help really bothers me. I hate to think of how many people weren’t getting the right treatment because of that,” says Reggie Bicha, who ran the Human Services Department under former Gov. John Hickenlooper.

The Behavioral Health Office long has required the centers and other mental health care providers complete evaluations called Colorado Client Assessment Records, or CCARs for short, for each person receiving Medicaid or other publicly funded care. One CCAR must be filled out upon intake for treatment and another when treatment has ended. In fiscal year 2017-18, Mind Springs stood to lose up to $257,000 in state funding if it failed to show that symptoms of its adult clients’ depression were becoming less severe in the first six months of treatment and that the severity of those symptoms eased by 50% within a year. CCARs were key in demonstrating — or at least purporting to demonstrate — progress.

It was under Bicha’s leadership that the state started to hinge its exclusive contracts with community mental health centers partly on their performance. Bicha’s behavioral health staff worked with each center to set quality improvement goals it had to meet in order to receive its monthly reimbursements from the state and renew its annual contract.

In fiscal year 2016-17, for example, “improvement of symptom severity” was one of Mind Springs’ main performance goals. The state was only able to monitor progress through CCAR data.

In fiscal year 2017-18, Mind Springs stood to lose up to $257,000 in state funding if it failed to show that symptoms of its adult clients’ depression were becoming less severe in the first six months of treatment and that the severity of those symptoms eased by 50% within a year. CCARs were key in demonstrating — or at least purporting to demonstrate — progress.

Mind Springs’ contract in fiscal year 2019-20 shows the Office of Behavioral Health had concerns about the accuracy of information the center was submitting to the state. The contract listed “successful data submission” — including more complete and accurate CCARs — as one of the key performance goals it had to meet that year. If Mind Springs didn’t hit that target, the state warned that its unearned performance payment dollars could have been distributed to other community mental health centers that were meeting their goals.

That threat didn’t materialize, says a state official who asked not to be named because her agency forbids employees from speaking to the news media. She noted the irony that regulators may have carried through with the threat had anybody in the Behavioral Health Office thought to look for falsifications and not just for omissions on Mind Springs’ CCARs.

The often cash-strapped center had other possible reasons to falsify client assessments, including a program that gave centers the opportunity to earn extra funding if they “exemplify(ied) extraordinary performance.” That statewide pot was small at first, at only $50,000 in fiscal year 2016-17, but by fiscal year 2017-18 had grown to $3.9 million.

As Bicha tells it, a program that had real potential of boosting Mind Springs’ cashflow may have backfired.

“The intention of our performance management was to understand problems, hold ourselves and our partners more accountable and to drive better results for the people of Colorado,” he says. “A system that has contractors gaming it flies in the face of all of those priorities.”

Whistleblowers point to other incentives at play.

Amy Jenson talks about her experience working at Mind Springs in her office in Grand Junction on May 5.

Jensen, for example, recalls being assigned to evaluate clients serving parole with a community corrections company that partnered with Mind Springs. She says two of her supervisors and one member of upper management instructed her to diagnose every one of those parolees with a substance abuse disorder, regardless of whether they had a history of substance abuse. The diagnosis ensured that each parolee would qualify for a costly, Medicaid-funded intensive outpatient program that brought in money for Mind Springs.

As a private nonprofit, Mind Springs is not required to disclose how much it made from its partnership with the company.

Oversight overlooked

The Colorado News Collaborative’s investigation into Colorado’s mental health safety net focused not just on troubles at Mind Springs, but also more broadly on state agencies’ longtime failure to regulate community mental health centers.

Shortly after those stories appeared in at least 30 partner news outlets statewide, Gov. Jared Polis’s administration announced the state was conducting a surprise audit of Mind Springs, and touted that three state departments would be involved.

The Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment found “zero deficiencies,” its records show.

The Department of Human Services found Mind Springs failed to report 40% of “critical incidents” such as botched prescriptions, violence, injuries, patient escapes and staff wrongdoing within the required 24 hours, and to provide patients being released from its hospital with the proper paperwork for continued treatment. It also found a few data submission errors, but falsified client evaluation was not among them.

The Department of Health Care Policy and Financing — which controls the Medicaid funding that makes up most of community mental health centers’ budgets — announced Thursday that it found Mind Springs has been using various auditing methods and statistics that have allowed it to expand its government revenue without expanding its services. It also found a need for Mind Springs to simplify its complex corporate structure and to improve the quality of its care.

As part of the audit, nobody from the three state departments reached out to any of the 29 current and former Mind Springs workers who at that time started contacting the Colorado News Collaborative about a long list of legally and ethically questionable practices at the center. Those include:

  • Mind Springs executives discouraging its staff from reporting “critical incidents”
  • Several accounts of West Springs Hospital inappropriately housing teenage patients alongside adult patients with histories of sex offenses
  • Allegations of on-site sexual activity and violence among and between Mind Springs staff members and clients
  • And a pattern, which almost all the whistleblowers described, of Mind Springs prioritizing care for privately insured clients over the Medicaid recipients and indigent people the state and federal governments pay it to serve

The whistleblowers hold little faith in state audits.

Sunny Sullivan, a former team leader in the admissions department of Mind Springs' psychiatric hospital, West Springs, blew the whistle on a long pattern of falsifying patient records. “Mind Springs Health was audited all the time. We saw auditors in and out of that place and they never seemed to see what we were seeing, or even ask us. It makes me wonder if they even took their jobs seriously or if they simply ignored possible issues of fraud,” Sullivan says.
McKenzie Lange/Grand Junction Sentinel

“Mind Springs Health was audited all the time. We saw auditors in and out of that place and they never seemed to see what we were seeing, or even ask us. It makes me wonder if they even took their jobs seriously or if they simply ignored possible issues of fraud,” Sullivan says.

For months this winter and spring, the Human Services Department downplayed the relevance of allegations about falsified CCARs, saying state law gives leeway in how mental health providers fill out state reports. A spokeswoman, who since has left the department, emailed in March that state policy “does not dictate the physical location in which CCARs must be filled out and in most cases does not specify who can fill out a CCAR.”

“OBH Rule does not require an assessment to be performed in person … or by a licensed individual,” Maria Livingston wrote an apparent attempt to justify Mind Springs’ approach to the evaluations. “OBH staff routinely review CCAR data in line with the CCAR Data Reporting Policy as part of regular licensed/designated-provider site visits and reviews. The review involves checking to see if CCAR data is incomplete or missing.”

She would not say whether the reviews also look for accuracy.

Medicaid officials at Colorado’s Department of Health Care Policy and Financing also had little interest in whistleblowers’ accounts of falsifying CCARs at Mind Springs when the Colorado News Collaborative asked about them in the winter. Although they rely on data from CCARs, they said, the assessments are the Behavioral Health Office’s responsibility.

But earlier this spring, Rocky Mountain Health Plans, the company the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing pays to manage Mind Springs’ Medicaid contract, responded to the Colorado News Collaborative’s account of whistleblowers’ allegations by launching an investigation into possible waste, fraud and abuse. The company’s contract with the department obligates it to investigate and report about those types of allegations.

It was only then that the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing triggered its own internal review and said it is taking the allegations “very seriously.”

Last week, the Human Services Department stopped downplaying whistleblowers’ accounts and said it, too, is now launching its own new investigation into the accuracy of Mind Springs’ CCARs, among other things.

Whistleblowers, though buoyed by news of the state’s sudden interest, are skeptical.

“I worry this is a disingenuous PR move,” says Jensen.

Adds Sullivan: “I hope this time they actually take their investigations seriously.”

This story is brought to you by COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative, a nonprofit coalition of more than 170 newsrooms across Colorado (including The Aspen Times) working together to better serve the public. Learn more at ColabNews.co.

Tri-agency audit reveals problems with Mind Springs management

Mind Springs Health in Grand Junction in March 2022. An unprecedented audit by three state agencies released recently about Mind Springs found a number of management issues.
McKenzie Lange/Grand Junction Daily Sentinel

A change in leadership and management structure should address troubling issues surrounding Mind Springs Health, according to an unprecedented audit by three state agencies of the Grand Junction-based mental health provider.

In an exclusive interview conducted by The Daily Sentinel with the executive directors of the three agencies and several members of their staffs, which included an advance copy of the audit’s results, the chief recommendation to curing what ails Mind Springs is in addressing how it is managed.

Much of that is already in the works, in part, due to the resignation of Sharon Raggio, chief executive officer, and Michelle Hoy, executive vice president, in January, when the tri-agency audit was started.

“It’s an audit that shines a light on what needs to be done, but the new leadership and the subsequent leadership, that’s going to make all the difference in the world,” said Kim Bimestefer, executive director of the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing, which commissioned the audit along with the departments of Public Health and Environment and Human Services.

“When we met with them (the Mind Springs board of directors) in January we asked the recruiter for the CEO to be present at that meeting because they needed to know what to recruit,“ Bimestefer added. “More of the same is not going to do it. We needed a new sheriff to come in to meet the needs of the community.”

A copy of the audit was presented to Doug Pattison early Thursday. Pattison has been Mind Springs’ CFO since 2019 before he took over as interim CEO in January. Results of the audit also were being presented to county commissioners and others in a conference call later that afternoon.

“I fully support this,” Pattison said. “We’re embracing change, and we’re going to work collaboratively with all the departments, and getting all the various measures in place, some of which will take longer than others.”

Doug Pattison

That will start with a new CEO. Pattison is one of three finalists for that job, with a final selection expected to come soon.

The audit was ordered by the three agencies after nearly 50 complaints, including one whistleblower report over medication management, were filed by county commissioners and community leaders in the 10 counties that Mind Springs serves, including Eagle, Pitkin, Garfield and Mesa counties.

While officials in the three agencies and Rocky Mountain Health Plans, which is contracted by HCPF to coordinate care and handle behavioral health Medicaid claims that conducted the audit, first learned about issues with Mind Springs early last year, the mental health provider was the subject of a recent series of investigative articles by the Colorado News Collaborative, a nonprofit news organization that specializes in in-depth reporting.

In some of that reporting, Raggio was unresponsive to questions about issues surrounding Mind Springs, saying she didn’t want to litigate its problems in the media.

Sharon Raggio, former CEO of Mind Springs Health.

The audit isn’t intended to point fingers at Raggio and other Mind Springs leaders, the executive directors said, but it was highly critical of how its management and its various boards are structured, some of which led to gaps in communication with its own staff and the communities it serves, and a general lack of transparency, particularly over its finances.

“The (Mind Springs Health) board structure is complex, lacks transparency, limits community engagement, excludes specific community board participation, has over-representation in other areas, and is not being leveraged to respond to community needs,” the audit reads.

That “incredibly complex” leadership structure has led to issues in providing needed mental and behavioral health services, for which Mind Springs is contracted with the state and several of the Western Slope counties, Patrick Gordon, chief executive officer at Rocky Mountain Health Plans, told the Sentinel.

“There are no fewer than seven legal entities executing Mind Springs’ various programs and functions, overseen by three distinct, somewhat overlapping boards,” Gordon said.

“That structure, we find, has contributed to sort of a disconnect between the community members who serve on the board and the feedback from the community that Mind Springs is organized to serve,” he added. “Suffice to say that corrective action in this area … would be that the board structure be simplified, to be organized to be much more representative of the community, there would be greater consideration of public input and transparency, greater focus on potential conflicts of interests and, frankly, a much greater focus on holding the senior executives and managers at Mind Springs accountable for their performance.”

The audit also found that, primarily because of those management issues, other problems were created, such as a high turnover rate among staff, patient risks over prescription practices and increasingly limited access to psychiatric and behavioral health services.

The audit released this week includes several recommendations and corrective actions that Mind Springs should do, including a better system for prescribing medications, reforming its management and board structure and being far more transparent with local communities.
Bryce Martin/Sky-Hi News archive

One of those involved a whistleblower complaint filed to Rocky Mountain Health Plans by one of Mind Springs’ physicians, who expressed serious concerns about medication management and a lack of peer review and treatment practices for patients.

“RMHP Quality of Care reviewers found that MSH outpatient and inpatient policies and procedures were deficient in describing quality processes specific to the oversight and implementation of quality programs,” the audit says. “MSH’s peer review oversight process as inconsistent. Some reviews met peer review standards, while others did not meet standards. There was no indication that deficient findings were reviewed or acted upon.”

The audit found that Mind Springs’ prescription practices were placing patients’ well-being at risk, in part, because some were being prescribed multiple controlled substances, such as stimulants and sedatives “at high doses.”

The audit includes several recommendations and corrective actions that Mind Springs should do to correct its issues, including creating a better system for prescribing medications, reforming its management and board structure, being far more transparent in its dealing with the state and local communities, and complying with new guidelines in its financial reporting.

The audit also recommends that the three agencies continue to monitor Mind Springs to ensure it complies with those recommendations, and implements those corrective actions.

“This (Mind Springs) board was not touching the community,” Bimestefer said. “To guess whether it was intentional or unintentional is less relevant than we change it. I prefer to not let the past be about why, but let the future be how, and that the corrective action fixes the issue of, whether it was intentional or not, to do things less transparent than they could have done.”

Colorado’s stream management planning watered down by agriculture

Boaters on the Yampa River in May 2021. Stream management plans were originally intended to address flow needs for recreation and environmental water uses, but traditional water uses like agriculture often participate in the process too.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Among the goals of Colorado’s 2015 Water Plan was to focus more attention on “non-consumptive” water uses — environmental and recreation water needs — through stream management planning.

The basic idea of a stream management plan, or SMP, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, is when stakeholders convene to evaluate the ecological conditions of their local river to identify flow needs to support environmental and recreational water uses.

The goal was to turn some attention on non-consumptive water needs and try to address the gap between how much water is in the stream and how much is needed for a healthy environment and a good recreational experience.

“The environment and recreation are too critical to Colorado’s brand not to have robust objectives; a strong Colorado environment is critical to the economy and way of life,” reads the Water Plan, referring to the need for SMPs. The Water Plan’s objective was to cover 80% of locally prioritized rivers with an SMP by 2030.

But according to a recent River Network report on the 26 SMPs completed or in progress statewide as of September 2021, in some cases the process seems to have been taken over by agricultural interests, watering down what was supposed to have been a tool specifically for the benefit of non-consumptive water uses.

“A pillar of CWCB’s grant guidance for stream management planning is to ‘identify flows needed to support environmental and recreational water uses,’” the report reads. “This pursuit — as a primary SMP focus — has not been consistent and has proven problematic and even unpopular among participating stakeholders.”

None

Most SMPs evaluate flow regimes, but don’t make recommendations for a specific target flow. Of all the 269 project recommendations, just 6% focused on environmental flow targets and only 1% focused on recreation flow targets. In contrast, 14% of recommendations involved agriculture diversion reconstructions, the largest percentage of recommendations.

And although there are many recommendations for projects like stream restoration (11%) and recreation enhancements (7%), putting a number on how much water a stream needs for environmental or recreation purposes is rare. Projects tend to focus on physical modifications to the stream channel and not necessarily how to get more water into that stream channel.

“This was something I was afraid was going to happen,” said Ken Neubecker, retired Colorado projects director for American Rivers and former Colorado Basin Roundtable member. “I am a little disappointed. Yes, you’ve got to have the other stakeholders engaged, but the original intent with stream management planning was that it should primarily be addressing the environment and recreation needs of a certain stream reach.”

Bringing ag to the table

Nicole Seltzer is the Colorado River basin program director with River Network, the organization that produced the report and which works to protect and restore rivers. She said there are multiple factors as to why more environmental flow recommendations haven’t yet come out of the SMP process, including a lack of stream gauge data on some tributaries. But a main reason is because it’s a sensitive topic that has to be navigated carefully.

“Sometimes you have to let go of the conversations that are super divisive in order to keep your group together and keep making progress on other things,” Seltzer said. “I think that we’ve seen that the conversation around environmental flow goals and how you meet those goals is sensitive and it has the ability sometimes to derail the entire process.”

That divisiveness reveals the tension between traditional water users like agricultural producers, who take water out of the rivers, and recreational and environmental water advocates, whose goal is to keep water in the river. Environmental and recreation groups have historically not played as big a role in water planning as agricultural and municipal water managers. The SMP process was supposed to be a way to legitimize and enhance their role.

But because agriculture controls the oldest water rights and makes up the largest slice of water use in Colorado — 86% according to numbers provided by the state — some SMP stakeholder groups realized they couldn’t make progress without including agriculture representatives.

“Our organization very quickly realized if you’re going to get anywhere environmentally, you don’t just want to operate in a vacuum,” said Richard Van Gytenbeek, Colorado River basin outreach coordinator for environmental group Trout Unlimited, and a Colorado Basin Roundtable member. “You’ve got to bring your municipal and agriculture folks to the table.”

Boaters float the Yampa River in northwest Colorado in May 2021. A recent report on stream management plans found that although they were set out to address flow needs for environmental and recreation purposes, only a small percentage have done that.Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

In some cases, what started out as an SMP morphed into an IWMP — Integrated Water Management Plans — so named because they integrate the “non-consumptive” environmental and recreation water uses and the “consumptive” agricultural uses.

The Colorado Basin Roundtable adopted the term IWMP in place of SMP in 2016 and defined the primary goal of an IWMP as “identifying opportunities to meet environmental flow needs along with needs of agriculture, municipal, industrial and residential water users.” The roundtable’s choice to use the term IWMP was in response to concerns that stream management planning could emphasize environmental and recreational water needs in a way that might negatively impact agricultural water users and other interests.

The IWMP undertaken by the Middle Colorado Watershed Council was one of these that started out as an SMP and then expanded the scope to incorporate agricultural interests. The Book Cliff, South Side and Mount Sopris conservation districts tackled the agriculture portion, which included an agricultural water use analysis and inventories of 59 ditches. The individual results of the ditch inventories were not made publicly available, despite being publicly funded.

The final action plan outlines 55 recommendations, including six which it says address protection of flows. These include doing a survey of boaters and anglers to see what their flow preferences are, installing more stream gauges on local tributaries of the Colorado River and supporting the Colorado River District as they work to keep water on the Western Slope.

The idea was that a watershed council, environmental group or other organization would come up with a way to prioritize local streams and get to work creating SMPs for 80% of the ones they deem to be high priority. But since there was no standardized way to do this across the state, streams in areas with environmentally focused watershed organizations tend to have SMPs, while those without them don’t.

Multi-benefit projects

Many of the projects recommended in the SMPs are “multi-beneficial,” meaning they benefit multiple water user groups: agriculture, environment, recreation, municipal, industrial. Checking more category boxes for a project can sometimes aid in getting grant funding.

Often, the thinking around a diversion reconstruction or other improvements to irrigation infrastructure is that it can help irrigators more effectively get water out of the river. At the same time, a project could also create a safer passage for boaters or better fish habitat. But these multi-beneficial projects can also have a downside.

“There is an argument that focusing on multibenefit projects that primarily benefit water users dilutes environmental and recreational flow objectives,” the River Network report reads.

This Parshall flume measuring device was installed on a ditch on Morrisania Mesa in 2021. A ditch inventory was included as part of integrated water management planning in the Middle Colorado River region.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

And the tools for boosting river flows are few. While some SMPs are motivated by needing to meet federal requirements, for example keeping enough water in the chronically dry 15-mile reach of the Colorado River in the Grand Valley for the benefit of endangered fish, this is not common, according to the report.

“In most communities, the only options for pursuing flow-driven outcomes are expensive infrastructure (e.g. ditch piping) or tools for leaving excess water in the river (e.g. water leasing),” the report reads.

The idea is that when irrigators have more efficient diversions, they don’t need to take as much water from the river, leaving more for the benefit of the environment and recreation. But whether that actually happens or not is unclear.

CWCB Watershed Protection Director Chris Sturm said that addressing flow needs is not the only metric of success for an SMP or a project. If a project results in any kind of physical benefit to the stream, it can be considered a win. He said by and large the SMPs are accomplishing what they set out to do.

“Stream management planning is not all about identifying what the flow needs are,” Sturm said. “I think what our stakeholders are doing is they are finding a path towards trusting each other enough to get to those discussions about flow needs. And it’s being done in a way where they are partnering on projects like diversion reconstructions, which is why you see so many of them.”

Although low flow is not the only issue for the environment and recreation communities, it is often the biggest; other problems like high water temperatures are partly a result of there not being enough water in the river.

“I would say recreation in Colorado is more threatened by diminishing streamflow,” said Hattie Johnson, southern Rockies stewardship director with American Whitewater. “You can fix the navigation hazard, but if there’s no water in the river to float down it, it doesn’t matter. I think the flow aspect of it is much more dire.”

Raymond Langstaff, president of the Book Cliff Conservation District, speaks at a River Districtmeeting in May 2022. Langstaff participated in creating the IWMP for the Middle Coloradobecause, he said, “ag has a target on their back for water.”
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Agriculture has the bulk of the water

Raymond Langstaff is the president of the Bookcliff Conservation District, which extends roughly between Glenwood Springs and Parachute, mostly on the north side of Interstate 70. His organization, along with the Mount Sopris and South Side conservation districts, led the agriculture portion of the IWMP process for the Middle Colorado region.

“One of the reasons we got involved is because we have a target on our back for water,” Langstaff said. “The bottom line is ag has the bulk of the water. When people need water, where are they going to go? They are going to go to ag to get the water.”

And agricultural water users are feeling the squeeze from drought and climate change too. Langstaff, a retired engineer with the U.S. Forest Service, has a place on Dry Rifle Creek that has been in his family since 1951. He irrigates about 22 acres of grass and alfalfa with water from the Grass Valley Canal and sells the bales of hay to horse owners.

This year, the number of days he is allowed to use water from the local irrigation water project dropped from 50 to 35 this year. If the water gets cut more, he may do one fewer cutting of hay. And irrigators on the south side of the Colorado River have it even worse.

“If you live on Divide Creek, chances are you will be out of water somewhere around the Fourth of July,” he said.

One of the ideas behind the ditch inventory, in which irrigators got an analysis of their system and potential areas of improvement, was that they would result in efficiency projects that would benefit the irrigator and could also leave more water in streams for the benefit of the environment.

But Langstaff is skeptical that agriculture projects will automatically lead to more water in streams. If agricultural producers can more easily get access to their full water right by making efficiency improvements, they will probably take advantage of that by using all of their water, he said.

“It’s a false hope they might be able to free up a little more water to leave in the river,” Langstaff said. “If you get more efficient, you get to water more times. And it’s their water and they have the right to use it.”

The results of a 2019 survey about SMPs by the Colorado Cattlemen’s Ag Water Network seems to confirm that sentiment. More than half of respondents said the amount of water available to them was a challenge. Survey responses also indicated that more acres would be irrigated and more acres would be more fully irrigated if more water was available for diversion.

If environmental and recreation groups want more water to stay in the river, it will require paying agricultural water users, Langstaff said.

“If you want ag to let water stay in the stream, you’re going to have to compensate somehow,” he said. “If you’re in the ag business exclusively, you need every nickel and dime.”

This stretch of the Colorado near Silt was included in the Integrated Water Management Plan undertaken by the Middle Colorado Watershed Council. The IWMP included a portion devoted to agriculture water needs.
Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

A way forward

The actions of diverters often have the biggest influence on the health of rivers and the quantity of water in them. And as the flows of the Colorado River and its tributaries continue to decline due to climate change, there will be even less water to go around.

In the hierarchy of water uses in Colorado, environmental and recreation interests have taken a back seat to traditional water uses like agriculture. Under the bedrock principle of Colorado water law, prior appropriation, the oldest water rights — typically agricultural water rights — get first use of the river.

The only way to secure a water right specifically for the environment is through an instream flow right, which is held exclusively by the CWCB to “preserve the natural environment to a reasonable degree.” Although the state has ISF rights on nearly 1,700 stream segments around Colorado, they date to the 1970s and later, making them very junior to most agricultural and municipal water rights, and thus limiting their ability to keep water in the stream.

As for recreation, a handful of communities around the state hold what’s known as a recreational in-channel diversion, or RICD, around which they have built a whitewater park or play waves primarily for kayakers. But in a nod to traditional water users, these rights often end up making concessions to future water development. Two bills floated by recreation proponents that aimed to secure water for recreation purposes have stalled in 2021 and 2022.

But most environmental and recreation groups still say that cooperation among all water users within the existing constraints is the best way forward and insist they are making inroads.

“If you’re an environmental advocate you do the best operating in the system that exists, and the system that exists is Colorado water law,” Van Gytenbeek said. “You have to work with water rights holders to see if there’s flexibility in their operations. It’s not a perfect world and it can be very frustrating if you are a kayaker or a fisherman. But we are making progress by collaborating.”

Aspen Journalism covers rivers and water in collaboration with the Vail Daily. For more go to www.aspenjournalism.org.