Douglas County DA says ethics allegations stemmed not from misconduct, but from ‘dissatisfaction’ with her ‘unconventional, but much desired, approach’
photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World
To a special prosecutor who compiled an ethics complaint against her, Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez is someone who has accused a judge of being sexist, sent him inappropriate texts, and created a stressful work environment that drove many of her employees to resign.
But Valdez on Tuesday had a different story to tell. What really happened, she said, was that she made general statements about gender inequality that offended the judge; voiced political opinions that deserved “heightened protections” under the Constitution; and made changes in her office that the public “commanded” when she was elected.
That’s according to a statement Valdez made on her office’s website on Tuesday. It’s the most detailed public statement Valdez has written about the ethics complaint by special prosecutor Kimberly Bonifas since the Journal-World reported on the complaint’s contents last month.
The complaint claims that Valdez violated multiple rules of professional conduct, including that she called Chief Judge James McCabria a liar and a sexist, sent him texts telling him that he should “be ashamed” and that he was treating her differently because she was “a Hispanic female (in) a position of power,” and yelled and cursed about him to the extent that multiple attorneys in her office quit because of the stress. It also states that Valdez continued the behavior, including instances of refusing to cooperate with district judges, even after an investigation had begun into her conduct.
In her statement Tuesday, however, Valdez said many of the allegations against her actually stemmed from “mere dissatisfaction with my unconventional, but much desired, approach to the role of prosecution.”
“Disagreement with my outspoken nature, the independence of my office, and the importance of checks and balances within the criminal justice system say less about my ethical barometer and more about the district court’s reluctance to change and transparency,” Valdez said. “It appears that any challenge or questioning of the district court is an insult, even in a time of calls for heightened transparency and accountability in our public institutions.”
Below are some other assertions Valdez made in her statement, which she said would discuss the issue “in the frankest of terms”:
• Valdez says that a Facebook post she made in 2021 on her personal and public Facebook pages about “the INSECURE MAN” was an act of political speech that was meant to be empowering to women.
As the Journal-World reported, Valdez in 2021 issued a public press release saying that McCabria misrepresented a text message exchange she had with him, and she subsequently posted the following to her Facebook pages: “Women of the world — be prepared! If you are hardworking, outspoken, honest, AND in a position of authority, the INSECURE MAN will try to tear you down. Not me, says I!”
On Tuesday, Valdez said that the post “makes a general comment about the ‘insecure man,'” and that “While the Facebook post obviously offended Judge McCabria, it also empowered many women — who themselves feel that as females in high level professional or political positions — are not invited to the table to be part of discussion and decision-making meetings and whose voices and opinions are not heard, nor considered.”
Valdez also characterized the post as “political speech deserving of heightened protections under the First Amendment.”
• Valdez briefly mentioned “a text message about the Covid-19 jury trial plan – a plan on which I had no input.”
As the Journal-World reported, the complaint against Valdez details a text message sent to McCabria that told the judge “You should be ashamed of yourself,” and that later referred to the COVID plan: “We were TOLD, not consulted. The only reason you commented is because I am a Hispanic female (in) a position of power. I will shine the light of truth. I will shine the light of truth on everything.” Despite the fact that McCabria said he had consulted with all stakeholders about the COVID safety plan, Valdez has disputed that she was consulted, even though, as the complaint stated, she met multiple times with the court about upcoming trials.
On Tuesday, Valdez reiterated her claim that “I was never invited to meet with the district court about the Covid-19 jury trial plan, nor was I consulted about the plan prior to its implementation.” She did not directly address the parts of the text message that dealt with her gender and ethnicity.
• Valdez claimed that accusations that she has been “‘pulling the race card’ and ‘pulling the woman card'” are actually “naïve oversimplifications or something far more sinister.”
She said that her experiences as a Hispanic woman were “the lens through which I view the world”; that she grew up not seeing “people who looked like me in positions of power”; and that even after she took office she was “denied a seat at the table and downright silenced.”
“Our lived experience shapes our perspective, and I am simply letting people know where I am coming from,” she said.
Even before the incidents involving the text messages to McCabria and the Facebook post, Valdez had been outspoken about her perception of mistreatment because of her gender and ethnicity. The Journal-World previously reported on a dispute she had with the University of Kansas when she taught at the law school there, when the university criticized her for improperly withholding the final grades of students as leverage in a pay dispute. In a letter to students during the dispute, she cited “privileged white men” who “refused to acknowledge the contributions and merits of women and minorities.”
• Valdez said that the employees who left her office after she took over in 2021 didn’t do so because of the work environment, but rather because “They simply were not amenable to the type of change the community commanded when I was elected.”
The complaint against Valdez claims that the atmosphere in her office was so “negative” and stressful that “After several months, only one attorney remained” who had been with the DA’s office before she was sworn in.
But Valdez on Tuesday said that the day after she won the primary election for DA in August 2020, “More than one of those employees” called Joshua Seiden, who was to become her deputy DA, and “pleaded with Mr. Seiden to put in a good word so that they could keep their jobs.”
“In the weeks that followed my swearing in, it became clear that these employees did not actually want to work for me,” Valdez said. “Rather, they wished to continue on as they had for so many years – no longer an option after the community showed up on election day and mandated change.”
Valdez also asserted that since “mid-2021,” her office had been staffed with “competent, willing employees who share the core values of my administration.”
• • •
Tuesday’s statement is not a formal answer to the allegations against Valdez. It was not clear on Tuesday whether a formal answer had been filed with the Office of the Disciplinary Administrator, but Tuesday was the deadline for it to be filed. The Office of the Disciplinary Administrator told the Journal-World at 2:11 p.m. Tuesday that no answer had been filed at that time, and it did not respond to a follow-up inquiry sent by the Journal-World later in the day.
The next step in the complaint process is a pre-hearing conference, which is scheduled for Sept. 19, and the formal hearing dates are Oct. 12-13. The conference and hearing will be open to the public.
Valdez was elected to the DA position in November 2020 after running unopposed in the general election and after having defeated the longtime incumbent DA, Charles Branson, in the Democratic primary. She switched months before the election from being a registered Republican to being a registered Democrat.
As the Journal-World reported, Valdez has tried to have the complaint dismissed, claiming the investigation was unfair and should be restarted from scratch, but the disciplinary panel rejected her motion. In addition to her formal answer, Valdez, who is represented by attorney Stephen B. Angermayer, must file a witness and exhibit list. In an email to the Journal-World, DA’s office spokesperson Cheryl Cadue said “The attorney representing the District Attorney in the matter scheduled for hearing is paid through the County.”