DA’s answer to ethics complaint reasserts her claims of sexism, discomfort with judge, and blames underlings, allegiance to her predecessor for office discord

photo by: Journal-World File

Pictured clockwise from top left: Deputy District Attorney Joshua Seiden, District Attorney Suzanne Valdez, Chief Judge James McCabria, former Senior Assistant District Attorney Alice Walker, former Chief Assistant District Attorney Eve Kemple, former Deputy District Attorney David Melton, Judge Blake Glover, Judge Stacey Donovan, Judge Mark Simpson and Judge Amy Hanley.

In a lengthy response to an ethics complaint filed against her, Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez reasserts her claim that the district’s chief judge treated her in a sexist manner, and she argues that low morale in her office was caused not by her but by holdovers from the previous DA’s administration who wouldn’t get on board with her new way of doing things.

In her response filed earlier this week, Valdez paints a picture of a courthouse — where her office is located — rife with competing loyalties, resentments and, to some extent, dysfunction.

The complaint against Valdez, a Democrat elected to office in November 2020, was formally filed with the Office of the Disciplinary Administrator in August by Special Prosecutor Kimberly Bonifas, but the investigation into the DA’s activity dates back to February of 2021, just over a month after Valdez was sworn into office. The complaint centers largely on a public disagreement between Chief Judge James McCabria and Valdez about restarting trials at the Douglas County Fairgrounds during the COVID-19 pandemic, but includes multiple allegations of misconduct.

McCabria had announced the court’s plan to resume trials and said in a press release that he had consulted with all stakeholders when making the plan. Valdez issued a press release in response and said that her office was not consulted but rather was “told” about the plan and that the court had disregarded her concerns with resuming trials. In the subsequent weeks and months Valdez is alleged to have called McCabria a sexist and a liar in public and in private messages, as the Journal-World reported.

In Valdez’s answer, filed by her attorney Stephen Angermayer, Valdez denies the allegations that she called McCabria a liar and that she caused the resignation of the majority of attorneys who worked for the previous district attorney, Charles Branson. She said that she never called McCabria a liar but believes he “did not accurately represent the facts about the jury trial plan in the court’s press release.”

However, she reiterates her belief that McCabria has treated her and others differently because they are women.

In her answer she describes a meeting on Feb. 24, 2021, a little over a month after she was sworn in, in which she, McCabria, Deputy District Attorney Joshua Seiden and prosecutor David Melton, who has since resigned, sat down to discuss resuming trials.

“Mr. Melton and Mr. Seiden sat in chairs directly facing Judge McCabria. District Attorney Valdez sat in a chair in the corner of the judge’s chambers and said very little due to her belief that Judge McCabria would be dismissive of her concerns. She allowed Mr. Melton and Mr. Seiden to speak about probation violation matters and the COVID-19 jury trial plan,” the answer states.

Seiden and Melton expressed concerns over the uncertainty of the “month-to-month” way the court was handling hearings and said it was too taxing on the office, according to the response.

After the court had issued its direction on resuming trials and Valdez objected, saying her office was not consulted, McCabria issued a second statement clarifying that he had consulted the office. When the additional information from McCabria was seen by Valdez, she sent him text messages, with misspellings and incomplete phrases, from her personal phone to his personal phone, according to the disciplinary complaint:

“You should be ashamed of yourself.

“We were TOLD, not consulted.

“The only reason you commented is because I am a Hispanic female I a position of power.

“I will she the light of truth

“I will shine the light of truth

“I will shine the light of truth on everything”

Valdez, in her answer to the complaint, states that she and McCabria had grown familiar with each other and she viewed him as a confidant at that time whom she could “vent” to about work issues.

“She discreetly reached out to Judge McCabria to voice her frustrations,” Valdez’s answer states.

She states that she remembered sending him a text but does not have access to what it said because she deleted McCabria’s personal number and messages from her phone.

Valdez also states that she actively avoids appearing in McCabria’s courtroom because he has made her feel “uncomfortable” in the workplace.

“Chief Judge McCabria seems to know when District Attorney Valdez is conducting opening statements in a case or examining a witness because he enters the courtroom, sits at the back of the courtroom, and watches her work,” Valdez’s answer states.

In a public statement Valdez released the same day that she filed her answer to the complaint, she says that she is proud of her heritage as a “Hispanic woman” and that throughout her life she has not seen “people who looked like me in positions of power.” She rejected the notion that she had used her ethnicity or gender as an excuse for her actions.

“Throughout these proceedings, I have been accused of ‘pulling the race card’ and ‘pulling the woman card.’ These accusations are either naïve oversimplifications or something far more sinister,” Valdez says in the statement.

Her statement does not elaborate on what “something far more sinister” means, but in her formal response to the ethics complaint she indicates that the transition between the previous DA’s office and hers had been acrimonious.

photo by: Contributed

Charles Branson

“Charles Branson would not permit District Attorney Valdez or Mr. Seiden to enter the office and only allowed them limited access to minimal case and personnel information such that the information was not even useful,” Valdez’s answer states.

She additionally insinuates in her answer that local judges, as well as some attorneys in her office, had loyalties to Branson, whom she defeated in the primary election: “It is important to note that Judges McCabria and (Mark) Simpson are former DA Branson prosecutors.”

The special prosecutor’s complaint alleges that attorneys left their jobs at the DA’s office because of Valdez’s “unprofessional conduct.”

In her response, Valdez denies this, and discusses at length three people who she claims left because they disagreed with Valdez’s “core values.”

Those three are former prosecutors Alice Walker, Eve Kemple and Melton, who, in addition to four sitting judges, are listed as witnesses in the special prosecutor’s case. Valdez claims that each had desperately appealed to keep their jobs when she assumed office. And she claims that they, not she, created morale issues and other failings in the workplace stemming from their allegiance to Branson’s way of doing things and their resentment of her. She also claims that it was they, not she, who showed disrespect toward judges and toward their professional responsibilities.

“Those loyal to the prior incumbent left the office, and District Attorney Valdez replaced them with qualified, willing attorneys,” her answer states.

According to the Office of Disciplinary Administrator, Walker, Kemple and Melton have not been the subject of disciplinary action.

Valdez will have an opportunity to argue her position at her public disciplinary hearing Oct. 12-13 in Topeka. A pre-hearing conference is scheduled on Sept. 19, when the disciplinary panel will decide if the October hearing will be in person or on Zoom. The Zoom link to the pre-hearing conference can be obtained by emailing Krystal L. Vokins, counsel to the Kansas Board for Discipline of Attorneys, at vokinsk@kscourts.org.

Valdez’s attorney is being paid for by Douglas County at a cost so far of $11,182, according to her office. When she took office in January 2021, Valdez’s annual salary was $164,000.

Besides discord with some local judges and former employees, Valdez in recent years has been at odds with multiple entities in Douglas County, including the University of Kansas, where she was put on leave after she withheld student grades as leverage in a pay dispute; and the Douglas County sheriff and the Lawrence police chief, who took legal action against her after claiming she had weaponized her subpoena powers. Valdez was also listed as a corroborating witness in a federal lawsuit against KU, the City of Lawrence and multiple Lawrence police officers after a young woman was charged in January 2019 with filing a false report of rape.


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