By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
The two lawyers vying to be Colorado next’s attorney general clashed Tuesday over the role of the office at a debate before a business group in Centennial. John Suthers, the Republican incumbent seeking his second full term, and Democrat Stan Garnett, the Boulder County district attorney challenging him, each accused the other of wanting to expand the scope of the state position in ways they said should concern voters.
The two engaged in a sometimes heated, hour-long exchange in front of a small crowd at the South Metro Chamber of Commerce headquarters as part of the group’s Business Leaders for Responsible Government program. Real estate attorney Karen Samuels Jones moderated the debate, posing questions that covered a range of topics important to the business community.
“Folks, I think Stan wants to be the Elliot Spitzer of Colorado,” Suthers warned, invoking the former New York state attorney general famous for going after Wall Street and other businesses in high-profile prosecutions. He said Garnett’s approach “would not be good for the business community of the state” because it would undermine the stability that businesses expect.
“It is not our job — and if he’s suggesting it is, you better be a little nervous — it is not the power of the attorney general’s office to intervene in non-criminal or non-civil matters,” Suthers said, saying Garnett planned to use the office to pursue political aims rather than enforce the law.
Accusing Suthers of “fear-mongering,” Garnett shot back that his opponent was trying to scare the audience by suggesting that “if we actually try to enforce the consumer protection laws of this state, rather than just sit back with the smallest unit in the country sort of waiting for cases to come to us, it will somehow create a problem for business. It will not create a problem for business — business will thrive when there’s a level playing field,” Garnett said.
For his part, Garnett pointed to Suthers’ participation in a multi-state lawsuit against this year’s federal health care reform legislation and said it was emblematic of the Republican’s habit of joining lawsuits he called frivolous and distracting.
“John functions more as the attorney general for the Tea Party,” Garnett said.
Calling the lawsuit a “mistake, poorly conceived, and obstructionist,” Garnett scoffed at Suthers’ stated reasons for suing the federal government to prevent portions of the law from taking effect. Saying “the rationale for it sounds like something out of the 1830s.”
Suthers was having none of it.
“Folks, I think this is one of the most important legal proceedings that’s been brought in the United States in a long time, and I’m very proud to be a part of it,” he said. Suthers said the question whether the federal government could force citizens to buy health insurance under threat of fines should make voters “very concerned,” and said Garnett’s dismissal of the legal issues at stake should also worry business leaders.
The two also sparred over how well Suthers has managed the office and whether Garnett would handle things differently.
“John’s office has been bureaucratic and uninspired,” Garnett said, charging that Suthers has taken credit for work done by previous attorneys general, including recent settlements reached on decades-old environmental claims.
While Garnett is himself a district attorney, he slammed Suthers for being the first attorney general in decades who was previously an elected district attorney, saying that experience narrowed his focus and made it more difficult for the incumbent to manage the office.
“John tends to treat the attorney general’s office like a district attorney’s office because that’s what he’s used to,” Garnett said, making repeated references to his experience at a major Denver law firm handling complex commercial litigation. The Democrat has also served on a local school board and worked in the Denver district attorney’s office right out of law school.
Suthers cited his work heading the state’s sprawling Department of Corrections as the most meaningful experience he brought to the attorney general job, which he won by appointment from Gov. Bill Owens when Ken Salazar was elected to the Senate in 2004. Before that, Suthers was serving as Colorado’s U.S. attorney and went on to win election as attorney general four years ago.
“Folks, you’re not going to find anybody with that kind of combination of experience that’s better prepared to meet the legal challenges Colorado will face,” Suthers said.
In what has become a regular attack in the race, Garnett blasted Suthers for what he called “a crisis of consumer protection in Colorado,” which he credited to weak enforcement by Suthers. Garnett claimed Colorado has one of the highest levels of consumer complaints in the nation and said Suthers’ indifference to protecting consumers was to blame.
“There’s a reason for that,” Garnett said. “John publicly indicated he believes the consumer protection powers of his office should be curtailed.” Garnett also charged Suthers’ office with being “about as inaccessible as a public office can be,” pointing to a consumer hotline that eventually reaches instructions to mail in complaints.
Suthers defended his record. “I understand and know consumer protection and take it very, very seriously,” Suthers said, pointing to his experience running the division in the district attorney’s office before he was elected district attorney for El Paso and Teller counties and his authorship of a book on consumer fraud.
“If Stan had the same level of sophistication,” Suthers taunted, his opponent would understand states with the most consumer complaints are those with the most educated consumers, which he attributed in part to his office’s work.