Suthers sits pretty in state AG’s office

By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Colorado Attorney General John Suthers loves his job.

An attorney by trade and a Republican by party, Suthers has dedicated much of his professional life to serving the public good.

Beginning in 1977, and between various stints in the private sector, Suthers has served as the chief deputy district attorney in Colorado Springs, a United States Attorney in Colorado and as the executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, before his appointment as the attorney general in 2005 by former Gov. Bill Owens. Suthers replaced Ken Salazar, who won his U.S. Senate bid in 2004.

Two years later, Suthers won the Attorney General’s Office in his own right, defeating Democrat Fern O’Brien by 9 points in November 2006 — making him the only Republican in Colorado to hold statewide office in what turned out to be a disastrous year for the GOP.

Through it all, said Suthers, who was born in Denver and grew up in Colorado Springs, he found his passion to serve in the inner workings of the law.

“I deal with 30 different issues a day, and I like that. The law is very interesting stuff,” Suthers told The Colorado Statesman during a sit-down interview earlier this month.

“If you asked me how I would solve the nation’s health care problems, you probably wouldn’t be that impressed by my answer. But I am a good lawyer, and I have become good at what I do. And I find it exciting. It’s fascinating work.

“And even though I have made sacrifices to serve in this position — primarily financial ones — I love my job,” he said.

This love for his job and a dedication to serve the public, is what has led Suthers to seek a second term in the Attorney General’s Office in 2010. His dedication as state’s top law enforcement office is so passionate, he said, that he has consistently turned down requests from members of his party who want him to challenge Sen. Michael Bennet or seek the governor’s office.

“One of the reasons that I turned away from the other political undertakings is because you can’t run for the U.S. Senate and do a decent job as attorney general for the next two years,” Suthers said. “This job is too important to walk away from it in order to campaign.”

A soft but firm approach

At least in 2009, Suthers looks strong in his bid to win re-election.

He has been challenged so far by only one Democrat, Cañon City lawyer Dan Slater, who surprised everyone by dropping out of the race only 21 days after he began his campaign.

During a conversation with The Statesman earlier this month, Slater pounded relentlessly on Suthers for failing to crack down on payday lending in Colorado and for failing to pursue consumer protection cases aggressively.

“I have looked at what our attorney general has done and hasn’t done, and, looking at that, it seems like he is missing a real opportunity to fight for Coloradans, particularly when you look at what other state AG’s are doing,” Slater said. “The biggest problem we have is the incumbent espouses this ideology that the attorney general should not be a legal activist... which runs counter to what a number of the best AGs are doing.”

In a letter to supporters sent out this week, Slater said he didn’t have “the fire in the belly” required to run for a statewide office and wants to spend more time with his family.

Although Slater is no longer a factor in the attorney general’s race, his argument that a state’s attorney general should be a legal activist rather than just a law enforcement official may be picked up by any future challengers.

That view of a state attorney general’s role was pioneered by the now-disgraced former Democratic New York attorney general and governor Eliot Spitzer. As attorney general in New York, Spitzer aggressively went after cases involving corporate white-collar crime, securities and Internet fraud, and environmental protection.

Spitzer became famous after he sued companies involved in manipulating the stock market, went after predatory lending and uncovered fraud within the banking industry. In addition, Spitzer made international headlines in 2003 when he successfully sued Richard Grasso, the former chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, on behalf of the state of New York for failing to disclose a deferred compensation package worth $140 million.

Closer to home, New Mexico Attorney General Gary King, a Democrat, also has taken an activist approach to running the Attorney General’s Office. After serving in the state Legislature for 10 years, King was elected state attorney general in 2006. He has since created new legal offenses surrounding human trafficking, instituted a crackdown on people who drive under the influence, pushed for an investigation into the state’s high gasoline prices, and added an “elder abuse” component to the Medicaid Fraud Division of the Attorney General’s Office.

Although Suthers refrained from making negative comments about more activist counterparts in other states, the 58-year-old attorney didn’t shy away from defending his own style of law enforcement, which inherently takes a very different approach.

Suthers — who speaks proudly of the awards he has won from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce celebrating his non-activist approach — said it would be inaccurate to say he refrains from taking an aggressive approach to consumer protection and law enforcement.

“Dan Slater’s biggest problem is he doesn’t understand the office or the issues,” Suthers said. “We’re more active today than the attorney general’s office has ever been.”

Suthers said his office has aggressively fought for consumer protection by going after mortgage fraud, methamphetamine producers, prescription drug companies and predatory lenders, among others who abuse consumer trust.

“Check the record. I have been one of the more aggressive prosecutors out there,” Suthers continued. “For Dan Slater to say otherwise really shows how little he understands about the Attorney General’s Office.”

Suthers also is quick to point to a number of differences between the New York Attorney General’s Office, where Spitzer made his name, and the Colorado equivalent.

In terms of size and availability of resources alone, he noted, New York far outweighs Colorado. The New York office employs five times as many attorneys as Colorado just in its the consumer protection department, so New York can oversee more investigations. In addition, the New York Attorney General’s Office oversees Wall Street, which creates more opportunities to broaden the scope of enforcement.

“We are working with limited resources here in Colorado,” Suthers said. “We have to take all of the complaints that come to us, put them on the table and make a priority list. We then use the available resources and start going down the list.”

Jan Zavislan, Colorado’s deputy attorney general for consumer protection since 1988, agrees.

“John is the fourth attorney general I have served under since coming here, and I think he stacks up very well with all of them in terms of going after consumer protection cases,” Zavislan said. “After 22 years, do we have an Eliot Spitzer-like $300 million settlement? No. But we have been pretty aggressive in going after consumer protection cases. We don’t have the resources to go after everybody, but I think we do a good job.”

Suthers, however, does take issue with attorneys general who hire private law firms to handle some of the state’s law enforcement business. Although some people say it’s an effective way for an attorney general to further the reach of his or her office while using limited resources, Suthers said he sees inherent conflicts of interest in the practice.

“I disagree with that approach completely,” Suthers said. “Whenever you have law firms or individuals that have a personal financial stake in the outcome of a case, they shouldn’t be involved with (its prosecution). And, in many cases, that is exactly what is happening in other states.”

Let’s get down to politics

After Slater’s departure from the race this week, Suthers is once again running unopposed. Some Democratic names are being floated as possible challengers, including Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, and former state lawmaker Dan Grossman, but neither has publicly indicated a serious interest in jumping into the race.

Whoever does challenge Suthers, however, could very well use Slater’s line of attack, accusing Suthers of being too timid in his duties.

“It seems to me that it’s just a partisan difference,” said Tom Cronin, a political science professor at Colorado College. “On the one hand, you have a more conservative and cautious approach (such as the one Suthers has adopted), and, on the other hand, you have someone who is more progressive and has more of an ambitious political approach.”

Other political observers, including Colorado State University political science professor John Straayer, believe that any Democrat — no matter what he or she brings to the race — will find it difficult to beat Suthers in 2010.

“I think it will be difficult for a challenger facing an incumbent for an attorney general race this year,” Straayer said. “The GOP wants either the governorship or one of the legislative chambers badly, and the Democrats will work overtime to hold both. But those races, and clearly the U.S. Senate race, are going to suck up most of the public’s reservoir of political attention — and, likely, most of the money.”

In addition the advantage Suthers has in being in a down-ticket race in a politically crucial year for both parties in Colorado, Straayer said, Suthers has toed a careful line since coming to office. He has done his job without getting into trouble, and that makes re-election easier for any statewide incumbent.

“Nothing Suthers has done has made him especially vulnerable in 2010,” Straayer said. “He is the incumbent. He has name ID. And, absent some major attention-gathering problems between now and November of next year, the race will be submerged under the avalanche of General Assembly, governor and U.S. Senate advertising and (media) reporting.”

Jason@coloradostatesman.com