Denver DA ordered to rehire investigator who made whistleblower claim

If Jerilyn Schofield “is an unrepentant bully, as claimed by the Agency, its evidence failed to meet its burden to prove it,” a Denver hearing officer found.

(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

staff photo

A city officer has ordered the Denver District Attorney’s Office to rehire a senior investigator who was fired earlier this year after allegedly leaking a story to a reporter.

The investigator, Jerilyn Schofield, had held her job since 2012 and worked to help prosecutors with their cases. The DA’s office said that she was fired for violating numerous rules, but Schofield claimed that she was being wrongfully punished for raising issues about the office.

The city hearing officer, Bruce Plotkin, found that leaking stories to reporters was not a protected activity, but he did find that the DA’s office proved little of its case against her. The officer ordered that Schofield’s firing be reversed and replaced with a five-day suspension.

Schofield’s colleagues complained about her.

They described her as confrontational or unhelpful, according to records from a disciplinary case, including the time in 2013 when she reportedly challenged her superior in front of a high-ranking police officer.

In May 2016, a deputy district attorney complained that Schofield was unresponsive to a request to gather records for a case, and others also documented negative interactions, according to the disciplinary file.

Deputy District Attorney Albert Buchman claimed that Schofield “denies simple requests and has standoffish body language.” Another said that she was “not a team player.”

Buchman further testified that he “avoided asking her to conduct any investigation, avoided knocking on her door and felt she was not available when he needed her. Any contact with her became anxiety-provoking, and he worried constantly if he would be able to accomplish his case objectives,” according to the hearing officer’s report.

“At the same time, Buchman acknowledged he never spoke with her about these issues …”

Last year, Schofield went to the press.

In the summer of 2016, Schofield became concerned about alleged nepotism in the department. She reportedly began questioning others in the office about whether Joe Lucas, the nephew of then-DA Mitch Morrissey, was really qualified for his new job as an investigator.

That August, Schofield talked to investigative reporter Todd Shepherd about her concerns. Shepherd published an article in Complete Colorado, citing an anonymous source, on Dec. 4, 2016. Complete Colorado is a conservative news site.

Three days later, Morrissey ordered Schofield to be placed on leave, and she was fired in January.

Schofield immediately appealed, and this month she won.

The fired investigator claimed that she was protected by Denver’s whistleblower ordinance, which is supposed to protect employees who report wrongdoing. She also contested whether she had actually broken the rules.

The city’s hearing officer didn’t buy the whistleblower claim. The officer found that Lucas probably was qualified — meaning there was no nepotism to report in the first place — and found that a news reporter is not an “appropriate reporting authority.”

No worries for Schofield, though. The officer found that the DA’s office only proved two “minor” violations by Schofield.

One was that Schofield didn’t secure a search warrant, as requested, for Facebook evidence — but she did submit a preservation letter, “which preserved the Agency’s right to secure the needed evidence,” per the disciplinary hearing record.

Schofield also failed to follow the agency’s evidence storage policy, but that policy is enforced only inconsistently, the officer found.

However, the hearing officer said that the district attorney’s office failed to prove numerous other accusations, such as Schofield’s alleged failure to comply with orders from supervisors, work with law enforcement and train new staff members.

“It is incumbent on an agency at least nominally to connect the dots between its factual allegations and its citation to each Career Service Rule violation,” the hearing officer wrote.

“… If Schofield is an unrepentant bully, as claimed by the Agency, its evidence failed to meet its burden to prove it.”

The full 19-page hearing record is available here. It is very detailed.

Schofield could not immediately be reached for comment through her attorney. The Denver District Attorney’s Office is considering an appeal.

“We are considering an appeal.  We disagree with the Hearing Officer’s decision and believe that the termination was justified based on the evidence presented at the hearing,” spokesperson Ken Lane wrote in an email to Denverite.