Adams County inquires about state oversight of county treasurers after suing its own

Nancy Ciancio’s family has owned land in Adams County for nearly 100 years but when she tried to pay taxes this spring on four properties she owns in the county, her checks seemed to vanish into the ether.

Then the Adams County Treasurer’s Office charged her interest on the money they said she owed but that she insisted she had already paid.

“I left messages, I emailed and from April to July, I never heard back from anyone,” Ciancio said of her efforts to find out why the county hadn’t processed her payments. “I never heard back from them for months.”

It took a call to an Adams County commissioner to finally resolve the matter, but meanwhile, she had no idea that others in the county were facing similar roadblocks with the treasurer’s office — frustrations that were laid out in a lawsuit filed by the Adams County commissioners against Treasurer Lisa Culpepper on Thursday night alleging shoddy and sloppy safeguarding of millions of dollars of taxpayer money.

“It’s just incompetence,” Adams County Commissioner Eva Henry said Friday. “It was serious to get to this point.”

Serious enough that Henry said she has been in touch with state lawmakers to see if any are willing to run a bill that might give the state oversight of county treasurers, which is an elected position, akin to the authority the secretary of state has over county clerks.

A district judge this month upheld a lawsuit from Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold seeking to halt Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters from overseeing next week’s election because of alleged improprieties over voting equipment security.

State Treasurer Dave Young said his office would be the natural place to exercise that kind of authority over county treasurers, but he said it’s premature to comment on legislation that hasn’t been crafted. Commissioners or treasurers can come to his office now for guidance if they need it, he said.

“We’re always interested in the financial health of the state of Colorado,” Young said.

Culpepper, whose annual salary is $132,985, did not return several requests from The Denver Post via email and telephone for comment Friday. She won her election in November 2018 and took office on Jan. 1, 2019. Her term lasts until January 2023, unless she resigns or is recalled.

Meanwhile, veteran county treasurers in Colorado said they had never heard of a county board of commissioners suing their own treasurer, though Routt County Treasurer Brita Horn three years ago did the opposite — she sued her county commissioners over a tax abatement issue.

“I certainly don’t recall anything like this happening before,” said Patty Bartlett, Logan County’s treasurer for nearly 30 years. “I have a hard time wrapping my head around not having your books balanced every day. I don’t think I could sleep at night knowing the books aren’t balanced.”

Not only does the county’s lawsuit against Culpepper enumerate numerous bookkeeping problems — like sending more than half a million dollars to taxing jurisdictions that weren’t owed the money and failing for months to account for $90 million in federal COVID relief money — it also accuses her of not cooperating with efforts to audit her office and failing to file monthly tax receipt reports with the county.

“The limited information the board has been able to gather indicates the treasurer is not timely or accurate in performing statutory duties, which could negatively impact the county’s bond rating and financial outlook,” the county said in a statement accompanying its lawsuit.

In separate letters sent to Culpepper over the summer, Adams County commissioners wrote that at least five of her employees have come forward with complaints about her management, including accusations of bullying and belittling. They also said constituents complained about not being able to get a response about tax payments, tax liens and other business matters.

“I was surprised at all of it,” Morgan County Treasurer Bob Sagel said Friday. “If the allegations are true, it’s a shame.”

Sagel has not only been a county treasurer since 1983, but he’s president of the Colorado County Treasurer and Public Trustee Association. The fact that the Adams County commissioners felt they had no choice but to sue their treasurer tells him that the accusations at hand “are not a small deal.”

“I would think it would be pretty serious if it goes to this extreme,” he said.

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