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Local health care activists face charges despite Sen. Cory Gardner’s apparent request to dismiss

No pass on trespass


Police described these activists as “polite” and “cooperative.”
  • Police described these activists as “polite” and “cooperative.”

Editor's note:  L’Aura Montgomery Williams was not contacted for this article, an error of omission. Williams, an experienced activist, says that while she did contact the police, she never invited arrest. Montgomery was  arrested in the protest and pleaded guilty. We regret the error.

emember this summer, when Senate Republicans tried over and over to “repeal and replace” Obamacare? Our own U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner figured prominently, given he (at least nominally) co-authored one of those bills, though he remained noncommittal during the run-up to his “yes” vote.

While the debate roiled on in Washington, D.C., Gardner’s home state offices became the sites of “vote no” activism, leading to some arrests. On June 29, disabled activists got wrangled out of wheelchairs and dragged out of their senator’s Denver office, all while chanting “rather go to jail than die without Medicaid!” About a week later, more “health care for all” activists were arrested for refusing to leave that same office. And here in the Springs, activists formerly with the group Colorado Springs Action Network (COS CAN) are headed to trial on trespassing charges stemming from a July 18 visit to Gardner’s local office. If convicted, they could face jail time up to 189 days and/or fines up to $2,500.

The three defendants stand by their actions, insisting prosecutors with the city attorney’s office are taking too punitive an approach to a peaceful protest. And, in a twist, it seems Gardner may agree with them. The senator apparently asked Colorado Springs’ City Attorney Wynetta Massey’s office to dismiss their charges, as he did for at least five of the arrestees in Denver. Denver’s city attorney heeded the request, but the Springs’ city attorney, who declined to comment on the pending criminal case per city spokesperson Kim Melchor, has chosen to press charges.

According to written accounts and live-streamed video, the events of July 18 went like this: About 10 people visited Gardner’s downtown office to demand a town hall meeting where they could interface with him. At that time, Gardner hadn’t made a public appearance in his home state all year. (He since has.) The cohort wanted to voice concerns about the potential impact of “repeal and replace.”

For about three hours, they hung around his office lobby, trying to get staffers to arrange a town hall or meeting or open any line of communication with Gardner. At about 4 p.m., a late-comer, L’Aura Williams, told the others she had tipped off police to their “civil disobedience” and invited arrest. Indeed, a police report states that Officer Roberto Williamson received a call from Williams, a local jewelry store owner (and, full disclosure, former freelance photographer for the Independent), at about 11:30 a.m. that day. She reportedly told the officer when and where the protest was, who had organized it and that the participants intended to get arrested. But that was news to the others, many of whom had participated in a similar action at Gardner’s office the month prior. In that instance, they stayed until 7:30 p.m., got tired and went home. No police.

But, as soon as 5 p.m. hit, police appeared in the lobby doorway. Their body camera footage captured a confusing scene: Protesters say they hadn’t been asked to leave; a Gardner staffer poking his head through the door says “if it was unclear, I’m stating it right now: You have to leave the office at this time,” and officers let a few protesters scurry out, informing those who choose to remain that they’ll be cited for trespassing.

Debra Willenberg, 61, says she was “stunned.” It all happened so quickly that she ended up with a ticket before she could really take stock of the situation. “I didn’t go there to get arrested… I went there to be heard,” she tells the Indy. She’s doubly stunned that the case is going to trial.

Their counterparts to the north, who were charged with trespassing in similar circumstances, had their case dismissed at Gardner’s behest. So, what makes this case different? Over a dozen calls and emails to Gardner’s Colorado Springs, Denver and Washington, D.C., offices went unreturned, but a recorded conversation provided to the Indy by one of the defendants, Candi Frank, seems to confirm that Gardner’s people at least tried. In the audio recording, which captures a meeting that followed a Sept. 11 court appearance, Frank can be heard asking the prosecutor, who had just proposed a plea deal, “As I understood it, Sen. Gardner was requesting charges be dropped...?” A voice apparently of the prosecutor, Shantel Withrow, replies, “Yes, he did request that charges be dropped, but in reviewing the case, there is a violation of law that occurred and my office is the one that makes the ultimate decision.”

In the Denver case, Gardner himself was listed as the “victim” on the citations, so pro bono defense attorney Alan Kennedy-Shaffer subpoenaed him, citing the constitutional right to face one’s accuser. That’s when Gardner’s counsel asked the city attorney to dismiss the case. “It was a victory for my clients, obviously, but it also saved Sen. Gardner from having to testify against his constituents,” Kennedy-Shaffer told the Indy.

In the Springs case, “NORWOOD” is listed as the victim. (Alamo Corporate Center, where Gardner leases office space, is owned by Nor’Wood Development Group.) A request for comment from Nor’Wood’s founder, David Jenkins, who’s listed as registered agent for the LLC that holds the Alamo, went unreturned too.

Defense attorney Dan Weiss wonders why the lessor not the lessee is listed as victim if it was Gardner’s staff and the informant who effected the arrests. But more than anything, Weiss, a former high school civics teacher, wonders if all this could have been avoided if representative democracy worked a little better. “The privilege and power of that office comes with a minimal responsibility — just show up and listen. Rather than engineer their arrest, just listen,” he says. “Then they can go home, live their lives, and he can still vote how we all knew he would anyway.”

Editor's Note: Earlier versions of this story misidentified the prosecutor Shantel Withrow. This story has been updated with the correction. We regret the error.

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