COLORADO Attorney General Phil Weiser sat down for a Q&A with Alamosa Citizen. Weiser was in Alamosa and the San Luis Valley this week meeting with local groups, including hosting a community forum at The Roast in Alamosa on Thursday morning. We focused our questions on the 12th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, the Rio Grande Basin, climate action, reproductive healthcare and interstate travel, and the flow of narcotics into the San Luis Valley.
Alamosa Citizen: Thank you for giving us some of your time. We want to start by asking for an update on the situation with the 12th Judicial DA Office?
Phil Weiser: “Last time I was here we talked about an ongoing investigation concerning violations of the Victims Rights Act that had been referred to our office. Recently we took action and imposed a framework that was agreed to by the office to address the violations and prevent them from happening in the future. This is going to involve the appointment of a monitor to oversee the office, oversee trainings, policies, practice so in the future we don’t see happening what happened in the past, which is the victims being mistreated, not given the rights that are afforded them under law, and in some cases, they were actually insulted or rudely treated. That has to end. The former district attorney has now resigned after we took our action, and the governor has appointed us in this time period to be providing the prosecutorial services of the office. There’s an ongoing search that will be probably announced and managed to look for an interim DA. We’ll see how long that search process takes, but even once it’s to a close, our commitment is to keep working with this office to help rebuild it and improve it.
Alamosa Citizen: One of the things we heard in your voice when you were announcing the outcome of your investigation into the DA and the DA’s office was a sense that you seemed very disturbed or very upset by what you heard from victims who felt re-victimized. It sounded like you were upset about all that.
Weiser: I am still upset. I’m more upset. I met with victims yesterday (Thursday), and to be a victim of a sexual assault and then to not be treated with any sense of empathy or concern or basic respect, and to be treated rudely is not only against the law, it’s just plain wrong. You don’t treat people that way. We can’t allow that to happen. Confidence in the criminal justice system has to start with people believing that they are going to be listened to, that they’re going to be treated fairly. And when people feel shut out, disrespected, they don’t have confidence that the system is working, and that’s what happened here, and that’s what we have to address.
“That’s a breach that happened, where victims felt traumatized, re-victimized, disrespected. And we have to heal that breach. We have to rebuild the trust. … The hurt is not going to go away immediately. Victims whose cases were handled in a way that was disrespectful and led to outcomes that they were very upset by are now living with that hurt.”
Alamosa Citizen: At some point, the public of the Valley, the community, the counties, the residents of the Valley need to feel like they can have confidence in the District Attorney’s Office, whoever the DA is. How does the DA’s Office itself go about rebuilding that trust and confidence to the public, because it feels like that trust and confidence has definitely been shattered in this instance. What would your advice be or what will your advice be whenever there is an appointed DA? How do you rebuild trust?
Weiser: This is going to be a process, and it’s going to take time. The base foundation has to be treating victims with respect, following the Victim Rights Act so that victims aren’t afraid to come forward, aren’t traumatized by being involved in the criminal justice process. That’s a breach that happened, where victims felt traumatized, re-victimized, disrespected. And we have to heal that breach. We have to rebuild the trust. And the way we do that is by building practices in the office that are professional, that are fair, and that people who are exposed to them come away saying, “This is what a functioning professional office looks like,” and that includes law enforcement, it includes victims, it includes community members. I know it’s going to take time. People are hurting. The hurt is not going to go away immediately. Victims whose cases were handled in a way that was disrespectful and led to outcomes that they were very upset by are now living with that hurt.
Alamosa Citizen: Should non-violent offenders go to jail or prison?
Weiser: I can’t paint with a broad brush because that’s a big category. Let me just give you a very concrete example. Someone steals six cars in three months. They steal their sixth car. If you don’t keep that person in jail, when they are released because they’re a “nonviolent offender,” they’re going to steal their seventh car. And I’ll tell you, I know people who’ve had cars stolen or have a catalytic converter stolen. Those victims are violated, are put into positions that undermine their lives, and they’re not doing anything wrong. So, to me, the category, which is a really broad category, non-violent, that just is a lot. White collar crime, people could embezzle hundreds of thousands of dollars and say, “I’m a non-violent criminal,” so that’s a pretty broad category. I wouldn’t give that whole category a pass. We have to be smart about our criminal justice system and the fundamental need is going to be how do we protect public safety? And that includes protecting against automobile theft, or catalytic converter theft, and more.
“If this Valley has its water diverted, it’s going to be awful. And obviously people here know the story of Crowley County. It’s not a hypothetical situation. They lost 95 percent of their water through a buy-and-dry type deal. And they now have an opioid epidemic that’s worse than anywhere in the state. Their economy has been essentially eviscerated and their population’s been cut in half. So that can’t happen here.”
Alamosa Citizen: Switching subjects. Are you familiar with the Rio Grande Water Security Act, which is federal legislation that’s been introduced that calls for a federal working group to create a water resources management plan for the Rio Grande Basin in the three states of the Rio Grande, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas? It’s right here. That’s the bill itself.
Editor’s note: We show AG Weiser the federal bill that was introduced in May and shows Colorado representatives Ed Pearlmutter and Joe Neguse as sponsors along with New Mexico’s Melanie Stansbury
Weiser: All right, so before I comment on this bill, I would want to hear why Joe Neguse and Ed Perlmutter think it’s a good idea. I’m not familiar with this in its details, so let me give them the courtesy of understanding their motivation before I offer any opinions on it. What I will say as a general matter is we in Colorado have ways in which we are managing and guiding our water policies. The water plan, which has been updated, is the most notable one. I’m not sitting here today aware of why this would be valuable to do, but I will give my colleagues a chance to explain.
Alamosa Citizen: David Robbins commented on it at the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. He had a lot of interesting things to say about this.
Weiser: I assume few were positive. So, I will be interested to hear more from David, I’ll need to hear more from Joe Neguse and Ed Perlmutter. The critical work of managing our water is something that I spend a lot of time thinking about, and there are a lot of threats to how our water can be managed. There’s a lot of room for error and we have to be careful. The role of the federal government is one that we need to watch carefully, because historically, we’ve protected our own sovereignty over water management and the (Rio Grande) compact has been the main framework for interstate relations.
Alamosa Citizen: Okay. let’s stick with climate and water. Are there actions that the state, that you as attorney general, are contemplating in regard to protecting Colorado’s waterways, its environment? Are there other things the state, the attorney general, can do or that you’re considering doing when it comes to action on climate?
Weiser: So there’s a lot. Let me start with water quality and then I’ll talk about water quantity. So water quality, the Clean Water Act has been the main protector of our water quality, and we’ve been pushing the EPA to do this in a smart way. Unfortunately, there’s been a little bit of a ping pong match, where you saw 2008, certain guidelines were adopted. Those were then changed in 2015 under President Obama. They were changed again in 2020 under President Trump. There’s been a lot of litigation over those last two updates of the Water Act. Supreme Court just took a case now that threatens to gut the Clean Water Act. We filed a brief in that case offering what we believe is a smart path forward. If we’re not able to be successful in defending a reasonable approach to the Clean Water Act, then we’ll lose potentially all clean water protection and Colorado will have to get more involved in a state Clean Water Act. So we’re paying a lot of attention to water quality.
Weiser continued: Number two, I filed a lawsuit against manufacturers of PFAS, which is often called forever chemicals that get into water and can be harmful to human health. That’s designed to protect water quality and make those who’ve compromised our drinking water have to pay up to treat it. On the water quantity, we have both intrastate and interstate water management challenges. On the intrastate front, I am fighting against harmful diversions of water, like the Renewable Water Resources Plan that would take water from this valley, ship it to Douglas County, and do so at a time when the aquifers here are already compromised and we need to be paying close attention to this community, making sure its hydrology is healthy, and also that we don’t pull the rug out from under an agricultural economy that’s so important. That same situation could come up elsewhere. I have the same attitude elsewhere. The way we solve the water challenges are together, asking what everyone needs, not taking from somebody else because you’re thirsty.
Weiser continued: With other states, we’re very involved in how we manage our compact relationships. Right now, the Colorado River is an intensive effort because we have to update new guidelines by 2026. We also have to make sure the lower basin states who’ve historically been depleting these major reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, start adapting to a dryer water reality. They haven’t historically had to be as careful with water as we have. We have been doing conservation measures, reuse, and building better storage, so that’s something that’s really important. The federal area that I believe is most important is helping investments in infrastructure. We pushed in the Infrastructure Act for water projects to be supported. We’ll work to make sure those come through and look to make sure we take full opportunity to invest in water infrastructure that builds a more resilient Colorado. We’ve been advocating that and will help implement that.
Alamosa Citizen: From a practical relationship building with other attorneys generals, state attorneys general, give us some insights into that relationship or that world. So the question becomes, what’s the frequency you talk to the attorney general from New Mexico? What’s the frequency you talk to the attorney general from the state of Texas, or from Nebraska, from other neighboring states to do this coordination, cooperation, dance, or do you do that? How do you manage interstate relationships?
Weiser: It’s a very good question. There are some attorneys general who I have ongoing work with because of other relationships. So, for example, I lead the investigation against Google for antitrust violations with the Nebraska attorney general, which means I’m generally talking to Nebraska attorney general once a week. That relationship also is helpful when we have some, shall we say, more contentious issues like water, because I’m able to speak plainly and let him know what our concerns are, and we’re able to also be able to work together when the time arises to address an issue that I think can be addressed in a more collaborative way. I don’t believe the current Nebraska water project makes any sense and is likely to come to fruition. I’ve called it before a political effort more than anything.
Weiser continued: The attorney general from Wyoming is also someone I work closely with, involved in different activities, and we speak to her regularly. We had her join us for a conference about the Colorado Privacy Act, and have talked to her about issues where Wyoming may have actually done things that we haven’t yet done, and vice versa. So, the collaboration I have with neighboring AGs is quite strong, actually, and it doesn’t matter that they’re both Republicans and I’m a Democrat.
Weiser continued: There are some cases that do break down on party lines. For example, this issue about abortion is one where the democratic AGs are much more worried about efforts to criminalize people for accessing abortion care, and in the Dobbs case, the brief to defend and protect reproductive rights was one the Democratic AGs were involved in. And so the New Mexico AG as a Democratic AG, he’d be part of working on those matters. So, it depends, but in general, quite frequent with quite a number of AGs working together and the culture is really respectful, and this is important. Even when I might disagree with my Republican colleagues about an issue like reproductive rights, we still work together on issues like opioids or antitrust.
“(The Supreme Court) announced a very sweeping decision with incredible implications, not only for reproductive rights, but also for birth control or in vitro fertilization or even potentially marriage equality. So it’s scary that we’re having this conversation. And a lot of people are scared and angry. And my message has been, we’ve got to channel those feelings into action.”
Alamosa Citizen: Shifting to reproductive healthcare, here’s the question: Do healthcare providers in the state of Colorado, whether they be doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, do they need extra protection, liability protection through the State that protects them from other state AGs coming after them if they perform an abortion or they assist with someone who comes into Colorado for that service? Given the environment we’re in of states regulating this, do practitioners need protection? Have you looked at any of that?
Weiser: We are looking at that. This is a topic like many of the issues that have come up after the Dobbs decision that is concerning. What the governor’s executive order provides and what I’ve said publicly is we’ve got their back and we are going to fight against any efforts to criminalize providers, doctors, or patients for abortion care that could be lifesaving in some cases. In other cases, it could be like the case we heard about from Ohio, a 10-year-old girl who was raped. The idea that someone will try to criminalize a doctor doing her, his job is so wrong. And it’s so wrong because interstate right to travel is a basic constitutional right.
Weiser continued: And if you try to say to someone, you can’t travel to Colorado to get abortion care, I don’t know where that ends. How about if you want to go to Colorado and buy marijuana here, which is not legal in say, Nebraska, is that next? So we’ll be defending this right. The interstate right to travel for patients, we’ll be protecting our providers. That case could go all the way to the Supreme Court. If it does, Justice Kavanaugh, one of the five votes in the Dobbs decision, he wrote separately to say he would still protect the interstate right to travel. So that gives us some measure of assurance on this, but we’re going to be prepared because this issue could arise.
Alamosa Citizen: The fact that we’re even having a debate, discussion about can I travel across the interstate and cross state lines to do this or that, the fact that we’re even having that conversation, what does that say to you as an attorney general in terms of where we are right now in this nation?
Weiser: It says we have a Supreme Court that in this Dobbs decision acted in what I would call an ideologically driven way. They didn’t think about the practical consequences of their decision. They announced a very sweeping decision with incredible implications, not only for reproductive rights, but also for birth control or in vitro fertilization or even potentially marriage equality. So it’s scary that we’re having this conversation. And a lot of people are scared and angry. And my message has been, we’ve got to channel those feelings into action. Like we’re doing here in Colorado, we passed a reproductive health equity act that protects reproductive rights. And we need to change our state constitution so it protects marriage equality. The amount of disruption that the Dobbs decision alone is going to bring is going to be considerable. It’s going to be painful. And the only response that we can do as citizens is organize and stand up and protect our rights through action, through legislation. And that’s what I’ll be doing.
Alamosa Citizen: I want to go back to the relationship question before, in terms of how do you, as an attorney general, work with a colleague in another state that’s an attorney general? And this colleague wants to stop that. Does not want you to cross into the state. How would you deal with a situation like that if you were to come across that where they say you cannot cross into Colorado from Texas through New Mexico, however that comes, how would you deal with that in a relationship with another state AG?
Weiser: Let me answer that question, then give you a companion case if you will. I would say, I’ll see you in court. I would say what you’re proposing to do here is wrong as a moral matter and is wrong as a legal matter. And I’ll fight you all up to the U.S. Supreme Court. And I believe I will win. So I would recommend you not pursue this path, but if you do, I won’t take it personally. I will do my job and I will fight for what I believe is right. What was a companion situation was when the state of Texas through their attorney general tried to overturn the electoral college, filing a case in the Supreme Court and a number of state attorneys general, all Republicans, joined that. I took great solace in Lawrence Wasden, the Idaho attorney general, calling that action as wrong, as reckless, and as a violation of our constitutional commitment to federalism. Others didn’t heed Lawrence Wasden’s counsel.
Wesier continued: The Supreme Court rejected that. And I worked to find a way to create a common commitment to protecting our democratic republic, and was able to do that after January 6th. I organized a letter which 47 state AGs signed that condemned the criminals who attacked our capital, hurt law enforcement officers, and sought to undermine the peaceful transition of power and called for accountability. So the short answer is I will fight in the immediate battle, but I will also be open to finding common cause on other fronts where I can advance the interest of Colorado, the interest of justice.
AlamosaCitizen: Going back to the Rio Grande Basin because it’s also been coming out that it looks like mediation between New Mexico and Texas is going well, and that issue between Texas and New Mexico (Texas sued New Mexico to get its share of water from the Rio Grande) should be resolved. Is that your reading of that as well in your monitoring of the case? And even if that mediation occurs and New Mexico and Texas are able to settle the dispute between them, is there ongoing concern the state of Colorado has when it comes to delivering water as part of the Rio Grande Compact?
Weiser: In many areas, my motto is constant vigilance in protecting our water. That is absolutely the case. I will always remain nervous anytime we end up in any litigation or any scenario where our obligations around water could potentially change. In this case, I am very optimistic that we will get to a resolution that will not adversely affect Colorado. We’ll see when and how that comes to pass. I am very confident in our position and am rooting for this to get to that resolution you talked about sooner than later, we’ll see how the process goes. I do really believe we’re in a strong position.
Alamosa Citizen: We want to ask you a couple of questions about narcotics, the flow of drugs into Colorado. It’s still troubling that the Valley sees as much as it sees when it comes to illegal drugs. Is the Valley a market that is intentionally targeted by drug dealers, distributors, even the Mexican cartels? And if so, what do you see from intelligence of why that is?
Weiser: I have two answers that I think speak to your question. The first, when you look at the first wave of the opioid epidemic, which were prescription pills, you saw stories of certain pharmacies, certain distributors, distributing massive amounts of opioids in certain communities. In the map of Colorado opioid distribution and overdose deaths, which are factored into the formula for the settlement that we reached suing some of these companies, the Valley’s bright red. The Valley had more opioids being used here, more overdose deaths than almost any part of Colorado. Southeast Colorado also was bright red. So you had some other communities similarly bright red, but it hit here really hard. Number two, when you think about the cartels from Mexico who saw that there was a market for their product, they started shipping in heroin because they knew they could sell heroin on the street cheaper than people were getting these prescription pills for.
Weiser continued: And a lot of people who were using prescription pills to feed an addiction shifted to heroin, because it was cheaper and more accessible we’re now in the third wave of this epidemic. And now it’s fentanyl, which is 50 times more potent than heroin and it’s even cheaper than heroin. So I think the cartels who use the major thoroughfares, so I think I-25, have both easy access to the Valley and know they’ve got a base of users that they can sell to. And that makes the Valley vulnerable to this crisis. To put the national picture on the table, in the last year we lost more Americans to drug overdoses, mostly opioids, than gun violence, deaths and car crash deaths combined.
Alamosa Citizen: Is there anything you want to add that we haven’t covered?
Weiser: Let me just say that I want this community to know I’m committed to listening, hearing, and working together to improve the criminal justice system, which with the 12 JD situation is on everyone’s mind, but more broadly the quality of life for people. And that includes making sure we protect water so that we have the agricultural economy here that’s critical. Respond to the opioid epidemic. We talked about how it’s hit this Valley so hard. We’re getting money from the settlement that we sought. And the community response here has been extraordinary and inspiring. And I think we’re going to start seeing people using that money to good end. We want to make sure that people aren’t being preyed on as consumers, being taken advantage of. And so when there are reports of that, our office will look closely at them. Stop fraud Colorado is how we respond. We’ve gotten over $40 million to Colorado’s back who’ve been cheated and over $40 million in student debt cancellations and refunds. So we’re here to serve the people of the Valley. And we want people to know that we’re here for them. And I appreciate everyone’s engagement.
AlamosaCitizen: Alamosa Citizen commissioned a poll of registered voters across the six counties of the San Luis Valley. Guess what the number one issue that came up was? The number one concern in the San Luis Valley when we did the survey?
Weiser: Is it public safety?
Weiser: Okay, water. I was going to go with one of those two. I will say obviously with the 12th Judicial (DA) situation, public safety and victim’s rights are on people’s minds. I’m not surprised water’s on people’s minds. If this Valley has its water diverted, it’s going to be awful. And obviously people here know the story of Crowley County. It’s not a hypothetical situation. They lost 95 percent of their water through a buy-and-dry type deal. And they now have an opioid epidemic that’s worse than anywhere in the state. Their economy has been essentially eviscerated and their population’s been cut in half. So that can’t happen here. I’m going to fight for this Valley.
PHOTO: Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser meets with community members in Alamosa. Courtesy attorney general’s communications office.