Disciplinary hearing begins for Laramie County DA

CHEYENNE — A disciplinary hearing in the case of Laramie County District Attorney Leigh Anne Manlove began Wednesday, with much of the first day's testimony focused on the alleged environment within Manlove's office and the motivations behind judges sending a letter of concern to the Wyoming State Bar.

Formal charges filed last year with the State Bar allege that Manlove mishandled the prosecution of cases in Laramie County and inappropriately dismissed certain cases, and that she created a hostile work environment for employees of the district attorney’s office.

Following the hearing, which may last until Feb. 11, a three-person panel chosen from the Bar's full Board of Professional Responsibility will decide whether to recommend disciplinary measures against Manlove to the Wyoming Supreme Court.

The morning began with opening statements by Special Bar Counsel Weston W. Reeves and Manlove's attorney, Stephen Melchior. Laramie County District Court Judges Steven Sharpe and Catherine Rogers were the first two witnesses called. Cameron Geeting, a former prosecuting attorney in Manlove's office, began testifying after they were done and will continue Thursday morning.

The hearing will resume at 9 a.m. Thursday in the Wyoming Ballroom at Little America Hotel and Resort, 2800 W. Lincolnway.

Reeves said his office bringing the formal charges against Manlove was not an argument against prosecutorial discretion, or the ability of a prosecuting attorney to make decisions about which cases they decide to charge. Reeves said the disciplinary proceedings were about Manlove's failure to provide competent service to her clients.

Special Bar Counsel described Manlove's office as operating with about half the number of attorneys it should have, saying a chaotic and abusive work environment fostered by Manlove had caused many qualified attorneys to leave. He also alleged a failure of Manlove's office to retrieve evidence for cases he said her office had access to, causing the dismissal of at least one case involving violent charges.

Reeves mentioned a couple of specific cases, including the Andrew Weaver case, in which a failure to file charges caused Weaver to be released from jail. Weaver killed two adults and injured two teenagers in a shooting within days of his release.

In his opening statement, Melchior said every prosecutor's office is busy, and that one-third of crime taken to court in the state of Wyoming is prosecuted in Laramie County. He said it would become clear that there were a couple of "primary complainers" who ended up causing problems for the district attorney's office.

Manlove, he said, was just trying to better utilize the resources she was given. In a Wednesday news release, she described this as a "conservative, belt tightening approach" opposed by Bar Counsel Mark Gifford, who she and Melchior have accused of going after her, in part, because she said publicly she would not enforce a Laramie County mask mandate.

Melchior alleged that after a petition filed with the Supreme Court by Gifford to suspend Manlove's law license was denied, Gifford's office began a campaign to remove her from office. Gifford and Laramie County judges didn't like the way Manlove was running her office, following a public announcement that she would not prosecute certain categories of cases because of budget cuts to her office by the state, he said.

Melchior said that in an effort to correct behavior they didn't like – which included a December 2020 letter signed by all seven Laramie County district and circuit court judges to the Bar – these judges, as members of the judicial branch, were attempting to police the behavior of Manlove, a member of the executive branch. These efforts, Melchior argued, were "clear breaches of constitutional boundaries" and a separation-of-powers issue.

He alleged sexism also may have played a part, saying that sometimes Manlove had said things that may have been accepted coming from a man.

Melchior also revealed a kind of "intervention" had been attempted in November 2020, in which former Gov. Dave Freudenthal and former Cheyenne attorney Jack Speight visited Manlove at her home and spoke with her about apparent issues within her office.

District court judges testify

Judge Sharpe was the first witness called by Reeves, followed by Judge Rogers. Both testified that they'd voted for Manlove and were not apprehensive – or, in Rogers' case, was "thrilled" – about the idea of Manlove becoming district attorney. 

The two judges described hearing about abusive and unprofessional behavior by Manlove within her office. Rogers said Caitlin Harper, a former deputy district attorney, came to her multiple times seeking solace and guidance about how to deal with "toxic" and "erratic" behavior by Manlove, including alleged incidents in which Manlove had thrown a phone against a wall, shattering it, and publicly cursed at or berated her employees.

Rogers said she decided to reach out to Gifford to see if there was a way to help Manlove, who she said had gone through a difficult time in the preceding months: the district attorney had recently lost her father, former Laramie County District Judge Ed Grant; and Manlove's best friend and colleague, Angela Dougherty, had died suddenly of an aneurysm inside the DA's office. Gifford organized the meeting between Freudenthal, Speight and Manlove.

But when Harper told her things hadn't materially changed following the "intervention," Rogers said she and her fellow judges decided to write their letter.

Melchior pointed out to both judges that their letter had been filed with Bar Counsel on Dec. 21, 2020. On the following day, Gifford filed his petition to suspend Manlove's license. 

Rogers, who was described as the "point of contact" between the Laramie County judges and Gifford, said she knew Gifford intended to use the letter in his petition, but that was not why she and her colleagues wrote it.

Sharpe and Rogers said they didn't have any motivation outside of expressing concern to Bar Counsel when they wrote their letter – they said it was up to the Bar to investigate the claims. After follow-up questioning by the hearing panel members Wednesday, both judges said they'd had a professional duty to report their apprehensions. 

Rogers also described incidents in which Manlove failed to show up on time for hearings or had errors in court filings, which Melchior characterized as her and the other judges being "overly critical."

During cross-examination, Melchior asked both Sharpe and Rogers why they hadn't simply gone to Manlove to discuss their concerns, or tried to verify Harper and other attorneys' claims before going to the Bar. Sharpe said he had no reason to disbelieve Harper, as he understood her to be close friends with Manlove and that she had a strong desire to be a prosecutor.

The judges had reached a conclusion based on hearsay, Melchior argued, assuming what they called a "mass exodus" from Manlove's office must be because of her behavior. He said Manlove would give the other side of the story later in the hearing.

Manlove has previously said the high turnover in her office is largely because of a heavy workload common in prosecutors' offices and a consequence of state budget cuts.

Sharpe, a former prosecutor himself, said he was deeply concerned about what he saw as an effort by Manlove to abdicate her duties as DA after statewide budget cuts sent a 6% reduction her way. In September 2020, Manlove sent an email to Laramie County judges and law enforcement officials, saying her office would only be able to prosecute violent felonies, domestic violence cases, repeat DUIs and felony drug cases, and that law enforcement may be responsible for prosecuting certain cases.

This disturbed Sharpe, he said, because it was not his understanding that prosecutorial discretion allowed for a categorical refusal to take on certain cases. It also seemed to him that it was improper for members of law enforcement, or anyone without a law license that wasn't representing themselves, to prosecute a case.

Melchior argued in his cross-examination that the letter was Manlove's effort to be "completely transparent" about the way budget cuts would affect which cases she chose to prosecute, and that it represented a policy decision by her office.

Still, Sharpe testified that it was problematic to see a DA take the position that she would not be doing 50-60% of her job because of a 6% reduction in budget. He said victims have little to no recourse when their cases aren't taken up by a prosecutor.

"The way she was running her office was hurting people," Sharpe said.

In October 2020, hundreds of cases were dismissed in Laramie County Circuit Court, Sharpe said, and that November, the Wyoming Attorney General's Office inquired of the judges whether their office would be allowed to take on hundreds of tickets issued by the Wyoming Highway Patrol that weren't being prosecuted. In their letter to the Bar, the judges said they weren't sure statute allowed the AG's office to take on such a large number of cases from a district attorney's office.

Manlove also began attaching her September 2020 letter about the budget cuts to motions for dismissal of cases. Judges often struck the letter, saying it was improper because the content of the letter was not specific to each case. Manlove then began incorporating the text of the letter into her motions for dismissal.

Sharpe said it was also not appropriate to use a motion for dismissal to make a "political statement," which he saw as Manlove saying the governor's office should have given her more money.

In November 2020, Sharpe held a hearing in which he asked Manlove to explain why her office had continued to include this "extraneous" information in her motions. Sharpe said Manlove was "very polite" and accepted his criticisms, saying she wouldn't do that anymore.