The day after Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck appeared before a roaring crowd on the steps of the State Capitol at a tea party protest, the veteran prosecutor was back in court, leading the charge on two of the more contentious prosecutions Colorado has seen in the last year.
With a campaign for the U.S. Senate ready to launch, the Greeley Republican challenged GOP orthodoxy by prosecuting hate-crime charges against a man who would be soon convicted in the brutal beating death of a transgender woman. The same day, Buck challenged a lower court ruling that put a stop to a high-profile immigration probe that has proved wildly popular in conservative circles.
Buck’s approach to the two cases point to the difficulty assigning easy labels to the long-time ally of former U.S. Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, whose losing 2008 campaign he chaired.
In one case, where Buck targeted thousands of undocumented Weld County workers for using false identities to file federal tax returns, he could be viewed as making a bid for the mantle of recently retired U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, the Littleton Republican who ran for president on a staunchly anti-immigration platform.
In the other case, Buck broke ground by winning the nation’s first conviction on hate-crime charges against the killer of a transgender victim, Greeley teen Angie Zapata. At the same time, Buck broke with many Republicans and conservatives by fully endorsing Colorado’s hate-crimes law, spurning arguments such laws amount to policing thought.
“If someone acts in a way that is intended to cause fear toward a group of people, that is a special crime,” Buck said after a jury delivered a guilty verdict on the hate-crime charge. “That is a crime that deserves more punishment and a higher level of prosecution.”
Before the Colorado Court of Appeals on April 16, Buck appealed a district court decision handed down at the beginning of the week that ruled his office had to return thousands of tax records seized last fall in a raid intended to crack down on identity theft by undocumented workers in Weld County. The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado had earlier sued Buck and Weld County Sheriff John Cooke, demanding they relinquish more than 5,000 files containing years worth of tax records taken from a Greeley tax preparer.
The ACLU argued the search warrant obtained for the raid was overly broad, seeking evidence of generic crimes rather than specific crimes committed by specific people. The ACLU also charged the raid, dubbed Operation Numbers Game, violated the privacy of the clients of Amalia’s Translation and Tax Service.
The investigation drew national attention to a district attorney willing to take on a spongy corner of the law, with federal authorities preferring to let undocumented workers illegally file tax returns using identification numbers while gaining employment with purloined Social Security numbers.
The attention only grew when Buck produced and sold T-shirts over the Internet to raise money to fight the ACLU’s lawsuit. “THE ACLU SUED MY DISTRICT ATTORNEY & SHERIFF,” the shirts read on the front, and, “WELD COUNTY STANDING UP FOR AMERICANS,” on the back.
When news broke the shirts were manufactured in Haiti and imported through Mexico, Buck weathered some ribbing and stumbled with an awkward comment to the Greeley Tribune: “I vacation in Mexico, I eat Mexican food,” Buck said. “I don’t dislike Mexicans.” Sales of the T-shirts and other donations have netted the district attorney’s office more than $1,000 to help defend against the ACLU lawsuit, but more importantly, the controversy has marked Buck as someone unafraid to put the immigration issue front-and-center for Colorado Republicans, who are still reeling from a drubbing at the hands of Latino voters last fall.
About 100 people have been arrested on criminal impersonation or identity theft charges and face deportation stemming from the Operation Numbers Game investigation. The district court judge ruled Buck could go ahead prosecuting those already charged but had to stop digging through the remaining tax files and return them, which the prosecutor agreed to do while at the same time asking the appeals court for an expedited ruling.
The same day his attorney appealed the immigrant tax files ruling, Buck slipped into a courtroom in Weld County District Court to watch his chief deputy open the criminal case against Allen Andrade, the Thornton man accused in the brutal beating death last summer of Zapata, an 18-year-old transgender woman in Greeley. In addition to first-degree murder charges, Andrade faced a hate-crime count, the first time Colorado’s 2005 bias-motivated crime law would be taken to court in the murder of a transgender victim.
Buck’s prosecution — and the jury’s swift verdict of guilty on all counts — drew strong praise from unusual quarters, including some who said they probably didn’t agree with Buck on much else.
“I have been very impressed with the way that Ken Buck and the rest of the [district attorney’s] office has been willing to become more educated as to the issues of the transgender community,” said Mindy Barton, legal director of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Colorado.
Barton applauded Buck for filing hate-crime charges and pursuing a first-degree murder case against Andrade. “I believe it sent a clear message that crimes committed with the intent to intimidate or harass based on sexual orientation or gender identity will not be tolerated in Weld County,” Barton said.
“Initially, I was skeptical about the use of the bias-motivated crimes statute,” Buck wrote in a commentary in Sunday’s Denver Post. “Through my exposure to the Zapata case, I was persuaded that these crimes are unique. Bias-motivated crimes are particularly heinous because they target an entire community of people, not just the actual victim.”
Buck framed his support for hate-crime laws by acknowledging some conservative criticism, that the laws confer “special rights” for certain classes of victims at the expense of the public at large:
Bias-motivated crime legislation doesn’t provide special protection for some, but rather ensures equal protection for all. Every single one of us is protected by bias-motivated crime legislation. We each have a race, an ethnicity, a religion and a sexual orientation. This legislation is not aimed at distinct interest groups but rather is designed to encompass each of us in our individual capacities in order to protect the community as a whole.
Republicans in Congress have been battling an effort to extend federal hate-crime protection to gay and transgender victims, offering hostile amendments and voting in committee against the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, sometimes called the Matthew Shepard Act, which is scheduled to reach the floor of the U.S. House later this week. Buck hasn’t said whether he supports the federal legislation and didn’t respond to a request for comment submitted through his spokeswoman.
Both prosecutions tackle hot-button issues dear to the heart of the Republican activists who will decide whether Buck gets to challenge Democrat Michael Bennet for Colorado’s Senate seat next year. It remains to be seen whether Buck’s aggressive attempts to revive a divisive immigration debate will balance with his vigorous — and successful — prosecution of hate-crime charges many in his party find objectionable.
UPDATE 4/28/09: Ken Buck formally announced his candidacy for the GOP nomination to challenge U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet in 2010.