Ex-San Luis Valley DA files $5M lawsuit over bogus felony charge

Former 12th Judicial District Attorney Robert Willett filed a $5 million federal lawsuit Tuesday against his successor and the district attorney’s office after he was wrongly prosecuted for embezzlement.

Willett’s successor, the now-disbarred former district attorney Alonzo Payne, brought the felony charge against Willett in March 2022, days after Willett publicly called for Payne’s resignation. Willett claims in the lawsuit that the baseless charge was filed “as an act of sheer retaliation” for his public criticism of Payne.

Payne resigned as district attorney for the 12th Judicial District in the San Luis Valley in July 2022 after an investigation by the Colorado Attorney General’s Office found he repeatedly violated crime victims’ rights. He also was facing a recall effort led by the city of Alamosa. Payne was disbarred in September in part because of his investigation into and prosecution of Willett, state records show.

“…During a political campaign to recall Payne from office, Payne began an investigation and filed criminal charges against the previous district attorney, a political rival and critic of Payne,” a stipulation to discipline reads. “Despite this antagonistic relationship, Payne did not seek an outside law enforcement agency or special prosecutor to oversee the investigation or make charging decisions.”

The embezzlement charge against Willett was dropped in September at the request of an independent prosecutor who was eventually appointed to the case. The judge at the time concluded the case lacked “any type of prosecutorial merit.”

Payne had alleged that a $1,500 Christmas bonus that Willett paid himself boosted his salary above the statutory limit of $130,000 for district attorneys’ salaries. Willett contends in the lawsuit that he was paid no more than $126,000 as district attorney, even with the bonus included.

When the felony charge was filed, Willett was suspended without pay from his current job as a prosecutor in the 4th Judicial District, the lawsuit says.

“I was out of work for seven months and my name was pretty much sullied and drug through the mud,” he said in a brief conversation about the lawsuit Wednesday.

Willett referred additional questions to his attorney, Kristopher Miller, who declined to say how the pair arrived at the $5 million figure for damages.

The lawsuit names as defendants not only Payne and the 12th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, but also a former assistant district attorney, an investigator and a business administrator in the office. Additionally, another 10 “unknown employees” of the district attorney’s office are listed as defendants.

Willett alleges that employees in the office knew that Payne was using the embezzlement prosecution as political leverage and took part in the conspiracy.

Payne did not return a request for comment Wednesday.

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