Manlove: Charges a coordinated effort to remove me from office

CHEYENNE — Retaking the stand Monday morning to defend against charges brought by the Wyoming State Bar, Laramie County District Attorney Leigh Anne Manlove said she believed the proceedings were a coordinated effort among the county's judges, some of her former employees and the Bar's disciplinary arm to remove her from office.

The effort was sparked largely by personal and political biases against her, she said.

Formal charges filed by the Office of Bar Counsel 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 Friday, 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 hearing was scheduled to resume Tuesday morning in the Wyoming Ballroom at Little America Hotel and Resort, 2800 W. Lincolnway.

During questioning by Special Bar Counsel Weston W. Reeves, who represents the Bar in the case, Manlove agreed with the suggestion that the Office of Bar Counsel began pursuing disciplinary measures against her following an apparent disagreement in November 2020 over her public statement that she would not prosecute anyone who violated a new COVID-19 masking order in Laramie County.

Manlove also agreed that the current proceedings against her are a result of the Office of Bar Counsel working with Laramie County's four district court judges and three circuit court judges to dig up anything they can to remove her from office.

She answered affirmatively when asked if she still agreed with a statement she's made previously – that she has no faith in her disciplinary process, and that she already knows what the decision will be at the end of the hearing.

Manlove said there were other prosecutors in the state who said similar things about not taking cases related to mask enforcement. Those attorneys aren't in her position today, she said, because they aren't "the target of personal animus by Bar Counsel."

Following an Oct. 31, 2020, radio interview where she said her office would not be enforcing the health order, Manlove received an email from Bar Counsel Mark Gifford in which he said that her statements raised competence questions and issues related to the administration of justice, according to Monday's testimony. In the ensuing email chain, Gifford urged Manlove to use her elected position to encourage Laramie County residents to be safe and "put on a mask, for God's sake."

Gifford went on to say there are "signs of hope:" He'd heard Utah's governor might soon issue a mask order, which would "hopefully" be "the start of a trend of courageous leadership in the Rocky Mountain West."

Manlove said she interpreted Gifford's comments as an attempt to pressure and influence her in her response to Laramie County's masking order. Further, she said, she interpreted it as a political statement by Gifford, because he encouraged her in the same email exchange to reach out to Teton County's prosecuting attorney – a Democrat – for guidance in how to handle the health order.

Manlove has identified herself as a conservative Republican. She said she does not know what political party Gifford associates with.

Although the district attorney was questioned about the alleged personal and political bias extensively by her attorney, Stephen Melchior, the chair of the BPR hearing panel, said during Monday's hearing that the tribunal would not give the argument much weight. 

On Dec. 28, Melchior filed a motion to withdraw the affirmative defense that the formal charges "result in part from, or are in part motivated by" Gifford's and Reeves' political and personal bias against her, and from Gifford's "affront and outrage" at Manlove because of her public comments about refusing to enforce the county's mask order.

According to the motion, Manlove had not received enough evidence during discovery to support the argument.

Melchior said that had he and his client not been denied correspondence between the seven Laramie County judges and Gifford, he may have been able to show this political and personal bias. He also accused Reeves of threatening him in an attempt to have him withdraw that argument. Reeves denied threatening Melchior.

Following a December 2020 letter from the seven Laramie County judges to Gifford in which the judges expressed concern about Manlove’s ability to effectively do her job, Manlove said attorneys across the state "repeatedly" suggested she file motions to have all of her cases reassigned to judges outside the county. She said it was within her power to do so, and it would have been justifiable because of the judges' letter.

But she said because she knew doing so would wreak havoc on the pursuit of justice in the county, she chose not to.

"In fact, you are the one who preserved the administration of justice, not interfered with it?" Melchior asked. Manlove agreed.

When asked by Melchior what her life has been like since she became aware the Bar was pursuing disciplinary measures against her, Manlove said the process has been "all-consuming."

"My world has been absolutely shaken to its foundation," she said.

Manlove said a suggestion by Melchior that Bar Counsel's proceedings against her have been an "unrelenting crusade to find anything you have done to try to get you out of office" was not an unfair statement.

Melchior also read from in-office correspondence between two former DA's office employees, Blaine Burgess and Josephine Carlson, in which they discussed their participation with the Office of Bar Counsel's investigations into Manlove. Both apparently tried to delete the communications before they left their jobs. 

According to testimony, the two made disparaging comments about Manlove. Burgess seemed to relish the idea of the district attorney being federally indicted for violating the Fair Labor Standards Act related to an alleged failure to pay employees for overtime.

"I can't wait to tell people how I participated in her demise," Carlson wrote to Burgess.

Burgess and Carlson apparently met with Gifford in person in July 2021.

Manlove said the emails disturbed her because her assessment of Burgess and Carlson as high-quality employees and people had been so wrong.