A Regional Transportation District board candidate’s guilty plea nearly a decade ago in a case involving the theft of human services benefits, including cash meant to help disabled people buy food and heat their homes, could mean she is ineligible to serve in the post if she is elected.
Colorado’s constitution restricts anyone who has been “convicted of embezzlement of public moneys, bribery, perjury, solicitation of bribery, or subornation of perjury” from holding “any office of trust or profit in this state.”
Shontel Lewis, who is running to serve as the RTD board member for district B encompassing northeast Denver, pleaded guilty in a 2008 misdemeanor theft case. She faced felony charges after she was accused of stealing thousands of dollars in social services benefits while she worked at the state Department of Human Services East Food Stamp Office.
Court records show she admitted to reissuing Electronic Benefit Transfer cards for accounts meant for other people for use by her roommate and herself.
“This conviction very well could fall under the (prohibitions in the) Colorado constitution,” said Christopher Jackson, an attorney for the Denver law firm of Sherman & Howard who reviewed documents related to the 2008 case against Lewis.
Jackson, who formerly worked in the Colorado attorney general’s office, has worked on cases where questions about the qualifications of elected officials have arisen.
“I don’t think that it’s 100 percent clear that she’s disqualified from office,” Jackson said. “It depends a lot on how a court is going to look at this and the meaning of the constitution, but if someone made this argument in court they would have a pretty good basis.”
Lewis, now 32, says she has worked hard to move past a mistake she made as a young, single mother following the death of her spouse.
“I believe my eligibility should be based on the voters, not on a series of poor decisions I made over a decade ago at a time of trauma in my life,” she said in a statement to The Colorado Sun.
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Lewis’ campaign was asked for a legal opinion on the question Saturday and had not responded by Sunday morning. The campaign was unaware of the public embezzlement provision in the Colorado constitution until The Colorado Sun raised questions about the issue on Saturday.
In 2008, a woman told social services that a benefits card for her son was not working and that she believed funds had been removed from his account, court documents show.
Investigators eventually tracked the issue back to Lewis, who was working at the Department of Human Services East Food Stamp Office.
“Initially in the interview, Ms. Lewis denied any manipulation of records … but later admitted that she had stolen several EBT/Quest cards and gave them to her roommate,” an arrest affidavit said. “… Ms. Lewis said that her finances were at issue and she was struggling to meet her needs, hence, came up with a way to obtain additional funds using the position she was assigned.”
Lewis, according to the affidavit, told investigators that she would “routinely go through the EBT screens, searching for a case that appeared to be inactive, which still had money left in the EBT account.”
Investigators said they found seven cases that had been accessed by Lewis.
Court records show Lewis was charged with several crimes, but eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft and served 18 months probation.
“What you see on the record doesn’t tell the whole story,” Lewis’ statement to The Sun said. “Ten years ago, I was a struggling college student, trying to build a bright future for my son after the loss of my spouse and son’s father. To be honest, I was in a state of grief and panic. I didn’t know I was suffering the effects of trauma, and in the middle of this, I made a series of poor decisions. I have and continue to take full responsibility for my actions.”
Lewis says she paid “full restitution and was able to get the mental health supports I needed. Now, over a decade later, I am a stronger and more compassionate person because I know firsthand the trauma that can come from economic insecurity and the stigma associated with seeking mental health care and being in the criminal justice system.”
Lewis is running against Chris Martinez and JoyAnn Keener Ruscha for the RTD board seat now held by Barbara Deadwyler. The race is nonpartisan.
Lewis, who now works in the public affairs department at Denver Public Schools, previously worked at RTD, where she oversaw the publicly funded transit agency’s handling of civil rights issues. She is running on a platform of better building out RTD’s bus network and keeping fares down.
“I know how easy it is for folks to forget why we do this and I want to remind you of why I’ve done this,” Lewis said of her run for the board seat, speaking in an emotional video posted Saturday on Facebook. “Because I grew up on public transportation, because I worked in RTD and I understand the gaps and I’m willing to listen to the needs to ensure that we are not continuing to make decisions that are not reflective of communities’ needs … And that’s why I’m running for RTD. I’ve forgiven myself and I’m moving forward, and I’ve paid my debt to society. And I will continue to pay my debt for society because it will continue to come up and it’s a reality that I just have to live with.”
Jackson, the attorney, said if Lewis wins and someone challenges her eligibility, the case would likely go to a district court.
“There have been cases where people have run for office and then have been disqualified,” he said. “But I have never seen a case that involves this particular clause in the state constitution. It looks like this is going to be the first one if it happens.”
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