Boulder County prosecutors announced Friday the filing of felony and misdemeanor charges against Democratic state Rep. Tracey Bernett alleging that she lied about her residence to run for reelection this year in a district that’s more politically favorable.
She is charged with felony counts of attempting to influence a public servant, forgery and providing false information about a residence. She is also charged with misdemeanor counts of perjury and procuring false registration.
Bernett, who represents House District 12 and is running for her second term, turned herself in to the court Friday and was released on a personal recognizance bond, according to prosecutors. She is next due in court on Nov. 17.
The charges stem from a complaint filed in September with the Boulder County District Attorney’s Office by Theresa Watson, chair of the Boulder County Republicans, who asked prosecutors to look into whether Bernett broke the law by casting a ballot in the June 28 primary while registered at an address where the lawmaker doesn’t actually live.
Bernett changed the address of her voter registration from a 4,000-square-foot home in Longmont to a 700-square-foot apartment in Louisville on Nov. 3, 2021, so she could run for reelection in House District 12, which leans heavily in Democrats’ favor, according to a nonpartisan analysis of election results dating back to 2016.
The Longmont home was drawn into House District 19 during last year’s once-in-a-decade redistricting process. The new District 19 favors Republicans and is represented by GOP Rep. Dan Woog, of Erie.
State lawmakers must live in their districts for at least a year before election day under Colorado law. (Election Day 2022 is Tuesday, Nov. 8.)
Watson’s complaint cited Facebook posts from Bernett that appeared to show her still living at the Longmont home. It also included photographs of the Louisville apartment that appeared to show it vacant.
“As a result of the investigation, it is alleged that Ms. Bernett falsely represented her primary residence over a nine-month period,” the Boulder County District Attorney’s Office said in a news release Friday. “It is alleged that, although she rented an apartment in Louisville in order to qualify for elected office, she did not actually live there. And, in so doing, she filed false, sworn documents with the Secretary of State’s Office. It is, also, alleged that by misrepresenting her residence, she voted in a primary election in a district in which she does not actually live.”
Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty, a Democrat, said in a written statement that his office conducted “ a thorough investigation” that included witness interviews, search warrants and the analysis of cellphone location data.
“I appreciate the efforts of the investigators assigned to this case, including using proper investigative tools such as the judicially authorized search warrants,” he said. “Based on the facts and the law, we will now move forward with a criminal prosecution. As in every case, our goal is to seek the right outcome — without fear or favor.”
Bernett has repeatedly refused to discuss details of her residency with The Colorado Sun.
The Sun first reached out to Bernett about her address change in August and then again in late September after Watson’s complaint was filed with Boulder County prosecutors.
The first time The Sun reached out to Bernett, she declined to comment. She didn’t return a voicemail The Sun left for her in September and didn’t respond to an attempt to contact her through the spokesman for the House Democratic caucus.
Bernett didn’t immediately Friday respond to a request for comment from The Sun on the criminal charges filed against her.
House Speaker Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat who isn’t running for reelection this year because he has reached his eight-year term limit, said the allegations “are very serious and should not be taken lightly.”
“I trust the legal process to follow the facts,” he said in a written statement, “and I know Rep. Bernett will have an opportunity to be heard in that process.”
In response to a question from The Sun about whether Bernett should resign, Garnett said the legal process should play out.
The 2021 redistricting process in Colorado led to a real estate shuffle among several state lawmakers as they tried to best position themselves for the 2022 election. There have been criminal and civil complaints filed against other lawmakers as a result.
Republicans unsuccessfully challenged Democratic state Rep. Kyle Mullica’s residency in Denver District Court after he moved from Northglenn to Federal Heights and then Thornton as he vies for a state Senate seat.
A nonprofit linked to Democrats filed a complaint with El Paso County prosecutors saying that Republican state Sen. Dennis Hisey broke the law when he voted at a Colorado Springs address while actually living in Fountain. Hisey moved from Fountain to Colorado Springs to run for reelection this year after he was drawn during the redistricting process into the same state Senate district as another Republican.
In another instance, a grand jury indicted outgoing Democratic state Sen. Pete Lee, of Colorado Springs, for allegedly voting in a district where he didn’t live. But a judge tossed out that felony charge last month because it was based on incorrect information submitted to the grand jury.
Lee isn’t running for reelection and the criminal case didn’t have to do with last year’s redistricting process.
The criminal charges leveled against Bernett are the most serious faced by any politician recently accused of lying about their residence.
Investigators wrote in an arrest warrant for Bernett that they searched the Louisville apartment and found “no food items in the refrigerator other than a bottle of sparkling cider, soy sauce and a Smucker’s spread in the door. There was only a stick of butter in the freezer.”
The cabinets were covered in cobwebs, investigators said, and the apartment was sparsely furnished. The bedroom, for instance, contained a bed that appeared to be on the floor and there was no dresser, according to the warrant.
Investigators searched Bernett’s cellphone records and found that her cellphone made 31 times more connections to the cell tower closest to the Longmont home than the cell tower nearest the Louisville apartment, the warrant said.
Neighbors said they rarely saw Bernett at the Louisville apartment. One told investigators that Bernett wanted to take a selfie with them and “that it seemed like she was trying to make people think she actually lived at the complex,” the warrant said.
Investigators wrote in the warrant that they didn’t get a substantive response from Bernett or her attorney when they reached out to request an interview and “mitigation or other material.”
Bernett is running this year against Republican Kathryn Kirvan, a registered nurse. House District 12 leans 49 percentage points in Democrats’ favor based on a nonpartisan analysis of election results in statewide races in the district dating back to 2016, so Bernett appeared to be a shoo-in.
A politician’s residency qualifications can only be challenged in district court as a civil matter, as was recently done unsuccessfully to state Rep. Kyle Mullica. It’s too late for such a complaint to be lodged given that there is a five-day window after the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office certifies a ballot in which a residency challenge can be filed.
That window has now passed.