Denver Bar Association
January 2012
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Musings on Pat Sullivan

by Craig Eley



he exact phrase to apply to Pat Sullivan’s public humiliation eludes me. Irony? Hypocrisy? Poetic justice? Hoist on his own petard?

Perhaps it is all of the above.

As The Docket was heading to press, the charges that will be brought against the former Arapahoe County sheriff include possession of methamphetamine, distribution of meth, attempting to influence a public servant, and soliciting a prostitute.

As I watched the ignominy of Pat Sullivan being booked into a detention facility that bears his name, my thoughts turned to the only time I ever saw him in person. It was a number of years ago at a meeting of the Colorado Bar Association Board of Governors, where a debate between the then-sheriff and a lawyer from New York had been arranged. Although most sheriffs I had seen on television wore jackets and ties, Sullivan appeared in a patrolman’s uniform, complete with mace, nightstick, and a pistol.

The debate was supposed to be modeled on debates in the British House of Commons. Although we tend to think of the British as cultured, refined, and polite, debates in the House of Commons are apparently raucous, with members of parliament shouting comments, criticisms, and worse at the debaters. Consequently, those of us viewing this debate were encouraged to do the same.

The debate topic was the legalization of drugs. The attorney was from an organization that advocated an end to the war on drugs. Sullivan argued that illicit drugs should remain illegal. He cited his long experience in law enforcement and his knowledge of the damage drugs can do. His opponent argued that people who want illegal drugs will always be able to obtain them and that decades of experience should have taught us that banning in-demand substances only makes criminals wealthy, corrupts law enforcement officials, and fills our prisons unnecessarily.

During the debate, Sullivan was forced to concede that during his many visits to hospital emergency rooms, he observed that the carnage caused by alcohol abuse far exceeded that from the use of illegal drugs. From this, his opponent led the sheriff down the path of almost advocating a return to the days of Prohibition. Sullivan refused to take that final step, but it was apparent to all that there was really nowhere else for him to go.

Despite the urgings of the debate organizers, we coarse American cousins could not bring ourselves to emulate British MPs while the debate progressed. Rather than hurl catcalls and huzzahs, we sat quietly and listened. When the debate concluded, we were asked to exit through a "yea" or "nay" door, as is done in Parliament, to signify our agreement or disagreement with the proposal. Although it was clear that the attorney had twisted the sheriff into a pretzel of contradictions and illogic, more than 90 percent of us voted to support Sullivan’s position.

My memory of that debate and Sullivan’s position on the issue added irony to a situation that was already awash in it. At least one national news broadcast featured the travails of this former National Sheriff of the Year, and showed video of him rubbing elbows with presidents and then appearing for his arraignment in shackles and orange prison garb.

The media loves it when someone is caught in the act of doing what he has counseled others not to do, which is why this sordid local story made national headlines. I suspect that Newt Gingrich, if he obtains the Republican presidential nomination, will be pilloried not so much with the fact that he is a serial adulterer, but more so with the video evidence that he was decrying the marital infidelity of Bill Clinton at the very time he was cavorting behind his wife’s back. Adultery, it seems, we can forgive in a public figure. Hypocrisy, not so much.

As lawyers, we are expected more than most to extend to Pat Sullivan the presumption of innocence. But regardless of how his case turns out, an exemplary career and heroic reputation will have been destroyed. With so few pillars of rectitude available as examples to our citizens, it is nothing less than a tragedy when one crumbles away. D

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