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Porn was found on a shared 17th Judicial District laptop — law enforcement was never told

Previous administrator and former chief judge disagree on who decided to keep the images secret


A laptop computer that rotated among the judges of Adams and Broomfield counties’ judicial district and contained dozens of pornographic images was never turned over to law enforcement for investigation or reported up the chain of command when the images were discovered, The Denver Post has learned.

Reasons vary for why law enforcement was not involved at the start to determine whether the images were illegal. The former administrator of the 17th Judicial District, Benjamin Stough, said he was ordered by his boss, the chief judge, to make the images “go away” after he learned of them. The now-retired chief judge, Patrick Murphy, says it was Stough who handled the incident and that he was merely following his subordinate’s advice not to be concerned about it.

The incident comes to light months after Stough lost his battle for unemployment benefits. He was fired last year for not reporting the matter to authorities when it happened or detailing what he did with the pornography when asked.

Stough says Murphy ordered him to destroy the images after learning the laptop had been assigned to a magistrate and friend at the time the pornography was downloaded, according to documents obtained by The Post that detail the incident. He has said it was unclear whether the images were of children and maintains Murphy should have ordered them investigated.

Murphy told The Post that it was actually Stough who recommended not reporting the images and he recalls Stough assuring him they did not depict minors.

Details surrounding the allegation are laid out in several state records obtained by The Post including a whistle-blower complaint Stough filed with the State Personnel Board in August 2019 when he was fired and recordings of hearings held regarding his claims for unemployment insurance benefits months afterward.

The password-protected laptop is rotated weekly among judges and magistrates in the district for evening and weekend duties such as issuing police warrants for searches or emergency custody orders. Stough said a female judge in the rotation reported the images to the district’s computer technicians, who reported it to Stough. He then took the laptop directly to Murphy, according to the documents.

While Murphy recalls the exchange differently, Stough said he told Murphy he was unsure whether the images depicted children. Stough said that although the senior judge never viewed the images, he “directed me to ‘make it go away’” after the magistrate said they weren’t his, according to the whistle-blower complaint.

The complaint was dismissed because Stough was an at-will employee and not covered by the state’s career service rules.

“I believe Judge Murphy covered it up,” Stough said during an August 2019 interview with the current chief judge who later fired him, according to a transcript obtained by The Post. “He had a duty to call law enforcement, to try to find out (what) those images were, who these people were, and ascertain their age. He didn’t do it.”

Stough said he kept quiet because he feared for his job if he spoke out.

The best anyone can recall, the incident occurred around Christmas 2016 or 2017 and only recently came to light as Stough unsuccessfully battled for unemployment benefits. He was fired last year from his $175,000 job for failing to report the matter to state authorities or law enforcement when it happened and for not disclosing what he did with the pornography. That firing came under the current chief judge, Emily Anderson.

Murphy, a former assistant federal prosecutor who served 11 years on the bench, said he would never have sought to destroy evidence.  “There absolutely was not a conspiracy to hide anything whatsoever,” Murphy told The Post.

The images were discovered after the computer had been assigned to former Adams County Chief Magistrate Peter Stapp. Stapp denied any knowledge of the images or how they got onto the laptop when confronted by Murphy and Stough, the whistle-blower documents show.

The former magistrate, however, told The Post that he told the two men that it was likely teenaged relatives who visited the pornographic websites when he loaned them the laptop during a family gathering over the holidays. He said Stough told him not to be concerned about it.

“He said, ‘Don’t worry about it, it’s not a big deal, I’ll just take care of it,’” Stapp told The Post, adding he did not confront those relatives or ask if it was them. “I assumed it was the end of it.”

Stapp said all he saw was a list of websites from Stough, not any images. He said the next he heard about the incident was from the attorney general’s office in connection with Stough’s unemployment claim last year.

Stapp agreed that he, like all other judges and district employees, had signed a directive from the chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court restricting access to judicial laptops to employees only, as well as a requirement to report any misuse or unauthorized access.

Both Murphy and Stapp have since retired from the bench. Murphy currently works with the Judicial Arbiter Group, a company made up of retired judges who provide alternative dispute resolution and other legal services. Stapp runs his own legal mediation service in Denver.

The first time Stough disclosed the episode was in March 2019 when the Judicial Department’s director of human resources told him Murphy was firing Stough for unrelated reasons, according to the whistle-blower complaint. Stough replied that he would file an age-discrimination lawsuit over his firing, then revealed he would also send information about the pornography incident to the FBI.

A laptop was sent to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation in March 2019, but it turned out to be the one that replaced the laptop they sought, according to CBI reports obtained by The Post via an open-records request. The laptop used by Stapp had already been recycled and its hard drive removed. It’s unclear if the hard drive was destroyed or lay among hundreds scheduled to be incinerated.

Stough, now a consultant in Fort Collins, said that he brought up the pornography incident in March 2019 because he believed he had been fired and was free to disclose it since he no longer feared losing his position, according to the documents. Stough was actually placed on paid administrative leave, records show, and he said he heard from no one within the Judicial Department until Anderson contacted him in August 2019.

Anderson told The Post that she learned of the laptop incident after becoming chief judge in May 2019, when Stough was still on administrative leave, and immediately “asked for a thorough, independent investigation by the Attorney General.” She said she was unaware of the CBI inquiry.

Anderson told The Post she contacted Stough in August to discuss the incident at the request of the attorney general’s office.

“A report that pornography was found on a laptop computer used in the 17th Judicial District is very upsetting,” Anderson told The Post in an email. “The possibility that child pornography may have been involved is appalling.”

Anderson questioned Stough in August 2019, according to a transcript of that interview obtained by The Post, and later fired him because he refused to divulge what he had done with the pornography and for not reporting the incident to other authorities at the time it occurred, according to documents from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. Anderson told The Post the firing was in consultation with the AG’s office.

“I figured out … that (Murphy) did not care, just didn’t care, just make it go away. His position was to protect his judges, at whatever cost, any kind of judicial misconduct,” Stough told Anderson.

He said he kept silent because it would have been “career suicide” to take the matter further or “go around (Murphy’s) back” after he was directed to destroy the images, according to the transcript.

“My boss knew about it and he had a duty to report,” Stough told Anderson. “He also had the ability to fire me. So, I had a duty to support my family.”

Anderson also asked about the age of the females in the images.

“Did any of the women appear to be underage?” she asked Stough.

“It’s impossible to tell,” he said. “They were young, but they were heavily made up.”

Stough later said he refused to divulge to Anderson what became of the material because he feared it would be destroyed or otherwise disappear instead of given to law enforcement, according to a recording of his unemployment hearing.

Stough actually chose not to destroy the files and instead changed their designation on the computer so that they would remain hidden from public view and removed a desktop icon that linked to them, according to a recording of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment hearing in November 2019 regarding his unemployment claim.

Stough mailed information about the incident to the FBI the day after Anderson fired him but never heard back from that agency. The agency, through a spokeswoman, told The Post that it does not comment about complaints it receives or whether an investigation was conducted.

Stough said he was never contacted by agents at CBI, either.

Murphy said he was interviewed about the incident by the AG’s office, but only as it related to Stough’s claim for unemployment benefits. The same was true for Stapp, the former magistrate said.

Stough eventually lost his fight for unemployment benefits when a hearing officer agreed with lawyers for the state that he violated department policies by not reporting the incident to authorities other than Murphy, and for insubordination for not telling Anderson where the images were located, according to a copy of the decision obtained by The Post.