Je≠co DA dis­bands child sex o≠en­der net unit in wake of com­plaint

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Kieran Ni­chol­son Kieran Ni­chol­son: 303-954-1822, kni­chol­son@den­ver­ or @kier­an­ni­chol­son

A hus­band-and-wife team who de­vel­oped a child sex of­fender in­ter­net in­ves­ti­ga­tions unit that helped ar­rest and con­vict more than 900 of­fend­ers over the past decade will stop their probes.

Mike and Cassandra Har­ris, both cer­ti­fied law en­force­ment of­fi­cers, work for the Jef­fer­son County district at­tor­ney’s of­fice, where they de­vel­oped the Child Sex Of­fender In­ter­net In­ves­ti­ga­tions Unit, which be­came known as Cheezo.

A griev­ance — filed by de­fense at­tor­ney Phil Ch­erner — with the Colorado Supreme Court Stand­ing Com­mit­tee on the Rules of Pro­fes­sional Con­duct about the Cheezo op­er­a­tion led to the unit be­ing dis­banded.

At is­sue are ethics rules for Colorado lawyers that state an at­tor­ney shall not lie, de­ceive or en­gage in sub­terfuge. The sub­terfuge rule ap­plies to any em­ployee of a lawyer’s of­fice, ac­cord­ing to state eth­i­cal guide­lines.

“This unit, housed in my of­fice, was ex­traor­di­nar­ily in­de­pen­dent,” said Jef­fer­son County District At­tor­ney Pete Weir, who Fri­day an­nounced the unit was clos­ing. “They are sworn law en­force­ment of­fi­cers.”

The Har­ris cou­ple, and an­other in­ves­ti­ga­tor, pose as chil­dren on­line and en­gage with adults who pro­pose or so­licit sex acts.

Un­der Colorado law, deputies and of­fi­cers can lie dur­ing in­ves­tiga­tive pur­suits. Lawyers, how­ever, can­not.

If the in­ves­ti­ga­tors worked for a sher­iff ’s of­fice or po­lice de­part­ment, there wouldn’t be an is­sue, Weir said.

“It’s just the fact that they get paid by us,” Weir said.

In re­sponse to the griev­ance, Weir en­gaged the rules com­mit­tee and they agreed that the Cheezo unit will stop the on­line in­ves­ti­ga­tions, which in­cluded the in­ves­ti­ga­tors mis­rep­re­sent­ing their true iden­ti­ties.

“By their ad­mis­sion to­day, that they had to close the unit, they ad­mit­ted to break­ing the rules,” Ch­erner said. “They were break­ing the rules of pro­fes­sional con­duct lawyers are sworn to fol­low.”

Ch­erner rep­re­sented Car­los Silva-Rayas, 35, who was con­victed in 2012 on two felony counts of crim­i­nal at­tempted sex­ual ex­ploita­tion of a child. His ar­rest and con­vic­tion were based on work by the Cheezo unit. Silva-Rayas ap­pealed the con­vic­tion but was de­nied.

Ch­erner filed the griev­ance with the rules com­mit­tee about a year ago.

The Cheezo in­ves­ti­ga­tion was car­ried out “with the full knowl­edge and sup­port of the hi­er­ar­chy” of the district at­tor­ney’s of­fice, Ch­erner said.

“Colorado has made it very clear (that) lawyers can’t lie,” Ch­erner said. “It was done with their full knowl­edge and sup­port. It was hardly an ac­ci­dent.”

On Fri­day, Weir said the Cheezo unit, which also does com­mu­nity out­reach, in­clud­ing talk­ing with chil­dren about the in­ter­net and safe prac­tices, will not be dis­banded. Over the years, the Cheezo pro­gram has pre­sented its “stranger dan­ger” in­ter­net safety pro­gram to thou­sands of Colorado chil­dren.

Weir said he’ll look into the pos­si­bil­ity hav­ing the unit re­vive its in­ves­tiga­tive op­er­a­tions.

“We are go­ing to be tak­ing steps,” he said, “to see if we can get this mat­ter back be­fore the rules com­mit­tee.”

The Child Sex Of­fender In­ter­net In­ves­ti­ga­tions Unit, headed by se­nior in­ves­ti­ga­tor Mike Har­ris, right, was dis­banded due to a rules com­plaint. The pro­gram used a mas­cot, Cheezo, to help ed­u­cate chil­dren. Den­ver Post file

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