ALAMOSA — Robert Willett has announced his candidacy for the office of district attorney for the San Luis Valley. The former district attorney will be on the ballot in November, two years after vacating the position when unseated by challenger Alonzo Payne in the 2020 Democratic primary held at the height of the pandemic.
The announcement was made official on Friday, Sept. 2, but over those two years that have passed, Willett has never truly wavered in his intention to return. Even before he left office, he privately expressed to the Valley Courier his plan to run for district attorney in 2024, inspired in part by concern that his successor would be unprepared for working in the office that was heavy on workload and light on resources.
But, more than that, Willett was committed to the job of public safety in the Valley. It was all he wanted to do. And, having spent the better part of the seven years from 2013 to 2020 moving up from deputy to senior deputy district attorney to, ultimately, district attorney, Willett said he felt this was where he was supposed to be.
This is not the first time he has made public his aspiration. When it became apparent that the city was spearheading a campaign to recall the former district attorney, Willett geared up to run for the office, assembling a team for his campaign and meeting with local political leaders.
But no sooner had the Alamosa City Council voted to commit to the recall when Willett was blindsided by a felony charge of embezzlement, allegedly related to an event back in 2019 and filed by his former opponent via a felony summons that skirted a judge’s approval and went straight to court.
On Aug. 25 — a week before his announcement — Willett learned that the special prosecutor planned to dismiss the case with prejudice, putting the charges, of which Willett maintained innocence from day one, finally and officially to rest.
With the case closed, Willett is now free to discuss what happened, something “voters have the right to know”.
“Before I left office, I gave Christmas bonuses to the staff and a $1,500 bonus to myself,” Willett said. “It was done every year by the DA who hired me and the DA before her. By state statute, a DA is supposed to make $130,000 a year.
“Alonzo filed embezzlement charges, saying that $1,500 was illegal. But my W-2 showed I earned $126,000 — less than what I was supposed to earn, by statute. I was factually innocent. The evidence bore that out. But the case was assigned to a special prosecutor and another one after that, and no DA is going to just dismiss a case filed by another DA without investigating it.
“Those investigations take time,” he said.
When Willett learned of the pending dismissal, his reaction was different than expected.
“I’d been going different ways with this,” he said.
When Governor Jared Polis put out a call for applications, Willett applied but only received a form letter in return and nothing else.
“I still had that charge hanging over my head, so when I didn’t hear anything, I was resolving to just accept it and move on,” he said.
The plan was to return to his position as deputy district attorney for the 4th Judicial District where he had been prosecuting cases since leaving office in the San Luis Valley.
Then, last Sunday, he and his wife did something they hadn’t done in a while. They went to church.
“This is probably going to sound a little weird and I’m not trying to get all … religious … here, but the sermon that day was about how trials make a person stronger,” he said. “That resonated with me. When I got home, I saw I missed a phone call from area code 303. It was Morgan Carroll.
“She said they wanted me to run. That call was … fortuitous,” he said.
Carroll is Chairwoman of the Colorado Democratic Party.
In the days since, Willett contacted the team he assembled to run against Payne in the recall election as well as a few prosecutors he knows to see if — providing he is successful in November — they would be interested in joining his staff.
On Thursday, the door to the last two years was permanently closed when the case against him was dismissed. Ironically, it happened in the same courtroom where, less than a few hours before, the newly appointed district attorney, Anne Kelly, was sworn in.
That doesn’t appear to phase Willett in the least.
“I’m not looking back,” he said. “I’m looking forward.”
His focus is firmly fixed on returning to the San Luis Valley as district attorney, a place that, in his words, he never truly left.
Willett will oppose Kelly on the November ballot. Kelly told the Valley Courier she intends to run on the ballot as a Republican.
The election is Nov. 8.