Attorney Rodney Atherton was suspended for four months after admitting he violated five rules of professional conduct. The sanction seems incredibly light given his misconduct – exploiting Colorado’s generous conservation-easement program, leaving it in tatters. As a consequence, our ability to protect the natural beauty of our state for future generations has been significantly hampered.
Atherton helped clients profit from tax credits that came with investing in companies he created to take advantage of the state’s conservation-easement rules. He capitalized on Colorado’s progressive conservation-easement laws, which offer some of the most generous tax credits in the nation aimed at preserving scenic views, wildlife and habitat.
Some of the easement deals Atherton created — huge projects that on paper were real estate developments — and the appraisals they balanced on were “abusive” and “fundamentally flawed,” according to expert testimony filed in a number of now-settled lawsuits that clients filed against him when the system toppled.
Starting in 2002 with a simple land-for-conservation proposition, Atherton turned easements into a diverse and complex array of investment opportunities ranging from private hunt clubs to telecommunication franchises and vacation-club memberships. In all, easements Atherton helped create have diverted about $37 million from the state treasury since 2002. State revenue officials prosecuted dozens of his clients and investors for millions of dollars in back taxes from the deals he arranged.
Another 14 months of suspension were set aside pending his successful completion of a two-year probation period, according to the ruling issued last month by Judge William Lucero, who presides over attorney discipline for the Colorado Supreme Court. In his ruling, Lucero noted how Atherton carried on multiple, overlapping roles — all conflicts of interest — in taking advantage of a program designed to protect valuable land from future development.
Atherton’s conduct is reprehensible and the light sanction an outrage for two reasons. His shady deals have crippled a forward-looking program which would have benefited Coloradans for generations. And he has given the public yet another example of a sleazy lawyer, further eroding confidence in the profession.