AG to ask grand jury to probe conservation tax credit abuses

By Chris Rizo | Jun 18, 2008

John Suthers

DENVER, Colo. (Legal Newsline)-Colorado Attorney General John Suthers will ask a standing grand jury to look into suspected abuses of the state's conservation tax credit program, a spokesman said.

The grand jury will be asked to examine several easement transactions, Suthers spokesman Nate Strauch told Legal Newsline on Wednesday.

The conservation program, created in 2000, was aimed at protecting privately held scenic lands and working ranches by allowing landowners who agree not to develop their property to receive tax credits.

The program requires that the landowners donate easements protecting the property to non-profit land trusts. Tax credits gained through the program can be sold for cash.

In the past seven years the state has given about $275 million in credits and protected about 1.2 million acres.

But cased have emerged where state officials say land were inflated to generate larger credits, Strauch said.

Recently, the Colorado Supreme Court has begun an ethics investigation into Denver tax attorney Rodney Atherton for his involvement in transactions under the program.

The state Real Estate Division contends that Atherton-a partner in the Denver law firm of Zakhem Atherton, LLC- might have violated state ethics rules.

In a letter to the state Supreme Court, Erin Toll, an attorney director of the real estate division, said information about Atherton turned up during the real estate division's investigation of appraisers who performed appraisals for state conservation easement tax credits.

The state contends that a handful of transactions done by Atherton have been investigated because of the way they were structured and amid complaints that land values were inflated.

Atherton did not respond to a request for comment.

From Legal Newsline: Reach reporter Chris Rizo by e-mail at chrisrizo@legalnewsline.com.

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