Colorado SpringsElection 2018News

Debts, financial difficulties in El Paso County candidates’ pasts

Author: Rachel Riley, The Gazette - June 18, 2018 - Updated: June 18, 2018

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From left: Vickie Tonkins and Calandra Vargas. (Courtesy photos)

Two El Paso County commissioner candidates have contributed thousands of dollars to their campaigns while working to pay off debts that led to past legal troubles.

District 5 hopeful Vickie Tonkins has been taken to court three times in the past 15 years over debts totaling more than $20,000. District 1 candidate Calandra Vargas filed bankruptcy in 2013 with $120,000 in student loans that she said she’s still repaying.

The candidates, both Republicans, say they are working to resolve the debts, and their past financial hardships illustrate that they’ve worked hard to overcome obstacles and fulfill their responsibilities.

The Gazette searched county and 4th Judicial District court records for cases involving any candidates in the county races and found that no other candidates have outstanding debts or have filed for bankruptcy.

The duties of county commissioners include approving the county’s annual budget and many individual spending decisions.

Campaign finance records show that Tonkins, who will face Cami Bremer in the party’s June 26 primary, has loaned more than $3,000 and donated more than $1,000 to her campaign, according to records filed with the Secretary of State’s Office.

Financial troubles for her and her husband date back to 2004, when Citibank filed a lawsuit against her claiming about $9,500 in delinquent credit card debts, according to court records. Later that year, a judgment was entered against her for the debt. By early March 2006, that judgment had been satisfied, according to court records.

In 2011, North Carolina-based State Employees Credit Union sued Tonkins and her husband over about $9,000 in unpaid debts. An April 2011 judgment against them had risen to about $12,000, with interest and other costs, in 2016 and remained unsatisfied, court records show.

During those two cases, Tonkins’ family “fell on hard times due to job loss,” and their hardships were compounded by the 2008 financial crisis, she said in an email to The Gazette. She added that her family members were advised to file for bankruptcy, but they did not feel it was the right choice for them.

“This in no way affects my abilities as a county commissioner but it in fact shows that I will work hard to do things the right way and not run away from my responsibilities to myself, my family, or to the constituents of El Paso County,” said Tonkins, 55, who now runs a Christian ministry that serves at-risk youths with her husband, Rex Tonkins.

In 2014, debt collection agency Credit Service Company sued the couple over a debt of about $2,200. Court records show a judgment against the Tonkins in the case, and that the judgment remains unsatisfied. Information about the outcome of the case was not available, and Vickie Tonkins said she did not recall the case. She said that she and her husband might have paid the debts in full, or that the case might have been dismissed because it was not legitimate.

Vargas, who is running against Holly Williams for the Republican nomination for the District 1 seat, has donated more than $3,500 to her campaign.

Vargas was making about $1,200 a month as a campaign worker and aide when she filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy in December 2013, about a month after debt buyer Asset Acceptance sued her over outstanding debts.

She had more than $23,000 in credit card debt, about $1,800 in unpaid income taxes and about $6,000 in assets. She also owed about $120,000 in student loans from her time at Oral Roberts and Regent universities that she said were not discharged during her bankruptcy proceedings.

Vargas, 34, said she was dealing with illness and family issues at the time, and that the hardship taught her about problem-solving and the value of the taxpayer’s dollar.

“It was one of those seasons that I wouldn’t wish on anyone,” Vargas, who now works as an equestrian contractor offering services such as training and grooming, told The Gazette in a recent interview. “It gave me a sense of tenacious determination. … I know what it’s like to come from an incredibly difficult situation and to find solutions to build a successful future.”

Her opponent, Williams, was criticized in 2003 during her tenure as the county’s public trustee. An audit found that records were so poorly kept that the county’s then finance director said she couldn’t be sure money hadn’t been stolen. The review found uncashed checks stored in unlocked file cabinets, books that weren’t reconciled with detailed information from daily transactions, and other lapses that increased the risk of errors or fraud at the office, which oversees mortgage lien releases and foreclosures.

But Williams, who left the trustee position in 2007 to work for U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, told The Gazette a subsequent audit found that all of the issues had been resolved within a year. She added that, during the time she was leading the office, she was able to reduce the per-transaction cost to the county.

“It was a tough year, but we worked really hard, and we did fix the problem,” Williams, the 52-year-old wife of Secretary of State Wayne Williams, said in a recent interview.

“I think one of the things about a good leader is when you can really take a problem and fix it head-on and find a solution.”

Rachel Riley, The Gazette

Rachel Riley, The Gazette