Denver Ethics Director Michael Henry

Michael Henry, Denver's ethics director, will retire after Labor Day.

Outgoing Denver ethics director Michael Henry is leaving the city with a request: Assess the shortcomings of the program he's run for nearly two decades. 

Henry, who is to retire early next month, has asked the Denver Auditor's Office to complete a probe and make recommendations for improvements to the city's ethics code, which he says gives the Board of Ethics "zero" power to penalize employees who are accused of wrongdoing.

A 2010 audit made some suggestions to better the program, but the board "was not able to implement any of them" because it didn't have budgetary authority and was limited by the code in other ways, Henry told the City Council's Finance & Governance Committee on Tuesday. 

One of the changes proposed was to allow city employees to submit anonymous complaints. Under the current rules, a complainant must sign his or her name, and a copy of the grievance is sent to the subject within five days. 

"If it’s a city employee who’s wanting to complain about his or her supervisor or the head of the department or even a co-worker -- as soon as they hear that, I’d guess 80% say 'I don’t want to do that,' for fear of retaliation," Henry said in an interview. 

Other problems, too, have frustrated him during his tenure.

If the five-member board holds a public hearing and finds that an employee did violate the ethics code, it only has the authority to recommend discipline to the department head or official who appointed the staff member, he said.

Supervisors have blown off those recommendations in the past, saying they already offered counseling to the employee regarding the issue, Henry said. 

Other government ethics boards have the power to impose fines or penalties, he said. 

Most of the complaints and questions that the board fields are about city employees and officials accepting gifts and potential conflicts of interest. Departing employees, for example, often ask if it's appropriate to take jobs in industries that they once had a hand in regulating, he said. 

Last year, the board had 30 formal cases in which complaints were made or advisory opinions or waivers were requested, according to the board's 2018 annual report. Henry received some 200 more informal inquires about ethics issues, the report says. 

But many other branches of the city government handle ethics complaints, and no central source keeps track, Henry said.

"A lot of people make complaints to the City Council or the mayor or the Board of Ethics or the auditor. Nobody collects them altogether and tries to make sure there’s some follow-through about serious complaints," he said.

Senior Assistant City Attorney Lori Weiser, who's served as the legal advisor to the board, will succeed Henry as executive director on Sept. 5.

"My main push right now is to try and continue what Michael has done to increase the visibility of the board," Weiser told the Finance & Governance Committee. 

The audit, first reported by Denverite, is due in October. 

The volunteer board will review the report and decide whether to refer any proposed changes to the ethics code to the mayor or city council.

"I look forward to seeing the recommendations that will strengthen the role of the office, so that when we have situations that there’s grey area, it gives a little bit more teeth to the agency deal with some of the issues," City Councilwoman Debbie Ortega said during the committee meeting.  

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