Ethics concept

Colorado's Independent Ethics Commission has been plugging away at a backlog of ethics complaints this summer, resolving one that dates back to 2017.

Tuesday, the commission held a hearing on a complaint filed against the Delta County Administrator, Robbie LeValley, who is a co-owner of a direct-to-consumer beef operation. LeValley had on at least two occasions purchased beef from Homestead Meats for use at county events, using taxpayer funds. The total amount of the purchases, paid for by LeValley on a county credit card in her name, was $805.49.

That led to a 2019 complaint from citizen journalist/blogger JoAnn Kalenak of Hotchkiss, who claimed LeValley violated Amendment 41's provision that any effort by a public official to realize personal financial gain through public office is a violation of the public trust. 

The complaint isn't as simple as whether LeValley purchased beef from her company for the county, which was acknowledged by LeValley's attorney, Ed Ramey. Witnesses said it's common knowledge in Delta County that LeValley is associated with LeValley Ranch and with Homestead Meats; several witnesses testified that that LeValley, who is prominent in agriculture on the Western Slope, is the public face of Homestead and its biggest promoter. LeValley noted that her family is a one-sixth partner in the company. Among the other partners: former Delta County Commissioner Mark Roeber, who was on the board during the 2019 transactions.

Since LeValley became county administrator in 2012, the county has made more than 400 purchases from a Homestead competitor, Calloway Meats, which according to an exhibit presented by Kalenak's attorney, Chris Mochulsky, sells at lower prices.

But the events in question — a community dinner at the county fair and a meal for fair judges — was a special situation. Commissioners wanted a supplier who provided beef sourced in Delta County, and for that, Homestead is the only one, according to testimony.

In her defense, LeValley said she did not make the decision to choose Homestead for the beef approved by Commissioner Don Suppes, just that she paid for it and picked it up from the company. The Delta County Purchasing Manual states that the county shall not contract for goods or services for any department if the contract is with an employee of the department, although contracting could be permitted if certain requirements are met, including that bids would be solicited by the Procurement and Contracts Department, regardless of cost. However, Commissioner Selina Baschiera, acting as the hearing officer for the complaint, said the purchasing manual carried no weight with the commission and is not a matter of law. 

LeValley initially insisted, upon questioning from Mochulsky, that she was not a partner or shareholder in Homestead. But Mochulsky brought up testimony LeValley made to Congress on two occasions in which she said she was a co-owner, and additionally, involved in the management of the company. She also acknowledged that had she not agreed to make the purchases on her county credit card, it would not have happened.

Suppes also testified as a witness on LeValley's behalf, stating that he did not remember just who suggested Homestead for the beef but that he approved the purchases, a decision he made as commission chair for which there was no documentation and which was not discussed in a public meeting. He said he was aware that LeValley was a part owner of Homestead but said he did not discuss those purchases with her prior to his decision. Suppes did have authority to purchase the beef on his county credit card, but only to a maximum of $500. One of the two purchases exceeded that amount, and he admitted LeValley could have refused to do so. 

Bob Kalenak, husband of the complainant and a 13-year former employee of Delta County, including five years with LeValley, said the county administrator has "complete discretion" in her job and noted that LeValley gave gifts of Homestead beef to county employees at Christmas. But LeValley said she personally paid for those gifts and did not use county funds.

The commission went into executive session to begin discussion of the case. Baschiera said there would be no ruling Tuesday and that a written ruling would be forthcoming.

Tuesday's hearing was the third the commission has held in the past month, wrapping up one of its oldest remaining cases. 

Among them: a 2017 complaint against then-Weld County Commissioner Julie Cozad that put the ethics commission into a fight with home-rule counties when their ethics policies aren't up to commission standards. Home-rule jurisdictions are exempt from Amendment 41 so long as they have their own ethics policies. 

But the commission voted in 2018 to accept jurisdiction over an ethics complaint against Cozad, claiming the Weld County policy did not have a gift ban, although that was disputed by the county attorney. The complaint, filed by Johnstown resident Ellen DeLorenzo, alleged Cozad and her husband attended a January 2017 fundraising event as guests of Noble Energy. Seats at the Noble table cost $2,500 each, although seats at other tables could be had for $275 each. Cozad paid $150.

Between 2018 and 2020, the issue of the commission's jurisdiction in the Cozad case became intertwined with another complaint over jurisdiction in Glendale. A Denver District Court Judge ruled in the other complaint that the commission did not have authority over home-rule cities. The Colorado Court of Appeals overturned the Denver decision, and the Colorado Supreme Court denied an opportunity to hear the case last November. 

The commission held its evidentiary hearing on June 10 and found that Cozad had violated Amendment 41's gift ban provision, and fined her $250, based on the fair market value of her ticket.

On June 15, after a hearing, the commission dismissed a 2020 complaint against Salida mayor PT Wood, filed by Michele Parmenter and related to the city's purchase of land that was near a property owned by Wood. "There was no evidence that the City’s purchase of the UPRR Land increased the [Wood] property’s value at all, much less 'directly and substantially,' " the commission wrote in its ruling.

The commission has also undergone major changes in its membership this year. Three of the five commissioners have been replaced or resigned. Commissioner Bill Leone, who had been on the commission since 2013, was replaced by former state Rep. Cole Wist, an appointment made by Senate President Leroy Garcia. 

Commissioner Debra Johnson, whose appointment in 2019 raised ethics concerns, resigned effective July 1. She was replaced by attorney Annie Kao, who was appointed in June by Speaker of the House Alec Garnett. The third to leave is Commissioner Yeulin Willett of Grand Junction, who announced his resignation when his wife retired. His replacement has not yet been announced, and that appointment will be made by Chief Justice Brian Boatright of the Colorado Supreme Court.

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