The Colorado Supreme Court upheld an ethics-violation finding filed against former Secretary of State Scott Gessler in a 6-0 ruling announced Monday.
The case dates back to 2012, when Gessler traveled to a Sarasota, Florida, seminar hosted by the Republican National Lawyers Association. The day after the two-day seminar ended, on Aug. 26, Gessler went to the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
According to court documents, the cost of Gessler’s airfare and lodging to Sarasota was $1,278.90. Gessler paid for it out of a discretionary fund within the Secretary of State’s office. He also directed his staff to give him whatever funds were remaining in the discretionary account, about $117.99, without providing receipts for those funds.
Colorado Ethics Watch, a former watchdog group, filed a complaint with the state’s Independent Ethics Commission, accusing Gessler of misappropriation of state funds for personal or political use, and for making false statements on travel expense reimbursement requests.
The ethics commission ruled Gessler’s trip was for partisan, political purposes and that his acceptance of the remaining discretionary money without providing receipts was for personal use. It levied a fine against Gessler for $1,514.88.
Gessler appealed to a district court, which ruled against him, as did the Colorado Court of Appeals.
In his appeal to the higher court, Gessler challenged the jurisdiction of the ethics commission, claiming that under the state constitution’s Amendment 41, an ethics provision that voters approved in 2006, the commission could only review “gifts, influence peddling, and standards of conduct and reporting requirements that expressly delegate enforcement” to the commission.
In its ruling Monday, the Colorado Supreme Court rejected the jurisdictional claim. The court also upheld the commission’s oversight on a related state law that says that the “holding of public office or employment is a public trust.” The court ruling said that public trust is a part of an ethical standard of conduct subject to commission review.
Peg Perl was part of the legal team for Colorado Ethics Watch on the case. She explained that Gessler has now lost unanimously in three different court appeals with 10 different judges ruling against him: one at the district court, three at the Court of Appeals and the six justices from the state Supreme Court who ruled on Monday.
The seventh Supreme Court justice — Richard Gabriel — did not participate in the ruling because he was one of the three judges on the Court of Appeals who ruled against Gessler in 2015.
Perl said she doesn’t see a national constitutional issue being raised with the case, so she believes it’s unlikely that Gessler would take the next step — to the U.S. Supreme Court. What Monday’s ruling means, Perl said, is that the ethics commission’s jurisdiction is now more clear as it applies to a range of standards of conduct.
The message of Monday’s ruling to elected officials, as Perl sees it, is that when voters enacted Amendment 41, they weren’t just seeking to create a hypothetical do’s and don’ts list.
“Elected officials are not supposed to use their official offices for private or political gain or for personal financial gain. That’s the principle that needs to govern how you conduct yourself in public office.”
Dino Ioannides, executive director of the ethics commission, in a statement to Colorado Politics, said the commission “is appreciative of the clarity provided by the Supreme Court regarding a constitutional issue of first impression. The Court unanimously clarified that the jurisdiction of the Independent Ethics Commission extends to hearing complaints about ethical standards of conduct beyond those standards specifically listed in the constitution, if those other standards of conduct relate to activities that could allow covered individuals to improperly benefit financially from their public employment.”
Efforts to reach Gessler and his attorney, Michael Francisco, were not successful. This story will be updated if they respond.