Taxpayers pay for both sides of Gessler ethics lawsuit, but how much?

After six-plus years and more than half a million dollars of taxpayer expense, former Secretary of State Scott Gessler has paid a $1,514.88 fine owed to the state for ethics violations.

Dino Ioannides, executive director of the Colorado's Independent Ethics Commission, announced the payment Monday during the group's monthly meeting.

The complaint dates back to 2012 and an ethics complaint filed by Colorado Ethics Watch that alleged Gessler had improperly tapped state funds  $1,278.90  to pay for a trip to a Republican National Lawyers Association conference in August 2012, shortly before the Republican National Convention.

Gessler also asked his staff to give him monies remaining in a discretionary account but did not provide receipts for those funds, a total of $117.99, according to the complaint.

The ethics commission ruled that both disbursements violated state ethics law, and Gessler reimbursed the state for the $1,278.90. But he never paid back the discretionary funds, nor a fine levied by the ethics commission for $1,396.89, for a total of $1,514.88.

Last month Ioannides told the commission he has "repeatedly tried to get Mr. Gessler's counsel to pay the penalty affirmed by Colorado Supreme Court. Gessler's counsel has stopped communicating with us, and there's no indication that penalty has been paid."

The commission could send Gessler to a state collections agency, Ioannides said.

However, Commissioner Bill Leone objected, stating that such an action would result in more costs to the state. He instead suggested the commission send a complaint on Gessler to the state's office of attorney regulation. The commission did not act on that suggestion due to the late hour and planned to make a decision Monday.

As it turns out, that wasn't necessary. Ioannides told the commission that Gessler had paid the fine in the last month, the check was processed, and the money went into the state general fund.

Gessler appealed the ethics commission decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, challenging the ethics commission's jurisdiction. Not one judge  from Denver District Court to the Colorado Court of Appeals and the Colorado Supreme Court  agreed with his argument. 

The fine was stayed by a Denver District Court judge in 2013 until the legal process was concluded. That was last October, after the U.S. Supreme Court denied his request for a hearing. Taxpayers paid for legal counsel on both sides, at a cost of more than $515,000. 

      

In other news: 

• The ethics commission Monday ruled against a former Weld County commissioner who voted to reimburse herself for thousands of dollars in legal fees tied to a previous ethics complaint. Due to unidentified constitutional issues, the commission decided not to levy a fine or require the former commissioner to pay back the legal fees.

Julie Cozad served on the Weld County Board of County Commissioners from 2014 to 2018, when she announced she would not seek another term.

The first complaint filed against her was in July 2017 by Ellen DeLorenzo of Johnston. The complaint alleged Cozad had improperly accepted a discount on tickets to a benefit hosted by Noble Energy. That complaint has not yet gone to a hearing with the ethics commission due to legal challenges.

The second complaint was filed in July 2018 by Charles Parks of Milliken, who alleged Cozad had voted, along with other members of the county commission, to cover her legal expenses. She paid $12,268.57 to a private attorney to represent her on the first complaint, but the county commission voted in March 2018 to reimburse her for those expenses. Cozad voted in the affirmative on that decision.

At issue is whether Cozad benefited personally from that vote, which would be a violation of the state ethics laws. The ethics commission ruled 3-0, with one commissioner recused and another absent, that she did.

Cozad's attorney, Weld County Assistant Attorney Karin McDougall, told the ethics commission in Monday’s hearing that the agenda item pertaining to her reimbursement was contained in a consent agenda that she didn’t read prior to the March 7, 2018, meeting.

That’s no excuse, according to the ethics commissioners.

Commissioner Jo Ann Sorensen said that reading an agenda and being familiar with items on the agenda is “critical. A lengthy agenda” is no excuse for not taking the time to be familiar with it, she said, especially since Cozad knew the issue of her legal expenses was pending.

Commissioner Matt Smith said that if the commission were to allow someone to say they were unaware of an agenda item, “that’s the excuse we would always hear: ‘I didn’t know it was there.’”

According to the Greeley Tribune, Weld County has challenged the authority of the ethics commission on the first complaint. In January, the county filed a motion in Denver District Court to dismiss the first complaint, citing a Denver District Court ruling that same month that the ethics commission did not have jurisdiction over a home rule city with its own ethics codes. That was related to a case involving the city of Glendale and which the commission is appealing.

The second complaint, however, is not subject to that same jurisdictional issue, because Weld County voters in November 2017 approved a ballot measure to require county officials and employees to comply with the state’s ethics rules and to be under the jurisdiction of the state ethics body.

Parks told Colorado Politics he was fine with the commission’s decision to find the violation but that state law is a “mess” on the issue of fines.

“There’s no clear direction on what you can and cannot do” regarding fines, he said, and until state law is changed, “that’s the way it will be.”

Cozad declined an opportunity to comment.

• The five-member ethics commission may be undergoing big changes, at least in terms of its membership, in the next two months.

On June 30, terms expire for one of the five commissioners, and two others  Commissioner April Jones, a managing partner in a law firm, and Sorensen, who represents local government  have announced they do not intend to remain on the commission past June 30.

That could mean a new majority on the ethics commission sometime later this year.

Two of the seats up for appointment will be filled by the state speaker of the House and the chief justice of the state's Supreme Court. The third, a representative of local government, is to be appointed by the other members of the IEC.

Smith, who has been on the IEC since it was formed in 2007, has not yet decided whether he will seek another term, according to comments made at Monday's meeting. The chief justice of the Supreme Court will be responsible for deciding that seat.

Unlike many other state boards and commissions, the ethics commission has no term limits.

• The commission also continued its work on an ethics complaint filed against former Secretary of State Wayne Williams. The complaint, over a series of purchases made by Williams that were reimbursed by his office, was supposed to go to hearing on Monday.

That hearing was delayed after a request by Scott Moser, who filed the original complaint, asked the commission to reconsider its decision that some of the items in the complaint were outside of the statute of limitations imposed by the commission. That's one year prior to the filing of the complaint.

Moser, according to Commissioner Bill Leone, had asked that the older items  purchases of Western wear for a Denver Rustlers* event in Pueblo between 2015 and 2017, for example  be considered on their merits and as a pattern of conduct. Williams' attorneys, from the state Attorney General's Office, objected.

Commissioners voted unanimously to deny that request on Monday. 

What's remaining in the complaint is $420 for annual membership in the Colorado Bar Association, and $20 for payment for continuing legal education classes. Williams has maintained that those payments were proper because it was the secretary of state's policy at the time to pay for those items for all attorney employees, including the secretary of state.

The commission's hearing on the complaint is now scheduled for May 20. 

Correction: a previous version misidentified the Denver Rustlers.

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