Ethics concept

Friday morning, a select Senate ethics committee tasked to  review a complaint against state Sen. Bob Gardner held its first meeting. While the first meeting was intended to be organizational, Republican members were unsuccessful in their attempt to finalize the issue in that single meeting.

The complaint against the Colorado Springs Republican touches on a comment he made in a 2019 joint judiciary committee meeting ,  where he referenced a concern raised by a constituent, an attorney  whose office is in the same building where  Gardner has his law practice. The attorney represented a party in a divorce and said the senior judge in the case had made prejudicial comments that led to questions about impartiality. Gardner contacted the State Court Administrator, which runs the senior judge program, and informed him of the judge's comments. Gardner said he did not ask the administrator to do anything and that was, at least for him, the end of it.

A complaint lodged by Chris Forsyth of the Judicial Integrity Project claimed Gardner's conversation with the administrator, which took place some seven or eight years ago, was a conflict of interest and violated Senate ethics rules around undue influence of public officials for economic or private gain. Gardner, in a response submitted to the ethics committee, said the complaint is meritless and that he did not benefit in any way from that conversation.

Republicans on the committee — state Sens. Paul Lundeen of Monument and John Cooke of Greeley — were ready to discuss the complaint and make a decision Friday, which is allowed under the rules, according to the General Assembly's attorneys from the Office of Legislative Legal Services.

But committee chair Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat, said she wanted the panel to have that discussion in its next meeting scheduled for mid-July, in part because one of the committee members, Sen. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat, is on vacation and missed Friday's meeting. The committee was informed that the rules do not allow for remote participation, as has been allowed with other legislative proceedings in the past two sessions.

Lundeen noted that ethics complaints are supposed to be confidential, yet the complaint against Gardner was leaked and it is now being litigated in the media, which he indicated is damaging to the senator and to the institution.

Gonzales told Lundeen, who raised most of the objections to a second meeting, that she believed responding to the complaint in two meetings will be expeditious.

Under Senate Rule 43, which is on ethics, once the committee was appointed, Gardner had 10 days to submit a response, which was due by June 28 and submitted Thursday.

The timeline allows for additional questions from committee members, but at this stage the rules do not allow the committee to accept a response to Gardner's response from Forsyth, nor any other information outside of the initial complaint and Gardner's response.

Moving forward, the committee's options are to hold a second meeting, in which they are likely to review the complaint and response, as well as any additional information sought by committee members. Gonzales asked that the State Court Administrator respond to a question on how often lawmakers contact that office for information.

The committee's job is now to review the complaint and determine whether there is probable cause for an evidentiary hearing. Should they decide there is probable cause, a standard not defined the rules, they could then issue subpoenas. 

According to Bob Lackner of Legal Services, should the complaint move to an evidentiary hearing and were the committee to decide a violation occurred, the options are for censure or expulsion. He also said the decision is final and not subject to judicial appeal.

One of the issues Cooke raised was how Senate leadership decided the complaint should be investigated. Under the rules, two of the three Senate leaders — Senate President Leroy Garcia, Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg and Minority Leader Chris Holbert — made the call to have the complaint reviewed. Cooke suggested calling in the three leaders to ask why they decided the complaint had enough merit to move forward.

"I think we have conclusive information," Lundeen said, appealing for the committee to take action Friday. "The presence of mischief or opportunity for mischief is enormous, and I find that troubling." He added that the composition of the committee was not relevant, and that he believed they could come to a nonpartisan decision. "Justice delayed is justice denied," he said, and the quickest dispensation is the best. 

But Gonzales said while everyone has an opportunity to review the complaint and the response, all five members should be present for that discussion. "It's premature to have a full discussion with one member missing," added Hansen.

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