LIVEBLOG: Mike Coffman faces ethics commission

Rep. Mike Coffman, right, gets chummy with his CD 6 predecessor, Rep. Tom Tancredo. (Photo/Coffman for Congress.com)

Rep. Mike Coffman, right, gets chummy with his CD 6 predecessor, Rep. Tom Tancredo. (Photo/Coffman for Congress.com)

Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Aurora) answers conflict of interest charges leveled by Colorado Ethics Watch during his stint as secretary of state today in what promises to be a highly charged hearing.

The newly-empaneled Colorado Independent Ethics Commission is probing watchdog allegations that Coffman allowed GOP operative Dan Kopelman, then an employee of the department and a former Coffman campaign staffer, to operate a side business selling partisan voter data in violation of state ethics guidelines. The second charge stems from Coffman’s approval of a voting machine contract to Premier Election Systems (formerly Diebold) while the firm was also represented by Phase Line Strategies — Coffman’s political consultant in his congressional race.

8:15 a.m. – The Independent Ethics Commission’s lone employee, executive director Jane Feldman, reminded a few reporters gathered before the hearing began that no one knows what might happen — the set of allegations against Coffman is the first case going to hearing for the commission, created by the voter-approved Amendment 41 in 2006. It’s not clear in this amendment — “nothing’s clear in this amendment” jokes a reporter — what penalty the commission might assess against Coffman if he’s found in violation. This is an administrative matter — not criminal. Could be public censure — a rebuke — or could be a fine, some have speculated.

The commission lays down the ground rules. Each side has three and a half hours to present its case and then will submit written summations. The hearing is being held in a state courtroom on the 14th floor of a high rise at 17th and California streets in downtown Denver. It’s a fairly small courtroom — room for two pairs

Rep. Coffman will appear to testify based on his schedule. Chantell Taylor, director of Ethics Watch, makes the opening remarks against Coffman. She says “these facts are irrefutable” and lists the details of the group’s complaint. (They’re listed here in Ethics Watch’s Final Prehearing Statement.)

Taylor says the commission can hold Coffman accountable — by public censure or any other measure.

Taylor calls her first witness — Abby Thomas, who was the executive assistant for Coffman at the secretary of state’s office during the first half of 2007. She says politics is not her “forte” and was able to return to the state patrol, where she worked more than two decades. She says when she worked for Coffman it was her job to read incoming e-mails and go over requests for speaking engagements.

Did she know Dan Kopelman? Thomas says she basically knew he had a job there and she saw him regularly. Kopelman met with Coffman “not any more than anybody else,” Thomas didn’t think it was unusual.

Taylor points to exhibits — e-mails from Political Live Wires, Kopelman’s political consulting firm, including some listing political events. Taylor is trying to establish the consulting firm sent political mail “several times a month” to Coffman.

Doug Friednash cross-examines Thomas. Is it fair to say she received “lots” of calendar requests for Coffman? Many, Thomas says.

Friednash asks if she returned to the state patrol because she was frustrated that Coffman was scheduling events on his own. Then he goes through individual e-mails and establishes Thomas doesn’t know whether some of the political events were actually scheduled.

Coffman’s attorney — using a lot of “isn’t it true that” questions — also establishes that Coffman never told Thomas to schedule events from Kopelman, but that she discussed scheduling requests with him.

Taylor gets up again to ask — Kopelman talked with the secretary about events, as opposed to “hundreds” of event requests the office received.

The commissioners have no questions and allow Thomas to leave the stand.

Luis Toro, lead counsel for Colorado Ethics Watch, stands to say now is when they would call Rep. Coffman but have agreed with Coffman’s attorneys to just call witnesses once.

Friednash gives his opening. “The ‘Honorable’ Michael Coffman,” he begins. He says this case is about Mike Coffman’s reputation — in politics, this is worth everything, cites a Benjamin Franklin quote about breaking china. Friednash served in the state House — across the aisle from Coffman, a Republican. He lists Coffman’s military career, which is lengthy and varied, including his return to active duty during the first Gulf War and resignation as state treasurer to serve in Iraq before being reappointed. “No other Colorado elected official has served the state and country” as honorably as Coffman, his attorney says.

Ethics Watch has engaged in a “scorched earth campaign” to destroy Coffman’s reputation, Friednash says. He says the goal of the lawsuit filed by Ethics Watch was to tarnish Coffman’s reputation and damage his chances in the 2008 election, when he ran for Congress.

Friednash quotes a Colorado Statesman article that says Ethics Watch has filed more complaints against Coffman than against all Democrats combined. A Newsweek article links Ethics Watch to a plan by Democrats to take over the state, Friednash says. When Ethics Watch listed Colorado’s most corrupt public officials, Coffman topped the list.

Friednash reminds the commission it can dismiss the complaint if it finds it was “frivolous” or filed to harass Coffman.

Ethics Watch didn’t call as witnesses many of the principles involved in the complaint, including Kopelman, Friednash says.

Friednash slaps his hand on the notebook filled with Ethics Watch exhibits — not many, he says. “Not one of them provide a smoking gun. Why? Because there is no smoking gun.” He repeats the old Wendy’s slogan — “Where’s the beef?”‘

Now Friednash gets to the defense on individual counts — he says Coffman responded swiftly and surely as soon as he discovered Kopelman was doing political work while working for the secretary of state office. An audit concluded that Kopelman’s conduct didn’t create a problem for Coffman

This didn’t satisfy Ethics Watch, Friednash says, because the group next asked Denver’s district attorney to file a complaint but the Democrat refused. Ethics Watch filed a “hail Mary” with the independent commission, Friednash says.

Friednash says at the end of the testimony, he will ask the commission to dismiss the complaint and restore “the Honorable Michael Coffman.”

Toro, the Ethics Watch counsel, rises to complain that Friednash hasn’t described what his witnesses will say and says Coffman’s attorneys are conducting “trial by ambush.”

Friednash is “shocked” that Ethics Watch wants to exclude testimony. He calls Toro’s complaint a red herring and sys Ethics Watch has participated in enough motions to know quite well what Bill Hobbs, the first witness, will say.

Hobbs, deputy secretary of state, describes his background, including a lengthy career on legislative staff and then work as deputy secretary of state for several secretaries of state.

9:15 a.m. – Rep. Coffman slips in the room and sits at his attorneys’ table.

Hobbs says the secretary of state’s office gets sued all the time. When the Ethics Watch complaint crossed his desk, Hobbs says he didn’t think it was a valid complaint and didn’t think it described behavior that could be thought of as unethical.

Hobbs describes the day he discovered Kopelman was operating a partisan Web site — says Kopelman was “surprised at seeing the Web site” and immediately acknowledged it was inappropriate and seemed “mortified” to see it on the deputy’s screen. Hobbs says he told Kopelman to take the site down “immediately.” He’d heard allegations Kopelman was taking data from the secretary of state’s office and offering it for sale but Kopelman disputed this, claiming he’d had the site up before coming to work for Coffman and simply hadn’t taken the site down.

Hobbs describes the investigation into whether Kopelman was running a partisan Web site out of the office. He says Coffman was shocked when he learned this and was disappointed because Kopelman was a long-time friend. Responding to Friednash’s questions, Hobbs says Coffman didn’t do anything to limit the investigation and contacted the state auditor, asking for an independent investigation. Hobbs says he has no reason to believe Coffman knew about Kopelman’s Web site.

According to what the secretary of state’s office determined, Kopelman didn’t have access to the state voter registration data and hadn’t bought any of the records. Hobbs says the office cut Kopelman’s pay, put a stern letter in his permanent personnel file and reminded him he couldn’t operate the Web site or any independent business.

Friednash reminds everyone that the “corrective action” included a prohibition on Kopelman taking part in any recertification of voting machines.

Hobbs says Kopelman’s attitude changed from the time he acknowledged what he’d done was wrong when it was first discovered to a more “defensive” reaction when he filed his personnel response.

Friednash leads Hobbs through a quite detailed description of the voting machine certification process. “We wanted the process to be airtight,” Hobbs says, talking about the “rigorous” process and layers of insulation between testing and certification.

10:30 a.m. – It’s Toro’s turn to cross-examine Hobbs. He focuses on whether the secretary of state’s office was more concerned that Kopelman was conducting an outside business or a partisan site. Mass e-mails sent out by Kopelman’s business established that he had a conflict of interest.

10: 45 a.m. – Toro tries to pin down Hobbs on the difference between outside employment and owning a business — the secretary of state’s office found one employee had a dog sitting business and an information technology employee did some consulting. Pressing further on the procedures the office used once Kopelman’s case came to light, Hobbs said the auditor crosschecked the secretary of state’s own business registration records with the office’s employee’s. “There’s no way we could know — if they file a business filing, we have an obligation to check that, but we wouldn’t know otherwise.” The office came up with a recommendation that employees sign a form saying whether they have outside employment — before that, it was in the policy manual but that was all.

Toro cross-examines — Has the attorney general’s office, which is paying for Coffman’s defense, instructed Hobbs to cooperate? Hobbs says no but Friednash rises to object, citing attorney-client privilege. This stops this line of questioning.

Toro asks how Kopelman’s personnel file wound up in the hands of Coffman’s attorneys — it’s not subject to Colorado Open Records Act requests (though very narrow portions of it are, such as job performance evaluations), so they couldn’t have gotten it that way. He wants to know whether Coffman’s staff are backing him up by assembling material for his defense.

Both sides are polishing points they’ve made in the extensive exhibits (contained in heavy binders that would sure hurt if they fell off the desks onto passing feet). So far no Perry Mason moments where the testimony changes perception of the case much — the case is well trod in documents already. But Coffman himself has yet to testify.

Hobbs talks about inherent conflicts in the secretary of state’s office — in Colorado, he’s an elected official so has to run for office and file campaign disclosure forms, both of which are governed by his office. “That’s the system we have,” Hobbs says, noting that the secretary of state goes to campaign events. Some states do it differently, he says.

A few fine points on whether Hobbs was aware PhaseLine.com, which lobbied for Diebold voting machines as the state tested and determined which machines could be certified, was also working on Coffman’s campaign. Hobbs says he wasn’t.

Toro is trying to establish that Coffman had discretion to certify voting machines — if they were in “substantial compliance” rather than passing every test. Hobbs says yes, that’s true, but certification came with a long list of requirements manufacturers would have to meet to actually be used.

11:15 a.m. – Friednash asks Hobbs — who’s probably not the expert on this topic, but it’s a point Friednash wants to make — whether he knows about other state employees found to have conflicts with outside employment. For instance, in an audit released last month, someone in the state Department of Transportation was found to be selling materials to airports. Friednash asks: Has Ethics Watch brought a complaint against the governor or issued a news release about this?

Taylor objects — how would Hobbs know?

Friednash gets in his question, asking if Hobbs has read about it. He hasn’t. More points Friednash trying to make that this is a partisan attack on Coffman, but the CDOT job and the director of elections aren’t exactly comparable.

11:20 a.m. – Mike Coffman takes the stand.

Our hearing room coverage continues at LIVEBLOG: Coffman questioned at ethics hearing on conflict of interest charges.

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Ernest Luning

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