Ethics panel set to hand down ruling on Coffman allegations

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)

A state ethics panel plans to release its ruling on or before April 6 on a complaint charging former Colorado Secretary of State Mike Coffman with acting unethically when he ran the state’s top elections office two years ago.

It’s the first time the panel – created by an ethics measure approved by voters in 2006 – hasn’t dismissed a complaint outright. Coffman’s attorney contends the entire affair is a partisan attack intended to harass the Aurora Republican, who resigned as secretary of state after winning the race for the 6th Congressional District.

The complaint, filed by Colorado Ethics Watch, alleges Coffman had conflicts of interest as secretary of state by employing a deputy who operated a partisan political side business and by hiring a consulting firm for his congressional campaign while the same firm lobbied his office to approve electronic voting machines.

Coffman’s attorney, former Democratic state Rep. Doug Friednash, argued in a written closing statement submitted this week that Ethics Watch didn’t prove its case and “engaged in a scorched earth public relations campaign to destroy Mr. Coffman’s reputation and discredit the secretary of state’s office.

The Independent Ethics Commission met in closed executive session through the day Wednesday to consider the complaint, filed a year ago against Coffman, after conducting an all-day public hearing two weeks ago.

Jane Feldman, the commission’s executive director, wouldn’t say whether the commission has already reached a decision, but the panel isn’t scheduled to meet again until April 6, and she said the ruling could be released before then.

“If it’s all wrapped up and tidy, why make everybody wait for 10 days?” Feldman asked after the commission adjourned another closed-door session on a different matter Thursday afternoon.

The commission has been establishing rules and procedures as it goes along, so it’s unclear how it plans to issue rulings and what form they might take. Feldman she couldn’t comment on whether the commission planned to issue a dissent in the Coffman decision but wouldn’t rule out the possibility commissioners might write dissents to future rulings.

It’s not even clear what punishment the commission can hand down — commissioners asked both sides to suggest suitable measures in their summations. Ethics Watch asked for public or private censure and argued the commission has the power to admonish Coffman if it finds wrongdoing, while Coffman’s attorney claims the commission lacks the authority to do anything, including censuring Coffman.

At issue are two questions:

• Whether Coffman knew a longtime political ally, Dan Kopelman, was running Political Live Wires, a Republican political consulting business, while at the same time serving as a key Coffman deputy in the Elections Division.

• Whether Coffman violated ethical standards by ruling to accredit electronic voting machines manufactured by Premier Election Systems, Inc., (formerly Diebold) while the company’s lobbying firm, Phase Line Strategies, raised money and handled media for Coffman’s congressional campaign.

Coffman “knew, and has known all along, of the two conflicts of interest that are the subject of the complaint, and yet tolerated those conflicts because he considered himself to be beyond reproach,” Ethics Watch Director Chantell Taylor said in the organization’s summation.

Coffman didn’t know Koppelman was running a business, Friednash countered, and took corrective action as soon as he found out. As for the voting machine certification, Coffman’s attorney argued the secretary of state made his decision without hearing from the Premier lobbyist and followed procedures to the letter.

Friednash and Taylor also bashed each other’s presentation at the March 6 hearing.

Calling Coffman’s defense “smoke and mirrors,” Ethics Watch dismissed Coffman’s claims he didn’t know about some details of Kopelman’s business and followed procedures when it came to certifying the Premier voting machines. “What the [Independent Ethics Commission] saw at the hearing was the defense of a man who knows he has been caught and will say or do anything to avoid accountability,” Taylor wrote.

Even though it listed eight potential witnesses — including Kopelman and Phase Line lobbyists — Ethics Watch only called one, Coffman’s secretary, who didn’t even offer any damaging testimony, Friednash argued. “[Despite] its very serious allegations of public corruption, Colorado Ethics Watch offered virtually no testimony or other evidence at the hearing.”

Correction: Ethics Watch called two witnesses, not one, as Friednash charged in closing arguments. Coffman was called as a witness by both sides, according to Ethics Watch attorneys.

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Ernest Luning

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