BREAKING: Ethics panel throws out complaint against Coffman

The Colorado Independent Ethics Commission dismissed a complaint Tuesday morning against U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, who was charged by an ethics watchdog group with having conflicts of interest when he was secretary of state two years ago.

The nonprofit group Colorado Ethics Watch alleged Coffman acted improperly as secretary of state when he employed a deputy who operated a partisan political side business and when he hired a consulting firm for his congressional campaign while the same firm lobbied his office to approve electronic voting machines.

Coffman’s attorney, Doug Friednash, said the complaint was part of a “scorched-earth public relations campaign” to harass the Aurora Republican, who stepped down as secretary of state after winning election to Congress last fall. During hours of testimony before the commission last month, Coffman denied acting unethically and asked that the complaint be thrown out. The commission agreed with him.

Read the ethics commission’s 18-page decision on the Coffman complaint here (PDF).

Here’s the commission’s conclusion, at the end of the ruling. It is signed by commissioners Larry Lasha, Nancy Friedman and Matt Smith, three of the five commissioners. The other two commissioners, Sally Hopper and Roy Wood, recused themselves from the complaint because of potential conflicts of interest with Coffman.

Based on the above findings of fact and analysis, the [Independent Ethics Commission] finds insufficient evidence under either a clear and convincing standard of proof or a preponderance of the evidence standard of proof to find that Coffman violated any standard of ethical conduct. Accordingly, this Complaint is dismissed.

Friednash released this statement minutes after the ethics commission released its decision:

The State of Colorado Independent Ethics Commission heard the testimony and reviewed the evidence and completely cleared Congressman Coffman of all wrongdoing. The unanimous decision did not find, as expressly requested by Ethics Watch, that the Complaint was filed for proper motives. The decision was thorough in its analysis and shows that Ethics Watch could not have proved its case under any standard of proof.

Chantell Taylor, director of Ethics Watch, released this statement:

By its ruling today the IEC set the bar dangerously low for ethics in the state and Colorado voters should be gravely concerned about the precedent set by this decision. Mr. Coffman unapologetically admitted in his testimony at the hearing that he knowingly hired the same firm to launch his congressional campaign that was simultaneously lobbying on behalf of a voting system vendor during the system certification process. Ethics Watch also established through documentary evidence and testimony that Mr. Coffman was fully aware that his elections technology director was running an unlawful side business and did nothing to stop it. The IEC ignored this evidence, including a statement from Mr. Kopelman himself that proved Mr. Coffman’s knowledge. The IEC did not see fit to reprimand Mr. Coffman for these textbook examples of a conflict of interest, sending an alarming message to all Colorado public officials that ethics standards in this state are still toothless.

Also concerning is the IEC’s disregard of the constitutional requirement that it conduct an investigation of all complaints. In this case, the IEC conducted no investigation, did not allow Ethics Watch to engage in any discovery, yet raised the burden of proof and then claimed a lack of evidence as a basis for its ruling. It is abundantly clear that the IEC does not intend to fulfill its duty to serve as Colorado’s ethics enforcement commission.

On the positive side, thanks to Ethics Watch’s complaint, Mr. Coffman was finally forced to answer for his actions in front of the voter-established commission. We hope this puts all public officials in this state on notice that unethical behavior will still be identified, examined in front of the voters, and reviewed for possible sanctions. Ethics Watch will continue to pressure the IEC to do its job and hold public officials accountable for their standards of conduct through legal actions and by empowering Colorado citizens with vital information about the activities of their state and local government.”

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Ernest Luning

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