Ethics group rips panel’s decision clearing Coffman, says it might appeal

Mike Coffman (Photo/Colorado Secretary of State)

Mike Coffman (Photo/Colorado Secretary of State)

An ethics watchdog group on Tuesday slammed the long-awaited decision by a state ethics panel that cleared U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman of wrongdoing when he served as Colorado secretary of state, saying the Independent Ethics Commission shirked its duty to investigate allegations of official misconduct and tied the hands of the group that brought the charges.

Coffman and his attorney celebrated the unanimous ruling and blasted Colorado Ethics Watch, branding the nonprofit organization a stealth partisan attack group bent on harassing Republicans. “(Ethics Watch) knew they had not a shred of evidence to support these outrageous lies,” Coffman said in a statement. “No one should ever take Ethics Watch seriously again.”

An Ethics Watch attorney said the group hasn’t decided whether to appeal the decision, which found no evidence to support conflict-of-interest allegations leveled against Coffman when he served as the state’s top election official. Coffman stepped down as secretary of state after winning election to Congress last fall.

“Certainly there’s grounds to appeal,” said Ethics Watch senior counsel Luis Toro. “We’re going to study that.” The group has 30 days to decide whether to take the complaint to Denver District Court, which ruled earlier this year the charges could go forward before the state ethics panel.

Toro reserved his harshest criticism for the procedures established by the commission, which he said make it nearly impossible for anyone to pursue a complaint alleging ethical violations by Colorado officials. “They set up a system that’s set up to generate exoneration for public officials accused of wrongdoing,” he said.

Coffman’s attorney dismissed Ethics Watch criticism about the commission’s handling of the complaint as the grousing of sore losers. “Now that they’ve lost the case completely, they’re saying the process was unfair,” said former Democratic state Rep. Doug Friednash, who was hired by the state to defend Coffman. “I think they strain credibility on that point.”

The commission’s executive director declined to discuss the decision. “The Commission will not comment on dispositions on complaints,” Jane Feldman wrote in an e-mail.

It’s the first time the five-member Independent Ethics Commission — established by the controversial ballot initiative Amendment 41 approved by voters in 2006 — hasn’t dismissed a complaint outright. Two of the commissioners sat out the decision on the Coffman complaint, citing conflicts of interest with the lawmaker, who served in the Colorado Senate with one and had a property dispute more than a decade ago with the other.

Ethics Watch roundly criticized the commission after the decision was released. “By its ruling today the [commission] set the bar dangerously low for ethics in the state and Colorado voters should be gravely concerned about the precedent set by this decision,” Ethics Watch Director Chantell Taylor said in a statement. The panel’s decision sends “an alarming message to all Colorado public officials that ethics standards in this state are still toothless,” Taylor said.

“The result was a foregone conclusion,” Toro said after the decision was announced. “The Independent Ethics Commission doesn’t have an appetite to investigate and punish ethics violations. They don’t want that role, they just want to be a training agency.”

The complaint, filed more than a year ago by Ethics Watch, alleged 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.

Friednash argued that Ethics Watch “engaged in a scorched earth public relations campaign to destroy Mr. Coffman’s reputation and discredit the secretary of state’s office” during a close election year, and besides, didn’t come close to proving its case.

That’s the commission’s problem, Toro said Tuesday. It’s the job of the commissioners to determine whether ethical misconduct has occurred, he said, not to require anyone alleging misconduct to prove a case like parties to a civil lawsuit. He pointed to recent ethics investigations conducted by the state Legislature — when committee members grilled witnesses and demanded to see documents, rather than simply letting both sides argue their case — as an example of how the commission should operate.

“The (state) Constitution says they shall investigate and that’s what they didn’t do,” Toro said, pointing to the constitutional provision guiding the commission:

(c) The commission shall conduct an investigation, hold a public hearing, and render findings on each non-frivolous complaint pursuant to written rules adopted by the commission.

From the start, Toro said, the commission told Ethics Watch the group would have to conduct its own investigation using publicly available documents and prove a case against Coffman rather than expect the commission to investigate the complaint itself.

“The big issue is, they seem to be saying they won’t investigate and that is a major problem,” Toro said.

Friednash disagreed, charging Ethics Watch with failing to pursue investigative powers handed to it by the commission. “This was more about the court of public opinion than it was having a serious hearing on the case,” he said.

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

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Ernest Luning

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