Colorado Independent sues state ethics panel over secret meetings

(Photo/Monocle, Flickr)

(Photo/Monocle, Flickr)

The Colorado Independent sued the state’s Independent Ethics Commission Wednesday night alleging the panel has repeatedly violated the Colorado Open Meetings Law since January by meeting behind closed doors to formulate policy and adopt positions on questions about ethical conduct by public officials.

In a lawsuit filed in Denver District Court, the Independent argues the ethics commission failed to convene its executive sessions lawfully 16 separate times and asks the court to order the commission to produce recordings and notes from the meetings. In addition, the lawsuit seeks a court order “barring the Commission from continuing its pattern of illegal closed-door meetings.”

The lawsuit asks a judge to “immediately” issue an order setting a hearing where the commission would be required to explain why it won’t release recordings of its private meetings. In addition, the lawsuit asks a judge to listen to recordings of the commission’s closed-door sessions to determine whether commissioners adopted positions in secret or talked about matters the law requires public officials discuss in public.

The government lawyer who handles legal matters for the commission, Senior Assistant Attorney General James Carr, didn’t respond to a request for comment. The ethics commission’s policy is to decline to comment on pending litigation.

An investigation by The Colorado Independent found the ethics commission has spent 85 percent of its time meeting in secret this year, including self-described “deliberations” on an ethics complaint filed against U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman that alleged he had conflicts of interest when he served as Colorado secretary of state. The commission dismissed the complaint against the Aurora Republican in a lengthy ruling issued after numerous closed sessions.

Routinely, the commission has retreated behind closed doors for hours only to emerge with rulings ready to be adopted in brief public sessions with unanimous, formal public votes. State courts have ruled that voting in public on matters decided in secret amounts to “rubber-stamping” and is no defense against charges a government board violated the state’s strict Sunshine Law, according to the lawsuit.

Two weeks ago, the ethics commission denied a Colorado Open Records Request filed by The Colorado Independent for recordings and minutes of more than a dozen closed-door meetings held this year, saying the records are confidential under Colorado Law. A week ago, the commission denied a second open-records request by the Independent seeking recordings of a private telephone conference the commission held in April after failing to notify the public it planned to meet in secret. In its denial, the commission said the recordings were confidential and the meeting “was duly noticed under Colorado law.”

In the requests, the Independent argued the meetings were illegally closed to the public because the commission didn’t sufficiently specify topics to be discussed, failed to record required votes to meet in secret, discussed topics that aren’t exempt from the state’s strict Open Meetings Law, and in some cases didn’t even convene in public before meeting in private, as the law requires.

Colorado’s Open Meetings Law allows government officials to meet behind closed doors to discuss personnel questions, pending land deals and lawsuit strategies, among other matters, though it requires that officials follow procedures strictly. The law places exacting restrictions on topics officials may discuss in secret.

The state ethics commission was created by voters with the passage of Amendment 41, promoted as a measure to increase government accountability and transparency. The five-member panel is charged with investigating ethical violations and enforcing ethical standards for public officials and government employees. Its members are appointed by the governor, state legislature, Colorado Supreme Court and the commission itself.

The lawsuit was filed by Denver attorney Chris Beall, who is also representing The Colorado Independent and two newspapers, the Coloradoan and Pueblo Chieftain, in an open-records lawsuit alleging a Colorado State University board held illegal meetings when it hired a member of its own board to serve as chancellor.

The case has been assigned to Denver District Court Chief Judge Larry J. Naves as Case No. 09-cv-5109 in Division 6.

The Colorado Independent is published by the Center for Independent Media, a non-profit and non-partisan organization that also publishes The Washington Independent in the nation’s capital, and state-focused politics and policy news sites in Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and New Mexico.

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Ernest Luning

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