Transparency questions start with new ethics commission
It has been more than a year and a half since voters approved Amendment 41, Colorado’s sweeping ethics-in-government law which, among other things, requires an Independent Ethics Commission be set up to review questions and complaints about potential violations. The five-member commission is finally in place — and its recent adoption of the body’s own governing rules has raised concerns about conflicts of interest and government transparency.
The state commission, which is required to represent an independent body comprised of two Republicans, two Democrats and an unaffiliated local government employee to hear ethics cases, approved a final set of governing rules on July 11 after soliciting public input. Even with the new regulations there are still questions over what information the commission can keep confidential and whether the Attorney General’s Office should be involved as the legal counsel to the panel.
One government watchdog group sees problems with both issues.
“We were really impressed that they so thoughtfully considered public comment,” says Chantell Taylor of the nonprofit group Colorado Ethics Watch, but “they are still going to have a rule that says they can keep anything confidential within their discretion. By adopting a broad policy where they can keep things confidential, we think that’s counterproductive to their goals.”
The rule states the following:
The IEC will treat as confidential all matters filed with the IEC until such time as the IEC determines to make said matters public in accordance with Colorado law.
Jane Feldman, the recently-appointed executive director of the commission, says the regulation is meant to protect those who may be innocent of a complaint until they are proven guilty.
“If we determined a complaint was frivolous, for example, then the name of the person who was complained about would never be released,” says Feldman. “We may keep certain information confidential. I can’t think off the top of my head if there will be any entire documents that we wouldn’t release.”
Colorado Ethics Watch had requested the commission to delete the provision “until such time as the IEC determines to make said matters public” before the panel approved the new rules, a move that Taylor claims would protect the rights of the innocent while keeping “everything as transparent as possible.”
Another concern by the watchdog group questions the commission’s status as an independent body, when the Attorney General’s Office is acting as legal counsel for the panel, even legally advising the commission on the new rules.
“The whole point is to have an independent body,” says Taylor. “We think that the Attorney General’s Office just advising on the rules is a conflict of interest. The office has been there every step of the way giving them advice and telling them what would be legal and what wouldn’t as they drafted the rules.”
Colorado Ethics Watch has also filed a complaint with the commission against Secretary of State Mike Coffman. Taylor says she’s concerned that because Coffman’s wife works in the Attorney General’s Office, there could be a conflict of interest with the commission.
Feldman disagrees, saying “The Attorney General’s Office represents all state agencies. Obviously, if there’s a conflict then we’ll deal with that. But for the most part I don’t think that that’s going to be a problem.”
Another reason the commission has not sought independent counsel is because it’s very expensive, according to Feldman, who says that the commission is already dealing with a tight budget.
“We’ve been having conversations about increasing the budget because nobody I think anticipated that the commission would be meeting as often as it is,” Feldman says. She noted that the commission will meet twice in July and four times in August, taking up a lot of gas for the commission members who travel from Grand Junction or Fremont County.
Inquires to the Attorney General’s Office about the commission were referred to Feldman.
The rules are expected to take affect at the end of August and the commission will begin filing through cases as they are received.