Sex and the Assessor

In politics, salacious behavior and ego-driven petulance is generally the domain of the White House or Congress. The Larimer County Administration Building is an unlikely place to share that dubious distinction.

Until you meet Steve Miller, the Republican candidate for county assessor.

Serious concerns have been raised about Miller’s conduct during his time as county assessor, first in 1984 and again from 1989-2002. Highly placed sources confirm that Miller was reprimanded for engaging in sexual acts in the office and ran the department as his own personal fiefdom. His behavior since leaving office has also been questioned by former associates.Miller was term-limited out of office four years ago. In 2005, Larimer County voters narrowly passed an increase in term limits from two four-year terms to three terms. So, he’s running again, this time against Democrat Barbara Liebler and Libertarian Jesse Herron.

The race for arguably the least sexy job in county government is ironically the one offering up enough intrigue to fill a weekly TV drama.

I speak of the pompatus of love
The county assessor oversees the valuing of all real and personal property to determine property taxes. Truth be told,  while it’s not a political star-making job, it is important since the county relies on those revenues to pay for public services.

But it does pay well at $75,500 $87,300* per year. And when conservative Republican kingmaker and former Congressman Bob Schaffer drops a cool $500 into your campaign coffers as the very first 2006 contribution, people do take notice.

It’s very strange that someone of Schaffer’s stature and obvious political ambition would welcome Miller – after being quietly dumped by the party because of his sexual peccadilloes – back into the Republican family in such a unmistakeably public way.

Ten individuals representing the county, major political parties and industry professionals interviewed for this story were not so willing to go public. While they all independently reported the same information, none were willing to go on the record for fear of reprisals. Miller did not return calls for comment.

The sordid tale begins in 1995 when Miller was disciplined  for engaging in a sex act with a married subordinate in his office. A custodian who discovered the pair at a particularly delicate moment reported the incident, according to sources.

Shockingly, Miller didn’t seem to have learned his lesson about office decorum. Just a few years earlier, he was reprimanded for sending a series of sexually explicit emails to another co-worker on his county-issued computer. Several sources also recounted that sexual harassment complaints had also been filed against him. By state law, personnel files are sealed, so it is impossible to know the sanctions, if any, leveled against Miller.

In a strange twist of predestiny with the current congressional page scandal in Washington, DC, the Larimer County Republican Party was so alarmed by Miller’s lecherous behavior that insiders pressured Miller to resign his party chairmanship in what appears to be nothing more than partisan damage control. He remained on the job to continue his waggish ways.

Yet, all seems to be forgiven; he’s their candidate again.

Miller’s travails seem to echo another Colorado sex scandal. Arapahoe County Clerk and Recorder Tracy Baker was recalled from office in February 2004 for creating a sexually charged office and sending hundreds of explicit emails to his co-worker girlfriend. The Denver Post reported at the time that Arapahoe County spent $800,000 on the recall election, attorney fees, two independent investigations and harassment claim settlements.

Unfortunately, the problems with Miller don’t end there.

Bathrobe politics
Miller told Colorado Confidential in a pre-primary election interview that he “left as the assessor’s office best friend.” However, since leaving office in 2002, he has engaged in a very questionable practice of representing property owners against the very office he wants to resume control of.

He now makes a living – for a hefty fee – protesting what he considers assessment errors made by his former staff, using a modeling system he designed. Sources familiar with the situation also consider it inappropriate. Miller’s new sideline was first reported by Colorado Confidential here and here.

Colorado Confidential obtained a copy of Miller’s personal solicitation letter offering to help reduce property taxes that he considers overvalued by the current assessor. The letter implies that he knows how to exploit the system:

Actually, I did more than just supervise. I built the residential valuation models, often late at night at home in my bathrobe. Not an appealing image, but I know the process very well.

This is an interesting claim to fame, considering Larimer County has the highest property tax protest rate in the state, with almost 15,000 appeals last year. Many blame Miller’s 14-year tenure for the ongoing problems with the office.

The solicitation letterhead states that Miller is a certified public accountant. However, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) Code of Professional Conduct clearly states that this is a conflict of interest.  Representing a client against a former employer for whom he/she designed financial systems, or supervised personnel involved in system operations is considered unethical.

Suzanne Lowensohn, an assistant professor at Colorado State and expert in accounting ethics, says that while Miller may not be a member of AICPA, an argument could be made that he has a moral obligation to abide by the professional code.

Miller takes a different tack. Again, in the August interview, he made several circular claims starting with the rationalization that he conducts work as an appraiser, not an accountant, so the code doesn’t apply to him. According to the Colorado Division of Real Estate, Miller’s appraiser license expired in 1998. Then, to whom is he truly accountable?

Larimer County Commissioner Karen Wagner sits on the Board of Equalization which hears property tax appeals.”I did, in those hearings, wonder how he was soliciting these people to represent them,” she said. “If he’s indicating that he has insider information that’s going to help them win their appeal, that’s way out of bounds.”

Wagner also recalled how Miller was warned during one such hearing that complaining about the assessor’s office rather than addressing his client’s appeal before the board constituted inappropriately politicking. Following another hearing, Miller was reproached by Republican Commissioner Kathay Rennels for gesturing “in a “come hither way” and speaking inappropriately to a female employee, Wagner says.

King of the castle and a wee dirty rascal
Miller’s lack of cooperation with other county officials is fairly legendary among local political watchers. In an attempt to rein him in during his tenure as assessor, the county commissioners narrowed the scope of his job. They even went so far as to have equipment removed and door locks changed overnight fearing he would tamper with county property. One official described the office as “the Siberia of the county” because Miller’s interaction with other departments was so dysfunctional.

A local real estate appraiser called Miller’s tenure in the office “tyrannical” and noted that the August primary election sowed deep office divisions among a small group of Miller advocates versus those who supported the incumbent assessor Larry Johnson, who lost the race.

Those tension stems in part from allegations within the office that Miller promised certain employees promotions if they helped his campaign. The fears were not tempered when those thought to be in line for big raises have written a steady stream of glowing letters to the editor to local newspapers (including this one) without disclosing their employment status – a story that was first reported by Colorado Confidential in August.

Beyond the puffery of his secretive staff-penned endorsement letters, Miller doesn’t let a little hubris stand in the way of his desire for many more years as a well-paid government worker – an odd proposition for someone who flirted with the anti-tax, anti-government Libertarian Party after getting tossed out of the GOP. He uses the acronym S.M.A.R.T. – Steve Miller Assessment Rescue Team – to describe his campaign.

However, the question remains. Who needs to be rescued: property owners from a flawed valuation model that he created or the female staff in the Assessor’s Office? 

This story was also published in the Rocky Mountain Chronicle.

* CORRECTION: I was contacted by Larimer County Commissioner Glenn Gibson late this afternoon to revise the salary figure that relied on the 2006 county budget prepared last year. In May, the state legislature approved HB06-1295 which increased the annual wage of the Assessor to $87,300 and which became effective August 9, 2006.

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