A year after Colorado voters approved Amendment 41 to establish strict mandates on ethics in government, a panel to oversee complaints and potential violations is not yet assembled. But the latest appointment to the panel, a well-known former lawmaker from Grand Junction, gives hope that an Independent Ethics Commission will be in place by the time the Legislature convenes in January.This week Colorado Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Mullarkey appointed Grand Junction attorney Phillip M. “Matt” Smith as the fourth member of the five-member Independent Ethics Commission that is designed to review allegations of ethical lapses within state government and determine any resulting penalties against lawmakers or employees.
Smith, a Republican, is a former state representative from the Western Slope. He is the second former lawmaker to be appointed to the new commission.
Now an attorney in private practice, Smith most recently worked with the Grand Junction firm of Traylor, Tompkins & Black P.C. From 1990 to 1995, he worked on water, natural resource and permitting issues as an attorney for Morrison Knudsen Corp. on the cleanup of uranium mill tailings.
In 2004 he lost a primary bid seeking to replace his brother-in-law, Scott McInnis, in the U.S. House of Representatives. Last year Smith lost a primary bid for the state senate to Josh Penry, who went on to win the general election.
The ethics commission was approved in November 2006 and technically could have been on the job beginning July 1. The panel has been slow to form, however.
In late April, the Colorado Senate selected one of its former members, Republican Sally Hopper of Golden, as a commissioner. The Colorado House of Representatives subsequently selected Democrat Roy Wood to one of the slots. Wood is the director of the Center for Civic Ethics at the University of Denver.
Five months later, in September, Gov. Bill Ritter was criticized for dragging his feet on naming a third member to the commission. Within four hours after the Colorado group Ethics Watch publicly criticized Ritter for his inertia, the governor named Nancy E. Friedman, a Democrat who works for a business consulting group in Denver.
The law calls for the Senate and House to make appointments, followed by the governor and Colorado’s Supreme Court Justice. Those four appointees will now select a fifth commissioner.
Rob McCallum, media spokesman for the Colorado Judicial Branch, this week said Chief Justice Mullarkey spoke with “six to eight” people about the nomination, though he declined to identify any other finalists.
“The focus is on the ultimate person who was selected,” McCallum said.
Jenny Flanagan, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, which sponsored Amendment 41, said she is pleased the commission is coming together.
“It’s really good to have diversity from across the state,” she said of the appointment of a resident of the Western Slope.
Flanagan was dispassionate about the delays in assembling an ethics commission that by law could have been fielding complaints for four months.
“I’m taking the perspective of looking forward,” she said, making note of both next year’s legislative session, which starts in January, and the gravity of the 2008 election. “It’s ideal to have something in place before the legislative session starts.”
Click here to read more about other aspects of the sweeping ethics law that Colorado voters approved last November. One portion of the law, a gift ban that prohibits lawmakers and state employees from accepting anything of value over $50, is currently being challenged in a lawsuit as unconstitutional.
Cara DeGette is a senior fellow at Colorado Confidential and a columnist and contributing editor at the Colorado Springs Independent. E-mail her at email@example.com