Ethics committee votes to ‘admonish’ lobbyist for trying to influence race

Lobbyist Erik Groves (Photo/Zakhem Atherton)
Lobbyist Erik Groves (Photo/Zakhem Atherton)

A legislative panel on Wednesday recommended that a former lobbyist for the Colorado Chiropractic Association be formally scolded for trying to sway a freshman Republican to vote for Rep. David Balmer, R-Centennial, in a leadership election in December. An ethics watchdog group praised the committee’s recommendation but renewed calls for a criminal investigation into vote-buying allegations and asked legislators to mandate ethics training for professional lobbyists.

Lobbyist Erik Groves, who contended throughout the months-long investigation he hadn’t known it was against the rules to get involved in the race for House minority leader, said in a statement after the ruling he’d made an “honest mistake.” He also maintained he hadn’t tried to discuss Balmer’s candidacy for the leadership post with Rep. Cindy Acree, R-Aurora, while waving a campaign contribution from the chiropractors, but the ethics committee sided with Acree’s version of events, which claimed he had.

A separate panel a month ago threw out a complaint against Balmer charging that he’d improperly tried to influence the election to succeed House Minority Leader Mike May, R-Parker. May filed the complaint against Balmer — and suspended plans announced days earlier to resign from the Legislature to tend to his business – after Acree told him Groves and two prominent chiropractors contacted her about their preference in the leadership vote, dangling a check and a committee position.

A bipartisan committee appointed to investigate allegations of vote-buying in the leadership race voted unanimously to recommend legislative leaders “formally admonish” Groves “in a private meeting,” write a “letter of admonishment” and tell him not to do it again. The General Assembly’s Executive Committee — made up of the leadership from both parties in both chambers — will take up the matter sometime this month, a representative for the House leadership said. It’s up to the Executive Committee whether to take the ethics panel’s recommendation.

(Click to enlarge the document outlining lobbyist prohibitions)
(Click to enlarge the document outlining lobbyist prohibitions)

“I am pleased that by cooperating with the committee I was able to help them understand an honest mistake,” Groves said in a statement released by his attorney after the ruling.

Groves — still touted as the lead lobbyist for prominent Republican firm Zakhem Atherton — has stopped lobbying at the state Capitol this session, and the chiropractors have retained another lobbyist, said attorney Richard Kaufman, who represented Groves throughout the investigation.

“I think it’s fair,” Acree said after the ethics panel rendered its decision on Groves. “I think it sends a message.”

The Aurora Republican echoed the reaction to the ruling by Colorado Ethics Watch, which also suggested lobbyists should have to undergo training. “Maybe what we need to do is require that all our lobbyists go through a formal orientation that speaks to the substantive content of the law,” Acree said.

During testimony before the ethics panel, Groves wouldn’t say whether he had ever attended the Legislature’s annual ethics training for lobbyists, an optional presentation offered before the start of each session. He said he skipped the training this year because of press attention over the complaint.

“If we accept this was all just a big mistake because (Groves) didn’t know the rules, why don’t we have this training be mandatory?” asked Luis Toro, Ethics Watch senior counsel, after the ruling. In a statement, Toro outlined the group’s proposal:

Mr. Groves demonstrated a lapse of judgment that caused a diversion from vital legislative work and a drain of scarce taxpayer resources. We are pleased that the committee recognized the severity of this unethical conduct and put the lobbying community on notice that such conduct will not be tolerated. We also commend Representatives May and Acree for bringing this issue forward. It is apparent from all of this that lobbyists must be required to undergo ethics training before they are allowed to engage in lobbying activities.

Toro also said the limited scope of the ethics panel’s inquiry — convened solely to determine if Groves had violated a rule forbidding lobbyists from inserting themselves into leadership races — left “a lot more unanswered questions. It would be appropriate for public corruption authorities to see whether — and I’m not saying there were — whether there was any attempt to vote-buy.”

Groves had the chiropractic group — which had already donated to Acree’s campaign before the election — cut a $300 check and tried to deliver it to her while attempting to discuss the leadership race but said he ended the discussion as soon as Acree objected and then voided the check.

“If anybody was trying to use money to get Rep. Acree to vote a certain way, there’s criminal implications to that,” Toro said, adding that Ethics Watch had earlier called on state and federal authorities to investigate a “possible scheme to buy votes.”

Balmer and Groves both submitted affidavits swearing they hadn’t discussed the leadership race before May suspended the election and filed a complaint against Balmer.

“We’ve not gotten any indications that anybody’s looking at it,” Toro said, noting that it’s rare for officials to reveal whether an investigation is under way.