Colorado ethics panel huddles to prep decision on Coffman complaint

A state ethics commission is meeting in a telephone conference Tuesday morning to prepare a ruling on a complaint charging former Colorado Secretary of State Mike Coffman with acting unethically when he ran the state’s top elections office two years ago. The panel could issue its decision at any time between Tuesday afternoon and its next scheduled meeting on Monday.

It will be the first decision on a complaint filed with the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission, created by an ethics ballot issue approved by voters in 2006.

The nonprofit watchdog group Colorado Ethics Watch alleges Coffman had conflicts of interest as secretary of state by employing a deputy who operated a partisan political side business and by hiring a consulting firm for his congressional campaign while the same firm lobbied his office to approve electronic voting machines.

Coffman’s attorney, former Democratic state Rep. Doug Friednash, maintains the complaint is part of a partisan campaign to harass the Aurora Republican, who stepped down as secretary of state after winning election to Congress last fall.

At issue are two questions:

• Whether Coffman knew a longtime political ally, Dan Kopelman, was running Political Live Wires, a Republican political consulting business, while at the same time serving as a key Coffman deputy in the Elections Division.

• Whether Coffman violated ethical standards by ruling to accredit electronic voting machines manufactured by Premier Election Systems, Inc., (formerly Diebold) while the company’s lobbying firm, Phase Line Strategies, raised money and handled media for Coffman’s congressional campaign.

Commissioners asked lawyers on both sides to suggest possible disciplinary measures. Ethics Watch asked for public or private censure and argued the commission has the power to admonish Coffman if it finds wrongdoing, while Coffman’s attorney claims the commission lacks the authority to do anything, including censuring Coffman.

Two of the five ethics commissioners have recused themselves from the Coffman complaint because of potential conflicts, so won’t be voting on the decision. Commissioner Sally Hopper, a former Republican state senator from Golden, knew and worked with Coffman when both served in the state Legislature in the ’90s, and Commissioner Roy Wood, director of the University of Denver’s Center for Civic Ethics, was involved in a property dispute with Coffman a decade ago.

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