U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman could finally learn early next week whether a state panel has decided he acted properly or that he violated Colorado ethical guidelines. The Colorado Independent Ethics Commission is meeting in a telephone conference Monday morning to discuss a complaint against the former Colorado secretary of state, who faces conflict-of-interest charges stemming from his time running the state’s top elections office two years ago.
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 “scorched earth public relations campaign” — termed a “jihad” by Coffman and a “witch-hunt” by other critics of the charges — to harass the Aurora Republican, who stepped down as secretary of state after winning election to Congress last fall.
The commission posted a notice on its Web site Friday announcing Monday’s confab:
THE COLORADO INDEPENDENT ETHICS COMMISSION
WILL HOLD A TELEPHONIC EXECUTIVE SESSION MEETING
MONDAY, APRIL 13, 2009
FROM 9:00 AM TO APPROXIMATELY 10 AM
The nature of the meeting will be a discussion pertaining to Complaint 08-01 filed with the Commission. C.R.S. §§24-6-402(3)(a)(III); 13-90-107(1)(b); Article XXIX of the Colorado Constitution.
Complaint 08-01 is the Coffman complaint, which has been wending its way through the commission with various detours through courtrooms for more than a year.
Reading the tea leaves, the commission could be nearing a decision and simply needs to go over its ruling before releasing it to the public. Monday’s hour-long conference call is considerably shorter than the scheduled six-hour secret meeting commissioners held March 18 or the two-hour conference call to discuss complaints on March 31.
But whatever the decision, don’t expect this to be the end of it. Both sides have the option to appeal a commission ruling to district court if they don’t prevail, and there’s a good chance neither Ethics Watch nor Coffman will be entirely happy with the result if the commission issues a muddled or split decision.
Commissioners urged both sides to propose possible disciplinary measures because this is the first case that’s made it this far and the ballot measure creating the commission doesn’t spell out penalties. 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 they won’t participate in 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.
Whenever the Coffman ruling sees the light of day, it will be the first decision on a complaint filed with the commission, which was created after Colorado voters approved an ethics amendment to the state constitution in 2006. The commission has dismissed other complaints as frivolous or outside its jurisdiction — when a complaint was filed against a judge, whose ethical behavior would be subject to other authorities, for example. In the meantime, the panel has issued several advisory opinions, such as one handed down this week that says state patrol officers can accept free admission to an event costing more than $50 if they’re acting as chauffeurs for the governor or other state officials (Amendment 41 bans state employees from accepting gifts worth more than $50).
CORRECTION: Coffman’s attorney, Doug Friednash, has not used the terms “witch hunt” or “jihad” to describe Ethics Watch’s complaint against the congressman, as was incorrectly implied in this story. Coffman called the complaint a “jihad” during testimony before the commission and others have used the phrase “witch hunt.” The story has been corrected to reflect this.