Ethics Watch says it won’t appeal ruling dismissing Coffman complaint

(Photo/stephenjohnbryde, Flickr)
(Photo/stephenjohnbryde, Flickr)
The watchdog group that filed ethics charges against former Secretary of State Mike Coffman said Thursday it won’t appeal a ruling by the state’s top ethics panel that dismissed a complaint alleging the Aurora Republican, who has since won election to Congress, crossed ethical boundaries when he served as the state’s top elections officer.

Instead, Colorado Ethics Watch called on Coffman and his attorney to help “create a more thorough, accessible and transparent process” for the Independent Ethics Commission to investigate and resolve ethics complaints. The nonprofit group slammed the five-member ethics panel, saying it “shirked its constitutional responsibility to conduct an investigation” and tied the hands of lawyers arguing both sides of the case.

“If [Ethics Watch] feels like what [the ethics commission] did was not constitutional, they should have appealed the decision,” said Coffman’s attorney, former Democratic state Rep. Doug Friednash. “It’s a little bit of Monday-morning quarterbacking on their part. I don’t think they had legitimate grounds to appeal the case, which is why they didn’t appeal the case.”

“The [ethics commission’s] failed system has implications far beyond the outcome of its first case and will not be fixed through any appellate decision,” Ethics Watch Director Chantell Taylor said in a statement. “Instead, Ethics Watch is committing to work with the IEC for a balanced, more accessible process for it to handle ethics complaints.”

The ethics commission in April threw out the complaint filed against Coffman by Ethics Watch after conducting an all-day hearing a month earlier. In its unanimous, 18-page decision, the commission said the watchdog group offered “insufficient evidence … to find that Coffman violated any standard of ethical conduct.”

It’s the only complaint that hasn’t been dismissed outright by the commission, formed after voters approved Amendment 41 in 2006. Thursday was the deadline for Ethics Watch to file an appeal to the ruling.

The commission’s executive director, Jane Feldman, didn’t respond to a call seeking comment on Ethics Watch’s decision not to appeal or its call for the commission to change its ways. In the past, commissioners have referred all requests for comment to Feldman.

“Throughout the complaint process, the commissioners made it abundantly clear that they are far more concerned about protecting public employees from allegations of wrongdoing than they are with fulfilling their constitutional mandate to enforce ethics standards,” Taylor said.

“I don’t disagree that the commission needs to do more to investigate cases,” Friednash said, but he disputed Taylor’s contention that Ethics Watch and Coffman were somehow on the same side when it came to their assessment of the commission’s conduct.

“They need to do a more thorough job in the future of vetting cases,” Friednash agreed, but he added that a more rigorous investigation by the ethics commission would have led to the complaint being dismissed sooner. “That case never should have been brought,” Friednash said. “I don’t think there were legitimate reasons to think [Coffman] broke any law in Colorado.”

Ethics Watch alleged Coffman acted improperly as secretary of state when he employed a deputy who operated a partisan political side business and when he hired a consulting firm for his congressional campaign while the same firm lobbied his office to approve electronic voting machines.

Arguing before the commission, Friednash called the Ethics Watch complaint part of a “scorched-earth public relations campaign” to harass the Republican, who stepped down as secretary of state after winning election to represent the 6th Congressional District last fall. During hours of testimony before the commission in March, Coffman denied acting unethically and accused Ethics Watch of waging a “two-year jihad” designed to manufacture press releases to please the group’s donors.