Ethics commission says it will release complaints it has dismissed this year

A watchdog group will get the chance to read complaints filed this year with the state’s top ethics panel alleging wrongdoing or ethical misconduct by public officials. Reversing its policy, the Independent Ethics Commission notified Colorado Ethics Watch on Wednesday it would release “all non-frivolous complaints filed in 2009.”

The move is in response to a Colorado Open Records Request from the nonprofit group and in light of a judge’s decision last week that said the government ethics panel can’t keep other documents from public view.

So far this year, the ethics commission has passed on four complaints, including one that made allegations against a school board member. In that case, commissioners said, the ethics panel lacks jurisdiction because uncompensated board members “are expressly excluded from the definition of ‘public officer’ ” in the state constitution.” In another case, commissioners said the complaint provided “insufficient evidence to proceed.”

The commission has taken only one complaint to a public hearing, ultimately dismissing charges that U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman had conflicts of interest when the Aurora Republican served as Colorado secretary of state.

That complaint was filed by Ethics Watch, which spent more than a year pursuing the allegations, including gathering evidence and litigating the complaint in court culminating in an all-day hearing before the ethics commission where Coffman testified.

Last week, Ethics Watch said it wouldn’t appeal the commission’s decision clearing Coffman of wrongdoing, instead calling on Coffman and his attorney to help “create a more thorough, accessible and transparent process” for the panel to investigate and resolve ethics complaints.

If the commission dismisses a complaint as “frivolous” — which it’s only done once, saying a complaint submitted last year alleged conduct more than 12 months old, outside the comission’s scope — it stays under wraps, according to Amendment 41, a voter-approved the ethics measure that went into effect in 2007.

But complaints the commission declines to hear for other reasons — usually because the commission decides it doesn’t have jurisdiction over the allegations — have been in legal limbo until now. The commission wanted to keep them confidential, arguing in court last week that commissioners didn’t want to call some complaints it dismissed “frivolous” because they weren’t ruling on the merits of the allegations but just whether the commission should set a hearing.

In a decision last week, Denver District Court Judge Norman Haglund suggested the commission stop mincing words, writing that “the constitutional scheme contemplates that only frivolous complaints will be kept confidential.”

Haglund’s decision gave the ethics commission 15 days — until next Friday — to turn over letters asking for guidance on ethical questions from lawmakers, government employees and others covered under state ethics laws.

The Colorado Independent is also seeking records of more than a dozen secret meetings held by the ethics commission this year, alleging the panel violated Open Meetings Law by deliberating behind closed doors and failing to comply with strict requirements for convening the meetings. The ethics commission has refused to turn over recordings of the meetings, saying they are confidential.

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