Watchdog group sues ethics panel to reverse decision that OK’d Turkey ‘junket’

Turkish border stop (Malcolm Sweeny, Flickr)
Turkish border stop (Malcolm Sweeny, Flickr)

An ethics watchdog group wants a judge to overturn a ruling by the state’s top ethics panel that says it’s OK for a Colorado lawmaker to accept a trip to Turkey from an Aurora-based cultural foundation, claiming the ruling violates a gift ban in the state constitution.

Colorado Ethics Watch also asked that the ruling be thrown out because it was decided behind closed doors, rather than in an open, public meeting, according to a lawsuit filed against the Independent Ethics Commission in Denver District Court.

The ethics commission’s decision “effectively re-legalizes junkets,” Ethics Watch claims in its lawsuit. “It has the effect of nullifying the gift ban,” said Ethics Watch director Chantell Taylor, pointing to a constitutional ban on Colorado officials accepting gifts worth more than $50.

At issue is a trip state Rep. Cherylin Peniston, a Westminster Democrat, plans to take along with her husband and other Colorado legislators in June, according to reporting by The Denver Post’s John Ingold. Peniston and her husband plan to pay for their own airfare, but a nonprofit will pay other expenses for the trip, intended to promote “intercultural dialog.”

The ethics commission didn’t identify the state lawmaker seeking advice on the trip, and Peniston declined to name the other lawmakers who plan to go. Calls by The Colorado Independent to Peniston went unreturned.

A Denver District Court judge ruled last week that the ethics commission has to release letters from lawmakers and government employees asking for guidance on ethical questions. The ethics commission argued that making the documents public and revealing the names of public officials who have asked for rulings would discourage them from seeking advice.

Peniston asked the ethics commission whether accepting expenses for the 11-day trip, paid for by the Multicultural Mosaic Foundation, would run afoul of Amendment 41, an ethics measure approved by voters in 2006. In an opinion released last month, the commission determined Peniston could accept the trip because it amounts to a gift to the state, not to Peniston personally.

The ruling opens a gaping loophole in Amendment 41, Taylor said. “This is not at all what voters contemplated when they approved this gift ban,” she said.

“The purpose of the gift ban was to put an end to gifts given to public officials with discretionary power,” Taylor said in a statement. “With one secret act the IEC has gutted the ban by setting a precedent that only a colorable argument needs to be made that the gift was actually to the state.”

Ethics Watch isn’t trying to block Peniston’s trip, a spokeswoman for the group said, but hopes to overturn the ruling so it doesn’t establish a precedent allowing lawmakers to take trips paid for by nonprofits by simply claiming it’s a gift to the government.

The lawsuit also argues a judge should toss the decision because the commission violated Colorado Open Meetings Law when it reached a decision in closed session and then “merely rubber-stamped the decision already made.”

“Because of the secrecy surrounding this advisory opinion, members of the public had no opportunity to scrutinize the information before the [Independent Ethics Commission] or provide any input regarding the IEC’s decision to blatantly ignore the plain language of the gift ban,” Taylor said.

An investigation by The Colorado Independent found the commission has spent 85 percent of its time this year meeting in closed-door executive sessions, only to emerge with rulings ready to be adopted by commissioners in unanimous, formal public votes. State courts have ruled that voting in public on matters decided in secret amounts to “rubber-stamping” and is no defense against charges a public body violated the state’s strict Sunshine Law, said Steve Zansberg, a Denver attorney who specializes in First Amendment law.

Earlier this month, the ethics commission denied a request by The Colorado Independent for recordings of 14 executive sessions held by the commission totaling more than 37 hours. The Independent contended the recordings are public records because the secret enclaves were illegally convened.

“The substance [of commission decisions] is really important to vet in public because we can get some understanding of their reasoning and hopefully can provide some input,” Taylor said.

“It is the Commission’s policy not to comment on pending litigation,” the commission’s executive director, Jane Feldman, wrote in an e-mail Wednesday.

The state ethics commission was created with the approval of Amendment 41, touted as a measure to increase accountability and transparency in government. The five-member commission is responsible for investigating ethical violations and enforcing ethical standards for public officials and government employees.

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