Who holds the lawmakers to the law? Who watches the watchers?
The Colorado Independent Ethics Commission last year operated behind closed doors, ironically shrouding in secrecy the open-government mission voters bestowed upon it when they voted it into existence. Nonprofit Colorado Ethics Watch called out the commission, filing and winning a lawsuit this summer, forcing the commission to open its deliberations to public scrutiny and bringing the matter to the attention of the press. Luis Toro, new director of Colorado Ethics Watch, counts the suit as a major victory and a model for the kind of work he will pursue in the coming year.
Senior Counsel Toro took the wheel on the first of the year, replacing Founding Director Chantell Taylor. The organization has been working as a watchdog in the state since 2006, filing law suits, formal complaints and open records requests aimed at improving government transparency and raising public trust. More than any single victory, the ongoing legal vigilance of Ethics Watch has made an impression on lawmakers and public officials.
In October Senate Minority Leader and then-gubernatorial candidate Josh Penry drew the organization’s scrutiny for campaign emails he sent out to government addresses. He referred to the organization in the press as an “errant e-mail outrage machine.”
On the announcement in May that Ethics Watch won the law suit against the Ethics Commission, then-Director Chantell Taylor summed up the increasing value of Ethics Watch: “Finally the commission that was established to hold officials accountable for violations of law is itself being held accountable.”
Toro joined the organization in January 2008. He talked to the Colorado Independent recently about the organization’s mission and its plan for 2010.
Colorado Independent: What do you have on your plate for the first half of 2010? Who in Colorado government should be looking over their shoulder?
Luis Toro: Ha. Actually, we’re working up a general ethics scorecard, where we select bills and give legislative ratings related to government ethics and transparency. The CSU higher education executive hiring legislation proposed at the end of last session, for example, was a transparency bill. It concerned high-level decision-making. It concerned how we spend tax dollars. It would have got a high rating– had it not been LINK killed by its sponsor, of course.
There are no particular good actors or bad actors at this point… But we’re entering a campaign season, so there will be a lot to watch– as much as ever, anyway. Colorado campaign finance laws being reviewed by the state Supreme Court with the Citizens United trial, that’s definitely on our radar.
What about Amendment 54, the so-called clean elections amendment? It’s still tied up in the Supreme Court. Are you watching that?
Well, that had some really obvious constitutional problems. I personally don’t think that will be back. But the amendment sought to set up a [sole source] contracts database. That’s good and that will be retained.
What about 2010 ballot initiatives? There’s a controversial slate of proposals, as usual. Any concerns there?
No. It’s not our role to weigh in for or against at this early stage on individual proposals. Again, though, the process is a concern. The matter of candidate and issue committee [donation] limits, for example.
Take the Clear the Bench campaign, which seeks to unseat all of the [Colorado] Supreme Court justices. So far, the donations made by that campaign have conformed to candidate-donation-limit standards. Those limits are lower than limits on issues. As an issue campaign, Clear the Bench could take in higher amounts. But there are no oversized donations so far. The question is whether a plan to unseat justices really counts as an “issue.” Doesn’t it really primarily concern candidates? We’re looking at that. You know, what are the parameters?
How did you come to Ethics Watch?
I’m a Colorado kid. Heritage High! Then I went to Harvard undergrad and law school at Berkeley. I taught law in Sacramento. In 1995 I came back to Colorado. It was lucky timing, actually. I joined the first crew of law clerks to work with Judge Carlos Lucero in the 10th Circuit here. Amazing. [laughs.] I could probably never get that job now. …
But Ethics Watch is about a greater good. That’s what we’ve got here. That’s what Colorado has in Ethics Watch. Our organization is sometimes seen as concerning itself with candidates, but we work for good governance for the whole state, right and left.
And this year we’ll be doing the same as always. It’s important that there’s an organization here looking to hold people and organizations accountable. The mission is the same as ever. We’re going to continue to do what we’ve been doing.
Edit note: An earlier version of this story described the database set up by Amendment 54 as a “donations database.” In fact, as Toro said, the amendement set up a database to track sole-source work contracts.
Interview edited and condensed.