Colorado State Senator Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, said she missed an opportunity to head off the controversy now surrounding newly elected Secretary of State Scott Gessler. Carroll had been weighing whether or not to introduce legislation that would have set strict disclosure laws for the secretary of state’s office in particular and tightened state worker conflict-of-interest laws in general. She didn’t introduce that bill but that doesn’t mean a legislative response to the Gessler controversy is off the table, she said.
“We’re a little bit late on bills, and at this point the election is done. [The legislation] would have helped us out… on what a candidate would need to disclose, on qualifications for the candidate. It [can’t] fix the immediate problem,” Carroll told the Colorado Independent. For now “[Gessler] is going to have to put his role as a public officer ahead of any private financial consideration. If he can’t do that, he shouldn’t be in public office.”
News outlets have been reporting since Friday on Gessler’s plan during his term as Secretary of State to moonlight as a contract attorney for the Hackstaff Law Group, the state’s most high-profile and unabashedly partisan elections and campaign finance firm. Gessler was a founding partner in the firm, which was called Hackstaff and Gessler until the firm bought out Gessler’s stake the day before he was sworn into office. Gessler told reporters that he is taking a steep pay cut as Secretary of State and that the $68,500 annual salary paid by the state isn’t enough to support his family.
Gessler has been, in effect, the public face of the Hackstaff firm for years. As the lead attorney arguing cases on behalf of so-called hard- and soft-money conservative political advocacy and attack groups, he has battled regulations overseen by the Secretary of State aimed at increasing campaign finance disclosure and limiting the power of big-money to influence elections.
Sen. Carroll said that, at this point in the session, House and Senate leadership would have to agree to allow a lawmaker to introduce a late bill to address Gessler’s moonlighting plans.
“I haven’t heard of anything yet but, depending on what happens with this, if leadership decides they want a late bill, it could happen. I just don’t know of any right now.”
A generalist secretary of state
There are two main issues of concern, Carroll said about Gessler’s plan to contract with Hackstaff. There is first the question of whether or not Gessler is dedicated to his job as secretary of state.
His philosophy about the value of many of the laws the office he now heads has to enforce has been demonstrated over the course of years, she said. Now, in his first days as secretary of state, he seems already to be saying he will take a casual or at least a generalist approach to enforcing those laws.
“There is disclosure about devoting your full resources, disclosure about whether you intend to treat it like a full time job. That’s one question. If he wants to deliver pizzas on the side or teach classes on the side, or work in a nail salon on the side, that is fine as far as conflict of interest, though it may take away from his job as secretary of state.”
The other issue, the issue of divided financial investment, is more weighty.
“There is no way that when you are getting your paycheck from a firm that has active matters pending before the secretary of state’s office that that’s not inherently a conflict of interest. I’m a little alarmed by someone whose conflict analysis doesn’t catch that this is a problem, even after it’s brought to his attention.
“This is beyond a conflict,” she said. “You just simply can’t be funded by a partisan firm as the chief elections officer of the state– a firm that is running hard-side and soft-side election activities. [You can’t do that] for pay as the secretary of state. [Gessler] is a walking conflict of interest. I am a little stunned by someone who doesn’t think there’s a conflict there.
Carroll said lawmakers surely recognize that there’s a problem surfaced in the Gessler news that needs to be solved.
“Unfortunately, you legislate to the lowest common denominator. You wouldn’t think that you would have to but when you are [talking about the person tasked with] running all of the lobbyist disclosures and all the elections and campaign finance for the state of Colorado, democracy is at stake. This isn’t a place where you want conflicts of interest to be tolerated.”
A strong philosophy and the clients to prove it
The Colorado Independent this year reported on the case mounted by Gessler in defense of Clear the Bench Colorado, for example, a conservative group founded by political pugilist Matt Arnold to oust liberal state Supreme Court justices. The twisting-turning legal wrangle pitted government watchdog group Colorado Ethics Watch against Hackstaff-Gessler in an influential case that had to do with the way the state categorizes advocacy groups and thus determines contribution limits.
The Independent also reported that Hackstaff-Gessler was representing the pro-oil-and-gas dirty-tricks group Western Tradition Partnership in the group’s work this past election. Hackstaff-Gessler registered Western Tradition Partnership sub-group Western Tradition Partnership Education Fund, the group behind campaign attack mailers that targeted Democratic state Sen. Gail Schwartz. The group never properly disclosed its role in creating and distributing the mailer.
As the Independent reported earlier, Hackstaff-Gessler also defended the man behind Western Tradition Partnership, Scott Shires, in a case where Shires failed to file electioneering communications reports for a group called the Colorado League of Taxpayers that campaigned on behalf of pro-oil and gas Republicans in the 2008 Garfield County commissioner’s race. A judge fined the Colorado League of Taxpayers more than $7,000 in that case. That fine – still unpaid – now tallies more than $8,000.
Hoping for the best
The story about Gessler’s plans to moonlight broke on Friday and the media has delivered a steady stream of stories on the subject ever since. The public seems to be weighing in against Gessler’s plan and the web of legal confidentiality agreements that would shield the details of the work he does for Hackstaff as he serves out his term as Secretary of State.
Liberal activist group ProgressNow initiated an email petition campaign over the weekend and by Monday it had gathered 2,600 signatures.
Gessler has signaled he may be rethinking the plan. He said his wife might have to get a job to help make ends meet.
“At this point I am frankly hoping that he realizes that this is a terrible mistake and that, if he needs a second income, then to at least get it in something that is not an inherent conflict,” said Carroll.
“I think that this has clearly put everybody on notice of what the responsibilities of the secretary of state office are and what [candidate] disclosures are necessary prior to an election.”
Additional reporting by Joseph Boven