Luis Toro, director of government watchdog group Colorado Ethics Watch, said on Monday that a preliminary review of documents suggests Secretary of State Scott Gessler’s decision to bill taxpayers for travel to partisan political functions stands out when compared to decisions made by other statewide office holders.
“Not that it matters,” he told the Colorado Independent, “but if [his] defense is that everyone does it, well, that doesn’t seem to be the case.”
Toro said his organization has filed Open Records requests for reimbursement documents from Governor John Hickenlooper, Attorney General John Suthers and State Treasurer Walker Stapleton who, like Gessler, all traveled to the national political party conventions this year. Republicans held their convention in Tampa and Democrats held their convention in Charlotte.
So far, Ethics Watch has reviewed documents submitted by Democrat Hickenlooper and Republican Suthers, and neither charged taxpayers for their travel or hotel expenses to the conventions. Toro says he expects Stapleton’s records to arrive in the next day or so. Suthers and Stapleton were delegates to the Republican convention. Gessler was not, Justin Miller, spokesman for the state Republican Party, confirmed for the Independent.
In a letter sent Monday, Ethics Watch asked Denver authorities to launch a criminal investigation into nearly $2,000 in expenses charged to taxpayers by Gessler for week-long travel to the Republican convention and to a Republican National Lawyers Association meeting. On his reimbursement forms, Gessler said he was conducting state business.
Toro said the Republican National Lawyers Association and the Republican National Committee and its convention exist to advance Republican policy proposals and Republican candidacies and that citizens of the state should be able to expect that their tax money won’t be used to help one party win elections.
Toro asked Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey and Denver Police Chief Robert White to investigate whether Gessler “made false statements” on reimbursement requests made to the state and “misappropriated state funds for personal or political uses.”
Secretary of State spokesman Rich Coolidge told the Fort Collins Coloradoan, which broke the story of the controversial reimbursement, that Gessler was conducting state business because he served on a panel considering the legal issues surrounding voter ID laws.
“This is continuing legal education, current election issues on a national scale,” Coolidge told the Coloradoan. “It’s good for him to visit with other attorneys that deal in election law.”
Toro said Colorado citizens celebrate the fact that politics here have generally remained unsullied by the kind of corruption that takes place elsewhere and so a legitimate effort to remain vigilant is significant.
“It’s an important moment,” he said. “Can we continue to say ‘We don’t have ethics problems, we don’t have corruption’? Really? Is that true?”
Toro also said there is precedent in the state where legal pressure has been successfully exerted against officeholders who abuse taxpayer expense accounts.
In 2008, Attorney General Suthers appointed two special prosecutors to investigate former El Paso County District Attorney John Newsome. The El Paso D.A. traveled to Chicago to interview a witness in a Colorado Springs homicide case but he asked taxpayers to foot a $700 side trip to Indiana, where he attended a college football game. As the investigation proceeded, Newsome lost re-election in a landslide to Dan May.
The Ethics Watch letter to D.A. Morrissey and Police Chief White: