The Colorado Independent Ethics Commission yesterday unanimously voted to investigate Secretary of State Scott Gessler for misuse of public funds.
The five-member bipartisan panel denied a series of motions to dismiss brought by Gessler’s attorneys, who argued that the commission lacked jurisdiction in the matter and that the charges leveled against Gessler were unclear.
“Secretary Gessler fully complied with the law and will continue to defend himself against these specious attacks,” Secretary of State Spokesman Rich Coolidge wrote to the Independent in an email. “Even after two months, it is unclear what rule the Secretary is alleged to have violated. This confusion makes it difficult for the Secretary to defend against vague claims. We’re anxious for the commission to finish its report so the Secretary can fully focus on serving the people of Colorado.”
Commission Executive Director Jane Feldman told the Independent she expects to complete the report by February 4th, when the commission is next scheduled to meet. She said she will work mostly on her own to investigate the substance of the complaint and with the attorney general’s office on relevant legal questions.
Feldman seemed unsurprised by the spirited quality of the hearing, which was marked by regular, sometimes heated, interruptions in deliberations.
A pugilistic conservative politics attorney and fiery public speaker, Gessler has hired a team of lawyers headed by high-profile defense attorney David Lane to represent him before the Ethics Commission and in the criminal case on the same matter launched by Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey.
Gessler’s attorneys brought at least four motions to dismiss over two hours of back and forth at yesterday’s hearing. Yet the facts under consideration have been a matter of public record for nearly four months and they were not contested yesterday by Gessler’s attorneys.
In October of last year, the Fort Collins Coloradan broke news that Gessler had charged to taxpayers roughly $1500 in what looked like personal travel expenses and paid out another $1500 to himself over the last two years from the secretary of state’s discretionary funds without submitting receipts.
The Ethics Commission can only investigate alleged transgressions taken place in the last year and it can not launch investigations into officeholders without acting on a complaint.
The complaint in this case therefore concerns only roughly $1500 in spending and it was brought by nonprofit government watchdog Colorado Ethics Watch, a left-leaning organization that has battled Gessler for years in his capacity as an attorney and now as an officeholder over campaign finance and election law.
The travel expenses charged by Gessler come from attendance at the Republican Party convention in Florida and to a Republican National Lawyers Association meeting this past summer. Gessler was not a delegate to the Republican convention, a fact confirmed for the Independndent by Spokesman for the state Republican Party Justin Miller. On his reimbursement forms, Gessler said he was conducting state business.
Peg Perl, staff counsel at Ethics Watch, told the Independent it was gratifying to see the commission stay focused on the substance of the case.
“We’re happy the commission members are taking their responsibility seriously,” she said in a phone interview. “They voted unanimously that this complaint was not frivolous when they took it up and they decided unanimously today to investigate it on the merits. Gessler’s attorneys cast aspersions on Ethics Watch, calling our motives into question, and they attacked the way the Ethics Commission conducts business. But the fact remains that these are questionable transactions with public funds and Coloradans have a right to know what happened.”
Perl added that the complaint filed by her organization was based on published news reports and documents from the secretary of state’s office obtained through an Open Records Act request. She said the commission will have greater investigative power to look into the spending through its subpoena powers.
The state constitution requires the commission consist of no more than two of each Republican and Democratic members and must include at least one unaffiliated member. The responsibility to make appointments to the commission is parceled out to the holders of various state offices. Perl said newly elected Democratic House Speaker Mark Ferrandino will appoint a new Democratic member to the commission in the coming weeks.
[ Video screen grab: Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler ]