Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler on Monday cut a personal check to the Department of State for $1,278.90, looking to put an end to an ethics investigation that has stretched on since the middle of October and that seemed likely to continue attracting headlines and draining public funds for months to come.
The payment comes a week after Gessler announced publicly he was considering running for governor. He filed campaign finance affidavits Thursday signaling he would run, according to The Denver Post.
A top Republican officeholder in the state, Gessler spent 1,278.90 on a trip to Florida last summer to attend the Republican National Convention and a Republican National Lawyer’s Association meeting. He billed the trip to taxpayers, describing it as state business, drawing an ethics complaint that the money had been improperly spent on political activities.
Left-leaning nonprofit Colorado Ethics Watch filed the complaint October 15 with the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission.
“After many months of attempting to defend himself from this political attack, it became obvious that the Ethics Commission simply wasn’t going to give the Secretary a fair hearing,” the Secretary’s spokesman Andrew Cole wrote in an email. “So he decided to pay the money back in an effort to move on from this episode and get back to work for the people of Colorado.”
In a letter to the Department of State attached to the check, Gessler called it “repayment for discretionary account funds received as reimbursement for [his] attendance at last August’s continuing legal education at the RNLA Conference.”
The letter and a photocopy of the check were included as the last of many attachments to documents filed with the ethics commission for a hearing scheduled the first week of June.
Ethics Watch Director Luis Toro said he was surprised to find evidence of the payment as he was going through the complaint documents today but said he welcomed the news.
“So, in effect, [Gessler] took a no-interest loan from the state. OK. Why pay it back now? I don’t know. We’ll let others speculate as to the motives. We applaud him for doing the right thing.”
Toro added that, even though Ethics Watch is satisfied, he doesn’t think the payment will end the matter straightaway.
“We don’t think we need to a put on a case now,” he said. “But there still has to be a hearing. That’s the law.”
The ethics commission was established in 2006 by state constitutional Amendment 41. In order to head off abuse, the amendment doesn’t allow parties bringing complaints to drop them. Otherwise bullying could arise on all sides. Parties could file complaints as a form of extortion, for example, looking to get paid in return for dropping them. And parties filed against could threaten their accusers to force them to withdraw complaints.
Executive Director Jane Feldman said the ethics commission has yet to decide on a course of action in the Gessler case.
“We’ll meet to decide if the settlement is appropriate… and then we’re required to hold a hearing.”
A factor sure on some level to play into the deliberations is that, in the course of the investigation, Gessler’s attorneys filed two lawsuits against the commission, alleging its members are biased against him and its processes flawed. Cole said the Secretary has no intention of dropping the suits as long as the matter remains unsettled.
Toro called the suits “inappropriate.”
“If Gessler really wants to end this, we think it’s critical that he drop those suits,” he said. “It’s a shame that Gessler has impugned the integrity of ethics commission members. They are chosen by officeholders based on their reputations as ethical people – chosen by the governor, members of the House and Senate and the chief justice.”
Gessler has fought hard against the complaint since it was filed, spending taxpayer money on a defense team made up of lawyers from three different firms. The team filed a series of motions in addition to the two lawsuits looking to force members to dismiss the complaint.
Documents released this spring put the Secretary’s legal tab at $60,000, but sources familiar with the investigation told The Independent that altogether the legal costs to taxpayers for the secretary’s defense and the commission’s work, including its defense against the lawsuits, is now upwards of a $100,000.
A criminal investigation into the Gessler travel spending launched by Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey is ongoing.