Denver District Court Judge Herbert L. Stern on Wednesday rejected an appeal filed by Secretary of State Scott Gessler and affirmed the decision of Colorado’s Independent Ethics Commission that the secretary violated state laws when he spent public money on partisan activities.
Gessler’s request for review included a list of complaints about the alleged vague mandate of the commission, the bias of its members and disregard for his legal rights as a defendant. Judge Stern found none of Gessler’s complaints valid.
The eight-page court ruling comes nine months after the commission decided against Gessler and a year-and-half after the initial complaint about Gessler’s spending was filed by nonprofit watchdog Colorado Ethics Watch.
The Ethics Watch complaint centered on roughly $1,300 the secretary drew from his office’s discretionary fund to attend a Republican National Lawyers Association meeting in Florida in August 2012. He spent the money to pay for airfare and two-nights at the Ritz Carlton. The lawyers association meeting coincided with the Republican Party convention in Tampa that year.
Well more than half a year after the complaint was filed and two weeks before the commission was set to hold its first hearing on the matter, Gessler paid back the travel money, which meant that, in effect, the case was left to turn on $117.99 in leftover end-of-the-year discretionary fund cash that Gessler requested but for which he submitted no receipts.
Gessler, who is now running for governor, has pushed back hard at every turn in the case — against the complaint, Ethics Watch and the commission. He hired a team of three lawyers from separate firms to defend him. His counselors sued the commission, mocked it as a kangaroo court on a witch hunt and demanded Democratic members of the bipartisan body recuse themselves. That defense so far has drained hundreds of thousands of dollars from the secretary of state’s office budget.
The effect of Judge Stern’s ruling this week, stated in the dispassionate language of the court, is to further undermine the case Gessler has made in hearing rooms, in the media and on the campaign trail that he has been the victim of biased and unsubstantiated sniping.
“Judge Stern’s ruling should surprise no one,” said Ethics Watch Director Luis Toro in a release on the ruling. “Public funds are not to be used to pay for plane tickets and hotel rooms at partisan political events. Nor can officeholders whose salaries are set by statute use discretionary funds to pay themselves a year-end bonus. It is time for Scott Gessler to stop spending the people’s money defending the indefensible. He should pay the fine and move on.”
The Ethics Commission fined Gessler $1,500 when it decided against him last year.
Toro noted in a phone interview that Gessler has spent more on his defense than he has on any other litigation his office has engaged in over the last two fiscal years, including the high-profile court cases that stemmed from this past summer’s state Senate recall elections.
There is no oversight body that can put an end to the case at this stage. Gessler can appeal Judge Stern’s ruling to a higher court and eventually to the state Supreme Court.