Corruption in Elbert County is starting to cost taxpayers there a lot of money — all over a $1,000 fine that a commissioner refuses to pay. And now, the county’s attorney may face troubles of his own for defending the commissioner.
Back in December 2013, Elbert County resident Jill Duvall filed a campaign-finance complaint against Commissioner Robert Rowland and the three-member board of county commissioners. Her claim: that the board and Rowland used public money to champion a local ballot measure to raise property taxes. Rowland had headed up an informational meeting about the measure.
Administrative Law Judge Robert Spencer ruled later that month that the board and Rowland broke the law and ordered Rowland to reimburse the county $1,000. Spencer ruled he would not levy fines against the whole board because taxpayers would have to foot the bill. Instead, he ordered Rowland personally to pay up the $1,000 to the county.
The county commissioners voted to appeal the decision. The appeal took a year to resolve. The commissioners lost.
On April 27, 2015, a cashier’s check with Rowland’s name on it was paid to Elbert County. The same day, Rowland asked the county to reimburse his fine.
His payback check was dated April 30. And it was signed by Rowland himself.
To many county residents, the reimbursement stinks of corruption.
But Rowland defends the move on grounds that he had the commission’s approval. Well, at least the one commissioner who voted. Rowland recused himself from voting to reimburse himself. Commissioner Larry Ross abstained from the vote. That left just one commissioner — Kelly Dore — voting on the resolution, which would protect commissioners from personal liability related to the two lawsuits.
Dore told The Colorado Independent in September that she thought the resolution was only about covering the commission’s outside attorney fees. She claimed she had no idea Rowland sought reimbursement for the $1,000.
The seemingly sleight-of-hand self-payment prompted Duvall to sue the commission and Rowland a second time, asking the Elbert County District Court to punish Rowland for claiming he’d paid the fine without mentioning that he had been reimbursed by the county with his own John Hancock on the check. Duvall’s motion said the reimbursement proves the entire transaction defied the judge’s original order.
The scandal is spreading beyond the board of commissioners. County Attorney Wade Gately may wind up in hot water for signing off on a court filing in June that said Rowland had paid the fine. Duvall’s lawyer, Lark Fogel, told The Colorado Independent that Gately could be sanctioned for signing a document that made an allegedly false statement.
With more court proceedings still to come, the taxpayers’ bill is rising.
In May, the Elbert County District Court ruled in Duvall’s favor on the original campaign finance complaint, and ordered the county to pay her $10,000 attorney’s fees. That order came before Duvall realized that Rowland had been reimbursed for the $1,000 and before she had filed the second action seeking sanctions against him.
Gately recently asked for a new tally of costs, saying the county would pay the bill, but only if Fogel and Duvall signed a release ensuring the second case — on whether Rowland had been truthful about paying the fine — wouldn’t go to trial.
But Fogel and Duvall won’t drop their ethics case.
“This is a matter of public interest,” Fogel said.
As of last week, taxpayers were facing a legal bill of $21,000 — 21 times the $1,000 fine that triggered the dispute. The bill will keep growing because Gately asked for a 30-day delay so that the commissioners could hire an outside attorney.
Last week, the county commissioners hired the firm of Nathan, Bremer, Dumm & Myers, which often represents cities and police departments in civil lawsuits. The firm will charge Elbert County between $180 and $250 per hour.
The rising price tag isn’t one Elbert County can easily shoulder. In 2013, the year voters overwhelmingly rejected the county bond issue, the county spent more than than $3 million than it brought in. Last year, the county ran about $1.8 million in the red. Its reserves, according to the 2014 financial report, are at 2 percent, which is one percent short of what state law requires.
“This case is truly a poster child for one elected official’s stubbornness and for governmental waste,” said Duvall, a Democrat who ran against Rowland for an open county commission seat in 2012. All three members of the current board are Republicans; Rowland is also affiliated with the local Tea Party.
Duvall’s no longer alone in trying to get the Elbert County commissioners to follow the law.
Another Elbert County resident, Richard Brown, says the April 8 meeting — during which the single board member voted for the resolution that Rowland used to justify his reimbursement — violated the state’s open meetings law. Brown filed a lawsuit against Rowland and the commissioners in Elbert County District Court at the end of October.
Brown’s gripe is that the the meeting notice, which was publicized on April 7, merely said the commissioners would hold an executive session to talk about litigation, specifically the Duvall matter and another lawsuit against the county by a former employee. The resolution to protect the commissioners from personal liability in the lawsuits wasn’t on the agenda.
After the executive session, commissioners reconvened the meeting to vote on the resolution.
Brown claims the commissioners knew in advance that the resolution would be voted on that night, and says the agenda should have shown it. By not properly telling the public about the meeting, he said, the commissioners violated the open meetings law.
Last week, Brown sent Gately a letter asking the commissioners to fix the situation in three ways: to repeal the resolution to reimburse Rowland because it was passed in violation of the open meetings law; to force Rowland personally to pay his fine; and to sue Rowland if he refuses. They could have done so in their meeting this past Monday, but didn’t. So Brown amended his lawsuit to ask the court to force Rowland to pay up and the commission to repeal its resolution.
Brown, also a Democrat, resigned this week from the Elbert County Planning Commission because of the lawsuit. He said some members of the planning commission were unhappy with his decision to pursue the lawsuit against Rowland, so he said he stepped down to avoid making it a distraction for the group.
Brown told The Independent the county commissioners engaged in a “charade to circumvent the mandate” of the original court order.
“Transparency is always important,” he said. But in this case, the commissioners are involved in a “corrupt scheme and collusion to conceal it in the way they conducted the April 8 meeting.
“There’s a culture in county government to obscure things, and it’s annoying,” he added.
Gately did not return a call for comment on how much the county is willing to spend to defend the lawsuits.
Photo credit: Jeff Ruane, Creative Commons, Flickr.