Sloppy record keeping. Failure to follow the state’s open meetings and open records laws. Baffling instructions to anyone brave enough to file a complaint.
Those are a few of the charges the state’s auditor lobbed at Colorado’s Independent Ethics Commission, the body that oversees the state’s ethics laws.
Tuesday’s audit is the first since the voter-approved commission formed in 2007.
The audit identifies the commission’s labyrinthine complaint process as one of its biggest problems.
Unless you’re a lawyer, the process isn’t designed to be readily accessible or understandable by the public, Luis Toro of Colorado Ethics Watch told The Colorado Independent.
Another problem: The commission doesn’t investigate complaints. It leaves that up to the people who file them.
“Our point is that if you don’t have a lawyer, you don’t have a chance (of filing a complaint correctly), and you have to do it at your own expense,” Toro said Tuesday.
Most ethics commissions in the 42 states that have them can investigate complaints filed by the public, rather than asking the public to do the legwork, as is the case in Colorado, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan nonprofit that assists legislatures with research and information.
The audit also found the IEC failed to maintain records to show whether it was adhering to state law or to its own rules.
“[D]ue to a lack of documentation we could not fully determine whether the IEC consistently followed its rules over time, or properly conducted hearings for all of the complaints included in our review,” the audit stated.
The auditors couldn’t find recordings or minutes for hearings. They couldn’t find documentation for almost half of the complaints they reviewed. They couldn’t find written policies to ensure the body’s rules from one director to the next would be consistent.
Every executive director has had her own way of dealing with the commission’s business. The commissioners, almost entirely former elected officials, have had different ways of handling conflicts of interest when they hear complaints against friends and other elected officials, some to whom they make contributions. There is no written conflict of interest policy to guide commissioners.
Colorado Ethics Watch has tangled with the commission over the years. The group is currently awaiting a decision from the Colorado Supreme Court over the commission’s authority regarding complaints they deem frivolous and whether those decisions can be appealed.
Toro said Ethics Watch was surprised to see “how inconsistent the document management has been.”
Ethics Watch has for years pointed out the commission’s lack of record-keeping, which has also been criticized by the Joint Budget Committee, including Sen. Pat Steadman, a Denver Democrat. Steadman pointed out the commission told the JBC last year it would address its record-keeping issues, particularly on recording meetings.
The Colorado State Internet Portal Authority, which assists state agencies with technology, gave the commission a grant last year to pay for equipment that would have allowed the body to live-stream hearings and other functions.
That equipment was purchased but never used, in part because the executive director did not have the technical know-how to set it up for hearings.
That speaks to another problem with the commission: The executive director has little guidance about what the job entails and support for carrying it out.
Jane Feldman, an attorney with a background in ethics, served as the commission’s executive director for the first seven years. She left two years ago, and the commission is now on its third hire.
The last director, Amy DeVan, an attorney who oversaw attorney ethics on behalf of the Department of Law, lasted just over a year. She left, according to Commission Chair Bill Leone, because the job wasn’t challenging enough.
In January, on the day the commission was scheduled to interview finalists for the executive director position, Leone said the commission ought to change the job description to make it more of an administrative position, rather than a legal one. The commission did not take formal action on that suggestion, and hired former attorney, Dino Ioannides.
This afternoon, Rep. Beth McCann, a Denver Democrat, will ask the House Judiciary Committee for its approval on a bill that would address at least some of the issues raised by the audit.
Correction 3/14/2016: This story originally described Amy Devan as a former attorney. She is a practicing attorney.
Pamela Carls, Creative Commons, Flickr.