Lobbyist Ben Waters may be in hot water for lying to lawmakers

Update: April 19, 2016: Rep. Jon Becker met with Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office and lobbyist Ben Waters and decided not to file an ethics complaint against Waters. The three parties agreed the misinformation Waters shared with lawmakers was not a lie but a “miscommunication,” Becker said. 

Related: No more hot water for lobbyist Ben Waters after ‘miscommunication’

A Colorado Statehouse lobbyist may face an ethics complaint after lawmakers accused him of lying to them about a bill that could have helped rural Coloradans with legal challenges on conservation easements tax credits.

The bill, House Bill 16-1174, was one of two on the issue presented at the state Capitol this year. The measure was heard Friday morning in the House Appropriations Committee, where it died on a party-line vote, with Democrats voting against and Republicans in favor.

The conservation easement program works like this: Landowners sell certain rights to a land trust, although the landowner still owns the property itself.

Related: Dept. of Revenue abuses rural Colorado, say witnesses at Capitol 

The benefit of such a contract? The land remains pristine: no housing projects, oil and gas wells, solar or wind power, or any other kind of development. The landowner keeps the land for limited use: Farmers continue to grow crops, ranchers keep grazing cattle, and homeowners stay put.

Since the program was authorized in 1999, about 8,000 conservation easements have been granted, although about 300 are tied up in disputes with the Department of Revenue over tax credits the Department has rejected.

The bill, in its most recent version, would have allowed those suing the state over the tax credits to file those lawsuits in court without posting bonds, sometimes in the millions of dollars.

In the weeks leading up to Friday’s vote, lobbyist Ben Waters, who works on behalf of the Colorado Coalition of Land Trusts, told the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jon Becker of Fort Morgan, that he would see to it the bill was killed because of who was sponsoring it in the Senate: Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling, who carried the other conservation easement bill.

Becker says Waters crossed an ethical line when he lied to lawmakers that the governor opposed the bill, either because of the measure itself or because Sonnenberg was sponsoring it in the Senate.

Neither is true. The Governor’s office was neutral as was the Colorado Department of Revenue.

And that’s what could earn Waters a visit with the legislature’s ethics committee.

It’s spelled out the House and Senate rules: Lobbyists aren’t allowed to tell lawmakers something that’s knowingly false about a bill.

Becker and Sonnenberg are both furious with Waters for lying about the governor’s position. Becker told The Colorado Independent he’s considering filing an ethics complaint against the lobbyist.

Sonnenberg called Waters “incompetent” and said he has no idea why Waters appears to have a personal vendetta against him. Sonnenberg said he hasn’t spoken to Waters in at least five or six years and certainly not on this bill.

“He’s blaming the governor’s office” for the opposition, Sonnenberg said, but when Sonnenberg spoke to the governor’s staff, he was assured that was not the case.

Whether Waters’ statements influenced the Democrats on the committee is unknown.

Appropriations Chair Rep. Dave Young of Greeley told The Colorado Independent that he voted against the bill because it wasn’t necessary, given that most of the cases, roughly 15, still hang under a 2011 resolution process and are expected to be resolved by this fall. 

That’s also the position of the Colorado Coalition of Land Trusts, a organization for land trusts. President Amanda Barker said today that she wouldn’t get into “hearsay about who’s feathers might be ruffled,” and that the organization also believes the bill was unnecessary.

Disputes involving land trusts risk the reputation of the conservation easement program.

Becker hasn’t given up. If he can get permission from House leadership, he says he will take another shot at another conservation easement bill, based on the one that died Friday.

Becker also pointed out that when the bill was revised into its current form, the person who handled much of the rewrite was Ben Waters, who should have supported a bill he himself helped author.

Waters did not respond to a request for comment.

Photo credit: Ben Waters’ Facebook page

Correction 4/17/2016: This story initially misidentified the Colorado Coalition of Land Trusts as the Colorado Association of Land Trusts. The story also stated that land trusts hold the deeds to the property. They do not. They own certain rights. The story also stated that if landowners lost these disputes, it could cost the land trust companies millions. Land trust companies would still own the rights they purchased to the land. The loss to the land trust companies would be a hit to the conservation easement program’s reputation.

has been a political journalist since 1998. She covered the state capitol for the Silver & Gold Record from 1998 to 2009 and for The Colorado Statesman in 2010-11 and 2013-14. Since 2010 she also has covered the General Assembly for newspapers in northeastern Colorado. She was recognized with awards from the Colorado Press Association for feature writing and informational graphics for her work with the Statesman in 2012.