Lawmakers fail to reform Colorado’s Ethics Commission

The Republican-controlled Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee shot down a bill Monday that would have begun to reform Colorado’s Independent Ethics Commission.

The bill was supported by the state’s Republican Attorney General and Secretary of State.

Under House Bill 16-1216, the commission would stop using the Colorado Attorney General for its legal counsel, which critics claim is a conflict of interest, since the commission has ethics jurisdiction over state employees and state elected officials, including the Attorney General and staff.

While the measure won support from ethics watchdogs, the Ethics Commission opposed it.

Commission Chair Bill Leone complained to a House committee in March that he was unaware the bill was in progress, despite the fact that the commission’s legal counsel had helped write the bill and a temporary commission staff member provided financial information used in the measure’s fiscal analysis.

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Leone himself told The Colorado Independent last December he was not “adverse” to the idea of the commission hiring its own attorney, an idea also floated in a failed 2015 bill.

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The proposal languished for two months in the House Appropriations Committee. It finally moved out of the House last Friday on a 35-29 vote, with one Republican, Rep. Kevin Priola of Henderson, siding with the House’s 34 Democrats to support the measure.

But in between the bill’s March hearing and last Friday, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled the legislature could not dictate how the commission does its job.

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In response, the appropriations committee struck out language that instructed the commission to develop a conflict of interest policy for commission members, a recommendation also made by the state auditor in a scathing March review of the commission.

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Backers decided that after the Supreme Court ruling, the best route was to focus the bill on one critical issue, that the commission should hire its own legal counsel, said Peg Perl of Colorado Ethics Watch.

The bill died on a 3-2 party-line vote Monday, without explanation from the committee’s majority Republicans, who rarely explain why they vote against Democratic-sponsored bills.

It’s the second year that a proposal to shake up how the ethics commission conducts its business has died in the State Affairs Committee, aka the “kill committee” (the House has its own “kill” committee with the same name).

As for the future? Both the House and Senate sponsor of House Bill 16-1216 are term-limited and ending their legislative careers at the end of the year.

Sen. Pat Steadman of Denver, the bill’s Senate sponsor, says the proposal will be back next year.

Photo credit: Scott Lowe, Creative Commons, Flickr

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.