Colorado’s ethics watchdog will stop watching. Here’s why.

Colorado Ethics Watch, the nonprofit that has made transparency and accountability in state and local government its business since 2006, is shutting down in December. The Independent checked in with executive director Luis Toro on Wednesday to discuss why, and what his group’s closure means for our square, swing state. 

The Indy: Sad news, Luis. We and other news outlets count on Ethics Watch and your work. What happened?

Toro: After 11 years of doing this, the model we’ve been operating under isn’t really necessary anymore. When we first started, we were bringing awareness to the fact that in Colorado, we have private party enforcement, meaning that private citizens, not state officials, investigate ethics complaints. We’ve shown people how to pursue ethics complaints and now they’re doing them on their own. This has been a big year for complaints with the Ethics Commission – 47 filed so far, I believe. I think that’s a record number. And none of them were filed by us.

The Indy: So, you’re saying you’re folding because there are more ethics complaints than ever in Colorado? That strikes me as a reason to stick around.

Toro: Well, yes, we’ve raised awareness to the point where there are other people who can file ethics complaints and enforce these laws without Ethics Watch. That’s partly the reason we’re closing. It’s also partly that it has been tough to get funding. With the Trump administration in office, there’s a focus on ethics at the federal level and less at the local level.

The Indy: Hmm. Wouldn’t you think it would be the opposite – that increased concern about ethics nationally would also increase concern on the state and local levels?

Toro: Yeah, you’d think. But that’s not what we’ve found. We never watch-dogged the president, and I think that groups that do are getting more support.

The Indy: Should Coloradans see Ethics Watch’s closure as a sign that, at least structurally, all is well with ethics enforcement in this state?

Toro: Not exactly. There are still big problems with the structure of the state Ethics Commission. A lot of those problems go back to the amendment [Amendment 41, passed by voters in 2006 to create the Commission]. The biggest problem with the commission is a lack of staff and funding. That’s not something we can advocate for. The Commission has to do that themselves with the JBC [Joint Budget Committee] and lawmakers. But so far they haven’t been willing to do that, to take on the investigative role themselves.

The Indy: What changes has Ethics Watch been able to make?

Toro:  Well, we’ve closed loopholes, big loopholes that people were using and getting away with. We sued Clear the Bench – the organization trying to unseat state Supreme Court justices in 2010 – because they tried to claim they should be treated as an issue committee and be able to raise unlimited funds. The court agreed with us that they were a PAC and limited to how much they could raise.

And when [former] Secretary of State Scott Gessler tried to enact a rule that would have made electioneering communications not subject to disclosure unless they urged a vote against a certain candidate, we convinced the Colorado Court of Appeals that there needs to be disclosure if those communications are within the 60 days before a general election or 30 days before a primary.

Luis Toro

Those were both actually huge wins.

The Indy: In terms of campaign finance laws, where does Colorado stand?

Toro: At least on the campaign finance side, most of the complaints filed now are technical gotchas like candidates not listing the occupations of donors who gave more than $100. There are no big unresolved questions out there when it comes to campaign finance laws.

The Indy: For ethics issues beyond campaign finance, what kind of void remains?

Toro: Hopefully, not much of one. We’ll keep our website up for a year and hopefully people will use that information to file citizen complaints. Hopefully, the people of Colorado will be vigilant demanding the highest ethics from their elected officials. And, frankly, the Ethics Commission treats people more favorably when they’re not lawyers.

The Indy: You’re a lawyer. What’s next for you?

Toro: Well, before this I was a partner at a downtown law firm practicing commercial litigation. I may go back to that. But I may stay with this area in private practice instead of Ethics Watch. … There’s probably work to be done.

Photos courtesy of Colorado Ethics Watch.
A recovering newspaper journalist, Susan reported for papers in California and Nevada before her 13 years as a political reporter, national reporter and metro columnist at The Denver Post. “Trashing the Truth,” a series she reported with Miles Moffeit, helped exonerate five men, prompted reforms on evidence preservation and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in investigative journalism. Her 2012 project, “The Gray Box,” exposed the effects of long-term solitary confinement. The ACLU honored her in 2017 for her years of civil rights coverage, and the Society of Professional Journalists honored her in April with its First Amendment Award. Susan and her two boys live with a puppy named Hymie whom they’re pretty sure is the messiah.