Ethics group calls for probe into email

An ethics-advocacy organization is seeking an investigation into whether a Pagosa Springs business owner engaged in voter intimidation when he sent an email to employees warning that they might lose their jobs if Barack Obama wins the election.

Colorado Ethics Watch, a liberal-leaning organization, sent a letter to 6th Judicial District Attorney Todd Risberg on Tuesday afternoon seeking an investigation into the email sent by Chris Smith, owner of the Visiting Angels senior home-care facility in Pagosa Springs.

“We think it’s important that someone bring this to the attention of the authorities,” Director Luis Toro said. “We understand people subjected to intimidation tactics don’t always want to speak out. People might be unwilling to come forward, so we’re stepping in.”

Smith sent the email to his employees earlier this month, warning them their hours could be cut and they could lose their health care and jobs if President Barack Obama is re-elected next month and the Affordable Care Act is not repealed.

“The Affordable Care Act, aka ‘Obama-Care’ ... will crush Visiting Angels and hurt your job when it takes effect,” the email obtained by The Durango Herald says.

The letter from Colorado Ethics Watch says it appears Smith and Visiting Angels – under the trade name Bykota Inc. – violated Colorado law, which says that within 90 days of an election, a business owner cannot display or send out a notice containing threats or information that implicitly or expressly says wages or employment could be effected if a candidate is elected.

“Colorado citizens deserve to cast their ballots according to their conscience, free from coercion by their employer and fear of losing their jobs,” the letter says.

Visiting Angels is a national assisted-living franchise with 11 franchises in Colorado and more around the country.

Smith, in a phone interview Tuesday, said he is not allowed to comment on the email and all calls must go through the national office, which could not be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.

Risberg, whose office is in charge of conducting investigations into alleged voter intimidation, said he had not seen the letter. He said he has to receive an affidavit for an investigation to be required.

Smith, in an interview on Friday with the Herald, said he does not think the email is coercive.

“I would say it’s probably a bit persuasive. Not coercive, but I am trying to be persuasive,” he said. “My main intent was to inform them that the Affordable Care Act will affect their job directly.”

The ethics group’s letter urges the district attorney to investigate any election offenses and “bring appropriate charges against Mr. Smith, Bykota, Inc., or both, including the possibility of revoking Bykota, Inc.’s right to conduct business in Colorado.”

“Election laws protect Colorado voters only if they are enforced,” it said.

Those convicted of breaking the Colorado statute could face up to a year in jail, a $1,000 fine and forfeiture of its charter and right to do business in Colorado.

The office handled a case of campaign fraud earlier this year when Michael Hayward, a county commissioner candidate for District 2 in Pagosa Springs, said he would donate his salary to local nonprofit organizations if he was elected.

Risberg said the office and Hayward reached an agreement that if Hayward ceased promising his salary to the organizations, criminal charges would not be filed.

“We definitely will continue to monitor the situation,” Toro said. “We think this is very important because Election Day is the one day where all Americans are supposed to have an equal voice.”

jdahl@durangoherald.com

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