The Colorado Independent Ethics Commission has an important role in state governance: It provides a backstop to ensure that the state’s public officials are doing their jobs in keeping with provisions governing gifts and contributions to those employees – the “quid” that could, and too often does, command a “pro quo.” Its job is to consider and decide on the validity of complaints about violations of the state’s ethics rules, ensconced in the Constitution by voters in 2006, and then assess penalties for the conduct. In so doing, the commission must consider the merits of each case first, and then review the evidence before issuing a finding. What it must not do is engage in politics by comparing current cases with those that have been dispensed.
In a current case, though, the commission is having a difficult time doing so. It is considering a complaint against Gov. John Hickenlooper, who hosted a Democratic Governors Association meeting in Aspen in 2013. Compass Colorado, a group that supports policies “that protect Colorado taxpayers, working families and small businesses from higher taxes, drastic spending increases, unsustainable debt and government overreach,” filed the complaint, saying it was improper for the governors group to pay Hickenlooper’s tab, and that his staff should not have spent time planning for the event. Whether the governor violated the provisions of Amendment 41 is the commission’s work to decide. It should employ all diligence in doing so.
But the commission has sidetracked itself somewhat by considering claims that the case parallels one decided against Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler. In that instance, the commission found that it was indeed a violation for the Secretary of State’s Office to reimburse Gessler for his trip to the Republican National Lawyers Association, which overlapped with the 2012 Republican National Convention in Sarasota, Fla., and which he also attended. That complaint was brought by Colorado Ethics Watch, a liberal-leaning group that “uses high impact legal actions to hold public officials and organizations accountable for unethical activities.” The commission found that Gessler had indeed broken ethics rules by spending state money for partisan purposes.
What that has to do with the Hickenlooper case is unclear, but Gessler’s lawyer has raised the question, saying that if the governor’s case is dismissed, he will ask the commission to review the decision against Gessler, and one commissioner – who was not on the panel during the Gessler case – has deemed the question of the cases’ similarity relevant. Incidentally, Gessler happens to be running for governor against Hickenlooper.
What began as a by-the-books inquiry into an ethics complaint has been infused with unnecessary political theater. The Gessler ethics situation has been resolved, and now the Hickenlooper complaint is getting its hearing. That is as far as the connection should go. Turning the ethics commission into a campaign podium is an inappropriate endeavor for either man, and the commissioners – who are bipartisan by design – must ensure that their forum does not fall sway to such attempts.