From the Cheap Seats: Ethics Panel Looks Less Than Ethical

March 1, 2013
By

INDEPENDENT? Three of the Ethics Commission’s five members, as well as the executive director, are staunch Democratic partisans (donkeyhotey / flickr image)

There’s something vaguely unethical about the scenario unfolding at the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission.

The commission is poised to issue a report on a complaint submitted by Colorado Ethics Watch about Secretary of State Scott Gessler.

Whatever the merits of the complaint, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the commissioners should end their involvement in l’affaire Gessler before they drag the panel’s name through the mud.

First, it’s unclear that the commission has any jurisdiction here. The IEC was empowered to rule on complaints stemming from violations of Amendment 41, the 2006 ballot measure that prohibits elected officials and public employees from taking gifts over $50.

Nobody’s accusing Gessler of accepting a gift. The commission agreed to take the case anyway because commissioners take the position that they can address “any other standards of conduct or reporting requirements as provided by law.”

Under that standard, there may be nothing that isn’t fair game for the commission. What next? If Colorado Ethics Watch filed a complaint about the Colorado Energy Office, would the IEC agree to conduct an audit?

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle should be concerned about the specter of a roving ethics panel that considers no matter beyond its scope. That’s surely not what voters thought they were approving when they passed Amendment 41.

Second, the panel is hopelessly compromised. As Colorado Peak Politics reported earlier this week, three of the commission’s five members, as well as the IEC’s executive director, are staunch Democratic partisans.

In order to ensure political balance, no more than two commissioners may belong to the same political party. Commissioner Bill Pinkham is not affiliated with either major party, but a review of his campaign history shows three of his four donations going to Democrats.

These include gifts to the Colorado Democratic Party and the Democratic House Campaign Fund, as well as Steve Johnson, a Republican who was running in a non-partisan race, according to Peak Politics.

The two Democratic commissioners have given financial support to Gessler’s political rivals. Commissioner Rosemary Marshall gave $100 to former Secretary of State Bernie Buescher in his 2010 race against Gessler.

Commissioner Dan Grossman gave $500 in 2006 to Ken Gordon, who’s now running to unseat Gessler in 2014. Gordon also gave a donation to Grossman’s state House campaign.

Commission executive director Jane Feldman has also contributed exclusively to Democratic candidates. A graphic compiled by Colorado Peak Politics showed that most of the donations were given under her married name, Jane Zavislan.

None of this is illegal, but let’s face it: Any appearance of neutrality that the commission may have once enjoyed is now out the window. Instead, the panel has made itself vulnerable to accusations that it’s a kangaroo court bent on wreaking revenge on its political enemies, in this case Gessler.

The Gessler complaint is on the commission’s Monday meeting agenda. Gessler has filed an amended motion asking the panel to delegate the matter to an administrative law judge. If commissioners are concerned at all about guarding the IEC’s reputation as a fair and impartial arbiter, they would be wise to grant Gessler’s request.

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