DENVER–The Independent Ethics Commission has agreed to hire an outside investigator for the ethics complaint against Secretary of State Scott Gessler following allegations of political bias.
At the same time, the five-member commission refused at its Monday meeting to recuse two of its members or its executive director from the case.
All three have contributed exclusively to Democratic candidates, and the two commissioners have donated to Gessler’s past or present campaign opponents.
Still, Gessler praised the move to appoint an outside investigator. A complaint filed against Gessler by Colorado Ethics Watch accuses him of improperly using state funds last year for a trip to a Republican legal conference in Florida, during which he visited the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
“The Commission did the right thing by removing its own conflicted staff and appointing an independent reviewer,” said Gessler in a statement. “This commission has struggled to appear impartial and this recognition is a step in the right direction and helps restore credibility and public trust in the process.”
CEW director Luis Toro said he was satisfied with the commission’s action. The Denver District Attorney’s office is conducting a criminal investigation into the matter.
“Our position is that the IEC has the responsibility to conduct an investigation and that’s what matters,” said Toro. “How the investigation is conducted, including who the IEC uses to handle it, is left to the Commission’s discretion. We’re just waiting to see the investigative report when it becomes public.”
Jane Feldman, IEC executive director, said she did not yet know who would be hired by the commission to complete the investigation. Feldman said she had prepared a report on the case, but it was not released at the Monday meeting and “nobody has seen it except for me.”
The commission agreed to hire the outside investigator after attorneys for Gessler raised questions about her ability to act impartially, arguing in a motion that she had donated exclusively to Democratic campaigns and squabbled with Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert.
“There was a motion to recuse me that was denied, but what they said was that in an abundance of caution, they would hire an independent investigator to review the case,” said Feldman.
The commission also rejected requests by Gessler to recuse commissioners Dan Grossman and Rosemary Marshall, both former Democratic legislators. Under commission rules, commissioners may be affiliated with political parties, but no more than two of the five members may belong to the same party.
Gessler had argued that the two Democrats would be unable to render an unbiased decision as a result of past campaign donations. Grossman contributed $500 to the 2006 campaign of Ken Gordon, a former Democratic legislator who is now running to unseat Gessler in 2014.
Marshall gave a donation to former Secretary of State Bernie Buescher during his unsuccessful 2010 campaign against Gessler.
Grossman has indicated that he and Gordon are friends. A 2001 article in The Denver Post describes Grossman going door-to-door for Gordon during his campaign for state Senate.
“Not sure how that makes things less conflicted,” said Gessler spokesman Rich Coolidge. “In my mind, being friends with Gessler’s political opponent actually appears even more dicey. Obviously any negative ruling by Grossman on the IEC could be perceived to benefit his friend’s campaign.”
Gessler also took what could be viewed as a jab at his critics by filing requests for advisory opinions on four future trips.
The commission is expected to hire an outside investigator before its April 8 meeting.