DENVER — A bill to reform the state’s Independent Ethics Commission (IEC) has been assigned to the legislature’s “kill committee,” but supporters of the measure say Democrats should think twice before sending it to its doom.
While Republicans have long criticized the commission as a partisan vehicle for damaging political reputations, Democrats learned last year that the headline-mongering can go both ways after two complaints were filed against Gov. John Hickenlooper.
The Democratic governor was hit by another embarrassing headline last month when the commission voted to keep the latest complaint instead of sending it to an administrative law judge, even though three of the five commissioners have contributed to Hickenlooper’s past campaigns.
“Former state Reps. Rosemary Marshall and Bob Bacon, both Democrats, and former U.S. Attorney Bill Leone, a Republican, donated to Hickenlooper before being appointed to the commission,” said the Denver Post’s Lynn Bartels in the Feb.25 article.
House Bill 14-1258, sponsored by state Rep. Amy Stephens (R-Monument), would require the commission to inform respondents of the charges against them once those are deemed not frivolous. The bill also requires the panel to offer a state-paid legal defense to those subject to complaints.
The measure, scheduled for a hearing Monday before the House State Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, would also make commissioners personally liable if a respondent’s legal rights were violated in a manner that was “reckless, intentional, or willful.”
Critics of the bill have said it penalizes commissioners for merely doing their jobs, but attorney Elliot Fladen, who’s championing the bill, called the provisions an effort to give basic due process rights to those targeted by ethics complaints.
“It’s not that this bill is singling out the IEC for doing their job — this bill is singling out commissioners who act in a manner where they violate people’s due process rights,” said Fladen. “The IEC does not have to violate due process rights to do their job.”
Luis Toro, executive director of Colorado Ethics Watch, a liberal group that filed a high-profile complaint two years ago against Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler, said he opposes the bill.
“While it is a good idea to provide some predictability to state defense of those accused of ethics violations, this bill doesn’t really do that,” said Toro in an email. “Moreover, we oppose one-sided attempts to reform IEC process designed only to help respondents.”
The five-member commission was created by Amendment 41, a 2006 voter-approved ethics initiative sponsored by Democratic Rep. Jared Polis and Colorado Common Cause.
Kelly Maher, who filed the latest complaint against Hickenlooper, said she hadn’t examined the bill but agreed that the commission is in need of reform.
“From my perspective, I think there were a lot of terms of 41 that weren’t thought out particularly well, and there are a lot of aspects of it that clearly have unintended consequences both financially and politically,” said Maher, executive director of conservative Compass Colorado.
“It’s always kind of a tough way to legislate, through an amendment that’s written by one rich dude who doesn’t have to take money from anybody anyway,” said Maher, referring to the multi-millionaire Polis. “I appreciate the fact Polis was trying to do something he thought was good, but he really didn’t consider all of the ramifications.”
The Hickenlooper complaint alleges that he violated the state’s gift ban by allowing the Democratic Governors Association to pick up costs related to a conference last year in Aspen. The governor’s office has argued that he was exempt from the rule because he participated in the event as a host and speaker.
A previous complaint filed against the governor in July, which alleged that he broke the rules by giving a ride on a state-owned plane to a campaign donor, was dismissed by the commission without comment.