The Independent Ethics Commission (IEC) is scheduled to rule June 9 on a request from Gessler for an advisory opinion on allowing the Republican National Lawyers Association (RNLA) to cover his expenses at its annual meeting in August.
That’s the same conference the commission fined Gessler for attending in 2012, saying that he had “violated the public trust” by using $1,400 in office funds to pay his expenses.
However, the IEC dismissed a complaint three weeks ago accusing Hickenlooper of violating the state’s gift ban after accepting free registration, room and board at last year’s Democratic Governors Association (DGA) meeting in Aspen.
Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert says the rules have apparently changed since Gessler was fined last year.
“Following the governor’s ethics complaint decision, the commission’s inconsistent standards have created ambiguity around what events public servants can attend,” said Staiert in a statement. “We need a quick response to ensure compliance with the commission’s ever-changing standards.”
Gessler has filed a lawsuit to overturn the IEC’s ruling against him, contending that the decision was politically motivated. Two of the commissioners who ruled against him had contributed to his political opponents in past elections.
Republicans accused the panel of a double standard after commissioners decided April 14 that Hickenlooper had violated no ethics rules by allowing the DGA to pick up his and his staff’s tab at the two-day meeting. The governor also used about seven hours of staff time to prepare for the event.
The state’s gift ban under Amendment 41 prohibits public officers from accepting more than $53 in a year, but the IEC ruled 4-1 that Hickenlooper had provided adequate consideration by hosting and speaking at the DGA conference.
The lawyer’s association has offered to waive the $239 registration fee and pay for Gessler’s travel and lodging in consideration for speaking and helping organize the annual National Election Law Seminar in Las Vegas.
“Here, the secretary would receive travel and lodging accommodations and the waiver of a registration fee in consideration for his attendance at and participation in the RNLA’s annual election-law seminar,” said the April 24 request from Staiert.
Staiert sent an email to the commission’s executive director two weeks ago asking her to place the matter on its April 28 agenda, but was informed that the agenda had already been published. The commission is not meeting in May.
Staiert said the delay could present a problem for the RNLA, which is now drawing up its program. Until the Hickenlooper ruling, she said she had not anticipated that Gessler would be permitted to attend the conference.
The RNLA seminar is primarily educational in that those attending may earn up to 11 hours in continuing legal education credit. But Staiert pointed out in her request that the event is also political.
“As such, it is likely that certain attendees may wish to donate to the secretary’s gubernatorial campaign,” said Staiert. “In fact, the secretary may likely compile a list of potential donors and seek them out for contributions.”
That mix of politics and policy didn’t bother the commissioners in their review of the Hickenlooper complaint. Documents from the conference show that the governor received memos from the DGA staff listing the contributions made by participating companies.
The DGA also provided Hickenlooper with a list of those who would be seated at his table during a dinner and how much they had donated to the association in past years.
The DGA calls itself on its website “the only organization dedicated to electing Democratic governors and candidates.”