Scott Gessler is off the hook from Westword, but not from everybody

Scott Gessler is off the hook from Westword, but not from everybody

We won't be pressing charges against Scott Gessler for taking more than five copies of Westword -- although there have certainly been hints that we should call the Denver District Attorney's office to see if Colorado's controversial Secretary of State could be prosecuted for violating the state's newspaper-theft statute. But like the Honey Badger, I don't give a shit if Gessler went over the legal limit, because he plans to distribute autographed copies of the paper containing our profile on his work as the Secretary of State.

And these days, newspapers need all the circulation help they can get.

Besides, the Denver DA's office is already investigating Gessler, on allegations that he misused taxpayer funds when he traveled to and from Florida for a legal conference and the Republican National Convention. According to spokeswoman Lynn Kimbrough, that probe "is still a work in progress," but could conclude sometime in the next few weeks.

In the meantime, Gessler was in court yesterday, for a hearing on a request for an injunction his lawyer had requested against the Independent Ethics Commission, which is also investigating expenditures on that trip to Florida. The judge denied the request, and "now we are going to ask the Supreme Court to exercise their discretion," says attorney David Lane.

So far, neither investigation has looked into Gessler's affinity for filching excessive newspapers; today his re-election campaign promises a signed -- by Gessler -- copy of his Westword cover story for anyone who donates $50. But under the state's nine-year-old newspaper theft statute, under certain circumstances it's a crime to take more than five copies of a free paper.

That law was passed after someone who objected to a story in a free paper distributed in Eagle County stole almost every issue -- but prosecutors there said the culprit couldn't be punished, because free-distribution newspapers had no value.

A similar situation soon came up in Colorado Springs, where El Paso County Commissioner Jim Bensberg grabbed a stack of the Colorado Springs Independent, which had a story critical of Bensberg. Even though the act was caught on tape, he was not penalized.

Then-representative Carl Miller, who represented Eagle County, made the argument for the passage of a newspaper-theft statute:

The people who depended on that paper for news and information were victims as the thieves effectively violated their First Amendment rights to benefit from a free press when they censored that newspaper by stealing all the copies.

The businesses that advertised in the paper spent hard-earned money and made business decisions based upon the advertisements they'd purchased were hurt when the entire run of that newspaper was stolen for the express purpose of making sure that no one, including their customers and potential customers, would ever see anything printed in it.

Finally, the newspaper itself was hurt. It lost financially as its investment to make the newspaper available was stolen, but even more so by a thief who stole the paper's right to communicate with its community.

This past summer the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, which was looking at ways to get rid of statutes regarding "boutique crimes," had proposed repealing the 2004 law. But instead, lawmakers are now considering a measure to simply move it to another part of the state statutes. That proposal would not change the potential for punishment: Under the law, if an offender takes fewer than 100 newspapers, he faces a fine of up to $1,000; if he takes more than 500 newspapers, the fine can go as high as $5,000.

But the statute only applies to a culprit who takes papers with the intent of preventing people from reading them -- not distributing them to would-be readers, as Gessler plans to do today.

Which is why I gave Gessler's campaign forty copies of the January 10 issue that we scrounged up in the office.

"If Scott Gessler is getting $50 a pop for Westword, I should be state treasurer," says Lane.

Scott Gessler is off the hook from Westword, but not from everybody

And where will those papers go? This sighting by a Westword staffer in a City, O' City bathroom yesterday may provide a clue.

More from our Politics archive: "Scott Gessler improperly takes piles of Westwords... so he can autograph their covers?"

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