Scott Gessler on ethics, death threats, investigations and his next move
Our January 10 issue featured a caricature of Colorado's Secretary of State on the cover, along with the headline "Scott Gessler Is Always Right."
Gessler liked the article so much that he used it for a campaign fundraiser, promising to give an autographed copy of the issue to "anyone who stands with Secretary Gessler and donates $50" to his re-election campaign during a "Honey Badger Money Bomb."
But that's only the start of the story.
Since Gessler was already the focus of two separate investigations at the time the money bomb was about to drop, we asked if he thought that move might violate the newspaper-theft statute, which prevents people from taking copies and disposing of them. "I'm distributing the papers," he pointed out. "Of course we intend to have people read them."
Fine by us.
Gessler in 2012.
Photo by Sam Levin
And seven months later, Gessler still says: "I appreciated the stories you guys had...they were pretty thorough and pretty fair."
But apparently one anonymous "friend in the journalism community" didn't think much of the initial cover story or our subsequent coverage, and last week sent me this note:
Attached please find a copy of the Scott Gessler attack piece Sam Lein wrote in January. Noteworthy is the subhead: "But can Colorado's Honey Badger fight off a criminal investigation?" First, it's interesting that Sam Levin was given the opportunity and the prominence in the publication of this piece. I've never seen him listed as a contributor to Westword. Would the same opportunity be given someone else who was not a regular contributor to present the other side of this story? Second, lavish and rather undeserved credibility is given to Luis Toro, director of Colorado Ethics Watch.
If you had a shred of intellectual honesty, you would run something which updates this story, and acknowledge on your front page that Scott Gessler was not convicted of any crime. (As I recall, the case was essentially thrown out. Second, wouldn't it be nice to explain that Colorado Ethics Watch is hardly at arm's length from the two political parties in this "investigation"? Wouldn't it be intellectually honest to put up a hundred bucks for the person who could find any instance in which Colorado Ethics Watch seriously questioned the ethics of any Democrat politician in Colorado? And wouldn't it be nice to pull the curtain back and tell readers who am Levin really is, and clarify his actual position regarding Scott Gessler?
I know you rather well, Patty, and it saddens me to say that I won't be holding my breath waiting for a thoughtful public response to any of these questions. Clearly, the media establishment is left of center, and while you may continue to sell your journalistic soul to the Democrat Party sub rosa, you aren't fooling anyone worth fooling. Why don't you get some guts and put an end to these cheap, liberal butt-kissing attack pieces? Haven't you had enough of more taxes, more regulation, more welfare, which comes from the liberal Democrat machine in Washington and here in our own Statehouse? There is an abundance of worthwhile issues and legitimate ethical targets.
PS: That cover sketch of Scott was rather shabby art and clearly the opening shot for that attack piece.A friend from the journalism community.
Continue for more of our update about Scott Gessler.
Gessler at a press conference last year.
Photo by Sam Levin
Hmmm. If my anonymous friend knows me so well, he/she would have known how sorry we were to lose the not-very-mysterious Sam Levin. His identity is easy to track: He joined Westword last summer as a journalism fellow, straight out of Columbia University. His name appeared on our weekly staff list for the next eight months, until we reluctantly let him go to our partner paper in St. Louis, the Riverfront Times, which was so impressed with the job he'd done here that it promoted him to the position of news blogger. You can read his work every day now at riverfronttimes.com.
"Everyone who covers me fairly gets promoted," says Gessler, who thinks he made a couple thousand dollars off his Honey Badger Money Bomb. "I thought Sam was very fair to me. He gave me my say and had the gumption to follow me around."
Gessler does not think that the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission was nearly as fair in its campaign against him. In fact, he calls it "a basic violation of fundamental fairness." The commission opened the investigation after Colorado Ethics Watch complained that Gessler had misused public funds -- specifically by billing the secretary of state's office for the $1,200 in extra costs incurred when he flew back early from meetings in Florida last year after his office received death threats against his family.
When state representative Rhonda Fields got similar death threats this year, the person making the threats was investigated (the charges were ultimately dropped after a restraining order was issued against him). But when Gessler got the threats, he was the one investigated. "I think it was appropriate to take the Rhonda Fields threats very seriously," Gessler says now. "But my life and safety, and my family's, is just as important."
Ethics Watch didn't stop with making the complaint to the ethics commission either; it also asked the Denver District Attorney's Office to investigate whether Gessler had committed criminal violations. Many months later, grand jurors declined to indict Gessler, and that case was dropped.
On June 19, the Independent Ethics Commission finally entered its findings on the Ethics Watch complaint, ruling that Gessler had breached the public trust for private gain in using public funds for personal and political purposes -- although by then Gessler, who's considering a run for governor, had reimbursed the state the $1,200. "Even though grand jurors cleared me completely, the ethics commission nonetheless fined me on that," says Gessler.
"We've got this thing called due process," he adds. "You should have an unbiased judge. They were very biased." For starters, Gessler says, the commission did not let the accountant who audited his records -- and said they passed muster -- testify during the investigation. Even the state controller said the expenses could be seen as legit, Gessler points out. And that controller was an Ethics Watch witness.
The Ethics Watch campaign didn't end with that decision. Last week, it sent out a release noting that the private lawyers who represented Gessler wound up charging the state $122,218 for his defense -- about a hundred times the amount that Gessler had paid to fly back early.
But Gessler's lawyers aren't done, either. Gessler has already filed an appeal of the ethics commission decision and "will likely be filing a federal lawsuit against the ethics commission as well," he says. "Now we get to wait for me to be done with them."
Back to you, my anonymous friend: Not sure why it's our job to offer "a hundred bucks for the person who could find any instance in which Colorado Ethics Watch seriously questioned the ethics of any Democrat politician in Colorado." But if you put up $50, I'll match it.
More from the Calhoun Wake-Up Call archives: "Pot jokes: Colorado Supreme Court declines to hear mine."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.