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Scott Gessler: Top Democratic officials silent about potential spending investigation

While Secretary of State Scott Gessler continues to face backlash for his efforts to remove potentially illegal voters from the rolls, his communications team last week was also forced to respond to more serious allegations -- that the Republican official misused public dollars for his private, political travels. But despite such accusations, the state's top Democrats have nothing to say about them.

As we noted last week, Colorado Ethics Watch, a left-leaning good-government group and frequent critic of Gessler, called for an investigation into the Secretary of State for potentially using public dollars to fund a trip to a Republican National Lawyers Association election law training in Sarasota, Florida and then onward to Tampa for the Republican National Convention.

Scott Gessler addressing reporters earlier this month.
Scott Gessler addressing reporters earlier this month.
Sam Levin

Gessler, records show, requested $1,452.52 in reimbursements. His office maintains that he did not spend public dollars for the RNC and that the other event constituted official Secretary of State business.

Ethics Watch says it is unclear at this point how bad this potential corruption could be, which is why the group wants the district attorney and the Denver Police Department to launch an investigation. Additionally, Ethics Watch has also filed a complaint with the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission, asking it to investigate Gessler and fine him for his actions.

Last week, the Denver Post did an in-depth look at spending by other statewide officials, finding that Gessler is the only one to tap these funds for partisan uses -- making the allegations more damning, some of his opponents say.

In statements to us, Gessler's office came down hard on Ethics Watch, accusing the group of playing partisan politics, though Ethics Watch says it also investigated Democratic officials in this case.

One of those scrutinized by the watchdog group is Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat and surrogate for Barack Obama, who traveled to the Democratic National Convention. Ethics Watch did not find any misuse of funds from the governor's office.

Hickenlooper recently told us he worries that Gessler's effort to remove immigrant voters who may be illegally registered could intimidate some legal voters from going to the polls. (This week, the Associated Press reported on the latest round of checks from Gessler's office, which is now claiming that 300 more suspected non-citizens are on the voter rolls. And Gessler has gotten national media attention for his efforts).

Hickenlooper, however, doesn't have anything to say on the other Gessler controversy, regarding alleged corruption.

At an Obama campaign press conference on Monday to promote the launch of early voting in Colorado, we asked the four Democratic officials championing the president if they had any response to the calls for an investigation into Gessler.

Hickenlooper, Bennet, DeGette and Hancock handing in their ballots on Monday in Denver.
Hickenlooper, Bennet, DeGette and Hancock handing in their ballots on Monday in Denver.
Sam Levin

"We're not gonna talk about that today. We're talking about early voting," responded Representative Diana DeGette, who has been campaigning for Obama all election season. And with that, the news conference ended, in time for DeGette, alongside Hickenlooper, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Senator Michael Bennet to head inside the Denver Elections Division and cast their ballots in front of a bunch of cameras.

Continue for additional commentary from Hickenlooper as well as response from Gessler's office.

But we did get a chance to follow up with the governor on his way out from the Denver Elections Division, and he confirmed to us that he's not interested in weighing in on the calls for an investigation at this time.

Hickenlooper promoting Obama in Denver earlier this month.
Hickenlooper promoting Obama in Denver earlier this month.
Sam Levin

"I don't want to get involved in this whole process," he said when we asked him if he thinks Gessler should be investigated. "It's two weeks before a presidential election. My sense is, I want to focus on making sure people vote, paying attention to the issues."

Asked again if he supports the calls for an investigation, Hickenlooper, flanked by his spokesman, responded, "You might've missed it. It is at this point not where I'm putting my focus."

As the Post reported, two Democratic state senators have called for an audit of the Secretary of State's spending.

We followed up with spokespeople for the other three officials after the early voting event. A representative for Hancock, who recently criticized Gessler for potential voter suppression, declined to comment further, as did a spokeswoman for DeGette and Bennet.

Gessler's office sees this lack of commentary from these top Democrats as revealing.

"They must agree with the Denver Post that it's not going anywhere," says Andrew Cole, Gessler spokesman, referring to a pretty critical editorial about Gessler that said, in part, "We doubt those requests will go anywhere, but his financial dealings continue a trend of tone-deafness that voters should find concerning. And while the sums are small, we think he should repay the taxpayers' money."

Cole adds, "I think there silence speaks to that.... I would just say that it speaks for itself."

A spokeswoman for the district attorney's office tells us that the allegations are still under review and no decision has been reached as to whether a criminal investigation is warranted in this case. That decision wouldn't happen until next week at the earliest. An Ethics Commission official told us last week that it doesn't comment on complaints until it reviews them.

Luis Toro, director of Ethics Watch, says the silence from these Democrats in no way diminishes the importance of this kind of investigation.

"Public officials don't hold each other accountable, so we have to," he says. "That's fundamental to Ethics Watch...and part of the reason we exist."

He adds, "I can't criticize other public officials for not weighing in.... I'm not surprised no one wants to comment on it. And that's why we're here."

More from our Politics archive: "Videos: Rachel Maddow pummels Scott Gessler, fears Florida-style voting disaster in Colorado"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.


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