Last year, ethics in Colorado improved by 50 percent -- at least judging by Colorado Ethics Watch's list of the year's top ethical standards. After all, the 2008 edition was ten items long, but the 2009 sports just five. "We realized it had been a slow year," says new CEW director Luis Toro. "Which is a good thing."
The press release announcing the five winners/losers, on view at at the bottom of this item, ranks the offenses, with number one going to Scott McInnis, who made campaign-like calls indicating that he was running for governor before officially filing as a candidate -- a definite no-no, albeit one whose details he has publicly disputed. But while the account of McInnis's actions appears first in the full report, too (read it here), Toro notes that numbers aren't ascribed to the items there. In his view, they're all equally bad in their own special way.
For instance, the way Colorado State University's board of governors went about naming Joe Blake the institution's new chancellor strikes Toro as particularly noxious.
"The whole way it was handled shows a lack of transparency," he says. "Inside the boardroom, a member of the board is involved in creating a new job, and he ends up getting it."
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Transparency issues also bedeviled the Independent Ethics Commission, Toro notes -- although he praises the organization for fixing the difficulties in mid-year. He's also critical of Gail Norton, who's suspected in some quarters of using her position as Secretary of the Interior under President George W. Bush in unscrupulous ways. "Obviously, the Department of Justice takes this very seriously, since there are subpoenas flying around," he points out. And he cites the "major delinquency" exhibited by Boulder state rep Jack Pommer, who was fined $4,000 for repeatedly neglecting to file campaign finance reports over a four-month stretch.
"This isn't supposed to be a definitive list," Toro stresses. "The idea is to provoke conversation and thought -- and if other people disagree and have their own suggestions, I'm fine with that."
Bet he wouldn't mind putting together an even smaller list of scandals next year. In the meantime, here are more details about the 2009 roster:
Ethics Watch Names Colorado's Top Five Ethics Scandals of 2009
DENVER -- Across the state, political and ethical scandals were one of the highlights of water cooler discussion last year. Colorado Ethics Watch, a nonpartisan, nonprofit legal watchdog group, today released its list of the Top Five Ethics Scandals of 2009 based on a busy year of watching, researching and litigating in many of these circumstances.
"Colorado's worst ethics problems occur across party lines, in agencies, among elected and non-elected officials and all around the state," said Director Luis Toro. "There is much work to be done to educate public officials, and Ethics Watch will remain vigilant in exposing other ethics crimes and misdeeds in 2010."
Ethics Watch's second annual Top Ethics Scandals list does not attempt to rank these scandals in a particular order -- they are all outrageous. Based on news reports, egregiousness of the situation, and the timeline of attention each situation received, the following are Ethics Watch's Top Five Ethics Scandals of 2009:
1) Gubernatorial Quasi-Candidate Scott McInnis Leaves Damning Voice Mail: As early as May 2009, former Congressman Scott McInnis (R-Grand Junction) was expected to run for governor, but had not publicly announced his candidacy nor filed the appropriate registration. However, McInnis was busy making campaign calls, indicating he was running for governor, had his team in place, and was putting together a 527. Under pressure from Ethics Watch and the media, McInnis quietly filed his paperwork for candidacy on May 19, but questions still remain as to the activities he was conducting prior to registering as a candidate, and potential coordination with a 527, which would violate state election laws.
2) CSU Board of Governors Hands Plum Job to One of Their Own in Secret Meeting: As vice president of the Colorado State University (CSU) Board of Governors, Joe Blake participated in a decision to create a chancellor position separate from the president position. Mr. Blake formally submitted his application for this very position on April 29. On May 5, the CSU Board of Governors had a closed-door executive session meeting during which they decided that Mr. Blake would be the sole finalist for the chancellor position. That meeting was ruled to violate Colorado Open Meetings laws. CSU paid three media outlets $19,000 in legal fees and released the tapes of the closed-door session.
3) The Independent Ethics Commission's Troubles with Transparency: The Colorado Independent Ethics Commission (IEC) was created to be the premier ethics body in Colorado. Instead of setting an example of how a state commission should act, the IEC spent much of 2009 unsuccessfully defending itself from allegations that it was illegally operating in secret. In May, the IEC was ordered by a Denver District Court Judge to release records subject to an Ethics Watch open records request and to pay Ethics Watch's attorneys' fees. In September, another Denver District Court Judge ruled that the IEC was in violation of Colorado's open meetings laws, and ordered the IEC to release records from the meetings to a media outlet. And finally in December, a third judge ruled that the IEC debated an advisory opinion in secret, again violating open meetings laws.
4) Gale Norton's Questionable Oil Industry Work: In September 2009 the Department of Justice issued subpoenas as part of an investigation into Bush administration Interior Secretary and former Colorado Attorney General Gale Norton. The Department of Justice is reportedly investigating whether Gale Norton used her position in the Interior Department to benefit Royal Dutch Shell by allowing her department to enter into three potentially lucrative amendments to oil leases with Royal Dutch Shell on federal land in Colorado, then took a job as an adviser to the oil-shale division of Royal Dutch Shell.
5) Representative Pommer's Campaign Finance Violations and "Bad at Paperwork" Defense: Representative Jack Pommer (D-Boulder), a candidate in the 2008 general election for the Colorado House of Representatives, missed filing four separate campaign finance reports between October 2008 and January 2009. After media exposure of the delinquency, Pommer filed his report on April 6, 2009, and claimed that he was simply "bad at paperwork." The Secretary of State's office imposed fines of more than $4,000 on Pommer.
The full report with more details about each of these scandals, including Ethics Watch actions and litigation on these issues, can be found online at www.coloradoforethics.org.
Colorado Ethics Watch is a non-profit, legal watchdog group dedicated to identifying and exposing ethics issues in city, county and state governments in Colorado, ultimately holding public officials accountable. Colorado Ethics Watch is the only state-specific project of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). For more information, please visit www.coloradoforethics.org or call (303) 626-2100 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.