Scott Gessler is not only making it harder for people to vote, he's using public funds to help support the Republican Party. At least that's the charge of Colorado Ethics Watch, an advocacy group that is accusing the Secretary of State of spending public dollars to fund trips to political events. With a call for a criminal investigation, these allegations may be the most controversial Gessler has faced in the months before the election.
Gessler's office denies these allegations and is coming down hard on Ethics Watch in response -- accusing the liberal group of launching a baseless, partisan attack on a Republican official in Colorado.
This latest battle for Gessler is one that raises more serious questions of criminality and corruption that the Secretary of State has not faced before. His critics have mainly gone after Gessler for spending too many resources on weeding out illegal immigrant voters when his opponents say he should be focused on voter registration as the state's chief election officer. Gessler says he is simply preventing fraud and cleaning up voter rolls.
But these latest allegations are much harsher than accusations of misplaced priorities or voter suppression and intimidation. This is perhaps why his spokesman is fighting back with sweeping criticisms of the organization.
According to Ethics Watch, a frequent critic of Gessler, the Secretary of State misused public funds by attending a Republican election law training event and the Republican National Convention in Tampa over the summer. The group charges that he submitted reimbursement forms to the state for those political events and misrepresented the nature of his visit on official forms.
"It's not state business to help Republicans defeat Democrats," says Luis Toro, Ethics Watch director. "You have discretionary funds, but you don't have the discretion to stick it in your pocket."
Gessler attended a Republican National Lawyers Association election law training in Sarasota, Florida on August 24 and 25 and then went to Tampa, Florida on August 26 to spend the week there during the Republican National Convention. Gessler's request for reimbursements, obtained by Ethics Watch through open-records requests and on view below, say that the nature of the spending was not "personal or political."
He requested $1,452.52, as is seen here in the official note to Heather Lizotte in the Secretary of State's office. In a letter sent to the District Attorney for the Second Judicial District and the Denver Police Department -- requesting a criminal investigation into Gessler -- Ethics Watch writes:
RNLA is a private organization of lawyers dedicated, among other things, to "advancing Republican ideals" through "a nationwide network of supportive lawyers who understand and directly support Republican policy, agendas and candidates."
The letter lists various laws against public corruption that Gessler may have broken, including embezzlement of public funds and knowingly making a false entry in official forms. The latter accusation relates to part of his request for reimbursement that says: "These expenses were incurred while meeting with constituents, county clerks, lobbyists, staff and legislators to discuss state business."
State law says that funds must be used "for official state business purposes only."
Toro says this situation is a lot more serious than his group's previous concerns with the Secretary of State's office.
"It was an abuse of his official power to help his political agenda. This is crossing over into financial gain -- that's the real difference," Toro says. "[He was] using state money to preserve campaign funds and his personal funds."
Toro says he wasn't entirely surprised by this discovery. "Given his history...if anyone is going to use public money to promote your own party, unfortunately, it's going to be [Scott Gessler]."
In addition to the request for a criminal investigation, Toro also filed a complaint with the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission, asking it to investigate Gessler's misuse of public funds and fine him for his actions.
However, Gessler's office says no funds were used for the RNC in Tampa and adds that money was spent for state purposes at the RNLA event. Complicating the situation further, the Secretary of State's office also says that Gessler, while he was abroad, received death threats and was required to cut his trip short.
Continue for the response from Gessler's spokesman, plus the full letter and complaint from Ethics Watch. Rich Coolidge, Gessler's spokesman, says that the Ethics Watch complaint is nothing but a liberal attack against a Republican Secretary of State.
"This is the kind of partisan behavior Ethics Watch is known for. It shouldn't come as a surprise that they would attack a Republican Secretary of State, just as they have in the past," he says in an e-mail to us. writes via e-mail.
Asked for follow-up on the public nature of the spending, he writes, "The Secretary received thorough continuing legal education on current election issues being debated around the country."
He says public funds were used for the RNLA conference and adds, "No public funds were used for the RNC costs."
Additionally, as reported by the Associated Press last week, death threats were apparently made against Gessler's family in August, prompting an early return home from the RNC in Tampa. The Denver Post reported that Gessler cited "specific, very violently graphical threats against my wife and my daughter" as a result of someone upset with his actions as the Secretary of State.
Coolidge writes to us:
Our chief of staff determined that due to those security threats the office needed to pay the plane ticket difference to have the secretary return home earlier to be with his family. For CEW to insinuate that the Secretary is somehow leveraging a threat against his family shows how distasteful this group truly is.
In response to the issue of death threats, Toro says, "I'm very sympathetic.... We don't condone violence."
But he argues that Gessler's office is using that as a distraction, since the costs to return are only a part of his alleged misuse of funds.
At this point, Toro says, it is unclear exactly how the funds were used and how they may have carried over into Gessler's time at the RNC -- which is why an investigation is needed.
A spokeswoman for the DA's office says that upon receipt of the letter from Ethics Watch, officials will review the allegation to determine whether a criminal investigation is warranted. (DPD referred us to the DA's office). And a representative from the Ethics Commission says it doesn't comment on complaints before the commission has reviewed them.
Coolidge also takes an overall swipe at the group for launching partisan attacks and consistently protecting left-leaning groups. "CEW has been linked to the Colorado Democracy Alliance and has a long track record of targeting only Republicans," he writes. "CEW's silence on issues speaks louder than its usual partisan attacks."
But Toro says that in this case, Ethics Watch is simply investigating all statewide elected officials for this kind of misuse of funds. For example, he says the organization also looked into Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper, who has been a surrogate for President Obama and traveled to Charlotte for the DNC. In that case, Toro says, Ethics Watch found no misuse of funds by Hickenlooper.
"We do want public officials to know they are being watched," he says.
Continue for the full letter and complaints from Ethics Watch Letter to DPD and the DA's office. Ethics Watch Letter
Internal Secretary of State documents obtained from the Open Records request Exhibits to Ethics Watch Letter
Official complaint to the Ethics Commission IEC Complaint
More from our Politics archive: "Scott Gessler's office running checks on thousands of more potential non-citizens"