Late Thursday afternoon, the Independence Institute, a right-leaning think tank, published an article revealing that only one of Governor Bill Ritter's cabinet members had filed a conflict-of-interest report despite an executive order requiring that everyone do so -- a Todd Shepherd-penned piece that led directly to Ritter issuing a new measure basically restating the first one, with officials given until October 25 to comply. However, the Institute's offering notes that Ritter's staffers didn't return e-mails on the subject, and Jon Caldara, the organization's main man, says they still haven't. Not that he was surprised by this cold shoulder.
"We never get a direct response from them," Caldara declares. "When we contact the governor's office, I feel like a Jehovah's Witness getting a door slammed on me."
The requests for comment weren't pro-forma, Caldara insists. "We wanted to make sure we got the facts right... We needed to basically prove a negative, which was that they hadn't been filing these disclosures. We put in a CORA [Colorado Open Records Act] request and got back almost nothing, so we needed some clarification. And how else are we going to get that clarification without the cooperation of the governor's office?" As such, Caldara says Shepherd contacted Ritter spokesman Evan Dreyer a couple of times -- and since the e-mails triggered an automatic reply when opened, "he obviously saw it."
So why the delayed reaction between Thursday and yesterday, when the new order was announced? "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what they did," Caldara says. "They needed time to do damage control, and they came up with the reissue of the executive order, which is supposed to make it all better somehow."
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The perception among most people is that the Independence Institute is a partisan outfit -- "but most people would be very, very wrong," Caldara argues. "Let's remember, the previous governor [Bill Owens, who signed the executive order about disclosure in 1999] was no big fan of the Independence Institute, as witnessed by a lawsuit against us during the Referendum C campaign. We are a free-market organization, and because of that, people somehow think we're pro-Republican, but nothing could be further from the truth. We're as pissed off at Republicans as we are at Democrats. We've taken swipes at Rs and Ds pretty equally."
Okay... but don't Dreyer and company have reason to expect that any call from the Independence Institute will be negative? "Maybe," he allows, "but every time [Denver Post reporters] Jessica Fender or Lynn Bartels call, there's a good chance it's going to be a negative thing, too. That's why you have a spokesman -- to answer these questions. And you know what the story is here. We caught them with their pants down. They haven't been following the law on transparency for the last three years. All they can do is cop to it, and knowing it would take big media some time to catch up to the story, they used that time to craft their own executive order that makes the last three years of violations go away."
To Caldara, the Ritter administration's behavior represents an ethical lapse, not that he ever expected Colorado Ethics Watch to raise a fuss -- and indeed, CEW head Chantell Taylor told the Post no formal action is anticipated. "They filed a complaint against [senatorial candidate] Ryan Frazier for forgetting to put one item on his financial disclosure form; they file complaints on any Republican at any time," he says. "I'd be curious what percentage of their complaints are filed against Democrats."
Right now, though, Caldara doesn't need CEW's help. After all, he notes, Shepherd's story precipitated "a story on the front page of the Post" -- actually, it's on the front of the Denver & The West section, but you get the idea -- and a mea culpa from Ritter himself during an appearance on KOA host Mike Rosen's program yesterday. "He said, 'I don't like to agree with the Independence Institute usually, but this time we have to' -- and he actually thanked us. And when a politician has to thank the group that exposed such a large lapse in judgment, there's no more damage control."