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Scott Gessler, Colorado's chief election officer, facing criminal and ethics investigations

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Election day is finally here -- and with it comes the news that Secretary of State Scott Gessler, Colorado's chief election officer, is facing both criminal and ethics investigations. Last month, a watchdog group accused Gessler of misusing state funds for his personal travels, and now it appears that both the Denver District Attorney's office and the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission believe the allegations are serious enough that they merit investigation.

It's particularly bad timing for Gessler, whose staff, in the weeks leading up to election day, has also been responding to accusations that his anti-fraud efforts could intimidate voters. As a Secretary of State, Gessler is charged with overseeing elections, but as a Republican official who has devoted resources to cleaning up the voter rolls and preventing fraud, he has faced a great deal of scrutiny from watchdog groups and gotten a lot more media attention than his position typically receives.

Gessler's office has always dismissed accusations of voter suppression as nothing but unmerited smears from liberal organizations and Democrats.

The secretary offered a similar response after Colorado Ethics Watch obtained internal documents through open-records requests that they said show he misused public funds.

Gessler attended a Republican National Lawyers Association election-law training in Sarasota, Florida in August, and then went to Tampa, Florida to spend the week there during the Republican National Convention. His request for reimbursements, obtained by Ethics Watch, says the nature of the spending was not "personal or political."

He requested a total of $1,452.52.

Ethics Watch charges that Gessler's actions could have broken a number of laws against public corruption, including embezzlement of public funds and knowingly making a false entry in official forms.

The group filed a complaint for an ethics investigation and also requested that Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey launch a criminal investigation.

In what seems to be nothing other than very bad timing for Gessler, news broke late yesterday afternoon that the Independent Ethics Commission is moving forward with an investigation into Gessler's spending, and the DA's office has also decided that a formal criminal investigation is warranted.

The DA's Economic Crime Unit has finished its review and is formally assigning an investigator to look into the allegations.

Lynn Kimbrough, a spokeswoman for the DA's office, tells us in an e-mail this morning:

The review of the allegations made against Scott Gessler was completed just more than a week ago, and the decision was made at that time that a formal investigation was warranted. This is a fact-gathering process, and there is no deadline or timetable for it. In fact, the process will likely continue after the first of the year.

The decision to move forward is based on the initial complaint and other supporting documents, she notes, adding that there was sufficient evidence to believe that it's in the public interest to conduct an investigation.

It's too soon to speculate what possible charges could be, she maintains.

Continue for response from Gessler's office and Ethics Watch. When the accusations were first leveled against his office, Gessler's spokesman told us that his office did not break any laws because public dollars were only used for official Secretary of State business and suggested that the accusations represented a partisan attack.

Today, Gessler spokesman Rich Coolidge says, "We welcome a thorough review."

He adds that his office has seen no official complaints from either entity. The DA's office explains that in a financial investigation like this, there is no official communication with the DA's office and the person being investigated.

The Independent Ethics Commission also announced yesterday that the complaint from Ethics Watch is "not frivolous" and thus directed the Commission staff to investigate the matter.

"We're not surprised, but we are pleased," said Luis Toro, director of Ethics Watch. "Elected officials often don't hold each other accountable...so it's an act of political courage for the DA to take this on, and we salute him for it."

Toro says that the investigation could lead to a range of charges, from a misdemeanor offense to official misconduct to falsification of public records. At worst, Gessler could be charged with embezzlement of state funds, a felony that would require Gessler to step down. But Toro says the investigation will dig up the evidence necessary to determine the seriousness of any possible offense.

Toro says he doesn't think the timing of these announcements should impact voters' faith in the system, despite the fact that reports of a key swing states' chief election officer facing multiple investigations broke on the eve of election day.

"Of course, it is concerning, but we have to remember that there's a lot more to running an election than the Secretary of State," he says. "There's county clerks, election judges, and many many people who can be checks and balances."

More from our Politics archive: "Colorado for Obama v. Colorado for Romney: Vote for which campaign has the tackiest crap"

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

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