Scott Gessler: Legislators ask state to take first step in potential spending audit

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Secretary of State Scott Gessler is facing criminal and ethics investigations into his alleged misuse of public dollars.

Now, he could face an additional review from the state auditor's office, with legislators yesterday approving the first step of the process.

Back in October, Colorado Ethics Watch, an advocacy group that has closely scrutinized Gessler, a Republican, accused the Secretary of State of breaking the law when he spent public dollars on a trip to Florida. While there, he attended a Republican National Lawyers Association election law training and the Republican National Convention in Tampa to support Mitt Romney.

In response, the Denver District Attorney's office launched a criminal investigation into the matter and the Independent Ethics Commission also agreed to take on a case -- news which broke just before election day. Both investigations are ongoing.

Critics of Gessler, the state's chief election officer, argue that it was unethical and a violation of law for the Secretary of State to spend state money to go to Florida for partisan events. Gessler and his team, however, defend the trip, noting that the law training constituted official business -- and they say no public money was spent on the RNC. (Additionally, due to threats made to him and his family, Gessler was forced to fly home early from the trip).

Gessler says the Colorado Ethics Watch complaints constitute an attack by a liberal group that has made it a priority to go after the Republican elected official. CEW spokespeople counter that the organization scrutinizes politicians on both sides of the aisle.

The request for the state auditor to review Gessler did originate with two Democratic lawmakers -- senators Lois Tochtrop and Pat Steadman. Their original letter, dated October 11, is on view below. Here's an excerpt:

Secretary Gessler used the standard state reimbursement form to obtain reimbursement for his partisan activities. This is troubling because the form requires certification to the comptroller that the reimbursed expenses were not "of a personal or political nature." We are curious to understand the policies and procedures in place in the Secretary of State's office that could have viewed the Republican National Convention and the Republican National Lawyers' Association as anything but political in nature. We are also concerned that these may not have been the only instances in which the Secretary may have used state funds for partisan activities.

An audit of this nature requires several steps and can take many months to be completed, explains Jenny Atchley, a communication analyst with the state auditor's office. First, the legislators must make an official request. Then, the auditor's office must ask the bipartisan Legislative Audit Committee for approval to conduct initial research. Yesterday, that committee voted unanimously to permit such research.

After that, the auditor's office will send a memo back to the committee, which will then conduct another vote on whether it wants a full-blown audit.

"This is a significant step forward," says Steadman. "I'm really pleased that party politics didn't get in the way of the legislature using the tools at our disposal to hold... [an official] accountable."

Continue for more from Steadman and comment from Gessler's spokesman. Steadman says it remains to be seen what the auditor could potentially uncover. "They could go in there and spend a little time digging and realize they are only looking at the tip of the iceberg."

He adds, "It would at least get to the issue of, did we really spend state money reimbursing partisan political campaigns?"

It's possible that the legislative committee could ultimately vote against an audit after it receives a memo. But that committee could have also declined to authorize research, too.

"We've consistently made this financial information public and we look forward to working with the auditor on their review," Andrew Cole, Gessler's spokesman, says in a statement -- echoing the response the Secretary of State has repeatedly given in regard to requests to investigate his spending.

Colorado Ethics Watch first discovered specifics on Gessler's reimbursements through an open records request.

"I hope we can get to the bottom of this," says Steadman.

Here's the original request. Letter From Senator Tochtrop and Senator Steadman Re Audit Request 10-2012

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

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