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Scott Gessler says he's innocent as Ethics Commission begins investigation

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Amid the chaos of election-day preparation this week, news broke that Secretary of State Scott Gessler, Colorado's chief election officer, is facing both criminal and ethics investigations for allegedly misusing public dollars for personal trips. We now have more details on the process of the Independent Ethics Commission, which could lead to some kind of censure of Gessler if it determines that he violated the law.

In October, Colorado Ethics Watch, a good-government group, requested that the District Attorney's office and the Independent Ethics Commission launch investigations based on documents it unearthed through Open Records requests.

Ethics Watch, a left-leaning group, says it does not know the extent of potential corruption, but that records show Gessler used state funds to travel to Republican events this summer that were outside the scope of his work as the state's chief election officer and thus in violation of Colorado law. Ethics Watch has frequently gone after Gessler for what they see as inappropriate partisan behavior, but alleged misuse of public money, which the group says could rise to the level of embezzlement, reached a new level of concern for the organization.

Gessler and his staff have emphatically denied all of these accusations, saying that no laws were broken and this is nothing more than an attack from a liberal group dedicated to going after the Republican official. (Ethics Watch says that it has investigated the state's top officials, both Democrats and Republicans, and only found a potential misuse of government money in the case of Gessler).

The controversy made headlines again this week when news broke on the eve of the election that both the DA's office and the Ethics Commission completed their initial reviews and are pushing forward with formal investigations.

We subsequently reached Jane Feldman, executive director of the Ethics Commission, who gave us more details on the process. A spokeswoman for the DA's office earlier told us that its official "fact-gathering process" had begun, adding that there is no deadline or timetable for how it will move forward

Feldman explains that when the Ethics Commission receives a complaint, it must determine whether it actually has jurisdiction over that person, and whether the subject matter amounts to an accusation of an ethical nature. In the case of the Ethics Watch complaint, the criteria was determined to fit, which is why the commission is moving forward with a formal investigation.

The fact that there is a simultaneous criminal investigation at the DA's office could complicate the Ethics Commission review, Feldman says.

If witnesses are called for the DA's investigation, they could claim Fifth Amendment rights, potentially delaying Ethics Commission hearings.

Feldman says she will be sending Gessler's office a copy of the complaints, to which he must respond within thirty days. Depending on the timing, a hearing may not happen until next year, she says.

Generally, she adds, the commission tries to get complaints finalized within six months.

Continue for more details of the Ethics Commission investigation and Gessler's response to the allegations. If found in violation of law at the Ethics Commission, Gessler could be fined up to twice the value of the funds, Feldman says.

She also explains that an unfavorable decision against Gessler could amount to what is essentially a formal censure.

"By issuing a decision saying we find him in violation, that's probably akin to a censure. There would be a formal opinion available," she says.

Gessler, in an election day interview, reiterates that he is confident he did nothing wrong and expects both investigations will make that clear.

"Look, I think a thorough review on this whole thing will be good," he said. "If you look at the history...Ethics Watch has a history of filing these complaints and I think the the DA and Ethics Commission, to some extent, are obligated to follow up on complaints that they get."

In recent years, Gessler said, several Republican officials in Colorado have been targeted by similar liberal organizations and were ultimately exonerated.

"I'm not too worried about it," Gessler said, adding that just because the investigations are underway does not mean the complaints are accurate or legitimate. "I don't think that means much of anything. I think that [the DA and Ethics Commission]...to some extent are obligated to pursue it. I started my career as a federal prosecutor and when you get a complaint that looks reasonable on its face -- and that's what Ethics Watch writes, they'll exclude some information and include others to make their complaint look reasonable -- someone naturally has to look into."

He pointed out that the pursuit of these investigations basically means nothing more than the complaint appears "non-frivolous" at this time. "So it's a pretty low standard to me," he said. "It is what it is. I don't begrudge anyone for looking into it."

In response to partisan charges, Luis Toro, director of Ethics Watch, says that his organization has launched complaints against both Democratic and Republican officials that have resulted in findings of violation and fines. In terms of Gessler's comments that Ethics Watch may have some information and left out other information in his complaints, he asks, "What did we exclude? I'd love to know."

Gessler added, "I feel very comfortable that the things I did were within the boundaries of the law."

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

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