Secretary of State Scott Gessler Accused of Harassment, Retaliation by Ex-Office CFO

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The former chief financial officer for the Colorado Secretary of State's Office is accusing Secretary Scott Gessler of harassing her, retaliating against her and eventually demoting her after she "began to push back on the financial mismanagement" she reportedly saw in the office. Heather Lizotte took issue with Gessler's use of the office's $5,000 discretionary fund and federal grant funds meant to improve state elections, according to a lengthy claim notice filed with the Colorado Attorney General's Office.

See also: Scott Gessler is always right...right?

According to the notice, Lizotte began working for the secretary of state's office in 2003 and got excellent performance reviews for many years. The trouble started shortly after Gessler took office in 2010, the notice says. Gessler made headlines for wanting to moonlight at his previous law firm because, he claimed, the secretary of state's salary wasn't enough. Meanwhile, the notice says, Gessler didn't always provide receipts in connection with his use of the office's $5,000 discretionary fund; at the end of fiscal years 2011 and 2012, he also asked Lizotte to give him all of the money left in the fund.

Lizotte told Gessler's staff "that the casual practices being used were not appropriate," the notice says. In a November 2011 e-mail to two staffers, Lizotte wrote that all expenditures from the discretionary fund "should have supporting documentation (for example meal receipts etc.)" and that memos for "blanket expenditures" are not allowed. Lizotte's insistence on the rules, the notice says, caused "ongoing tension" between her and Gessler.

Lizotte claims the tension grew worse after she testified before the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission and a Denver grand jury about Gessler's use of the discretionary fund, including paying for a trip to Florida to attend an election-law conference of the Republican National Lawyers Association and the Republican National Convention.

However, a transcript of Lizotte's testimony before the commission shows that she didn't question Gessler's request for the remaining discretionary fund money -- even though he didn't provide any receipts, just a memo requesting the funds.

"I didn't raise it with the Secretary because I look to him as an elected official," Lizotte said, according to the transcript. "It was a memo signed and dated by him. And he is representing that he incurred expenses on behalf of the office. And I look to him as an honest person. And so I went ahead and reimbursed him."

The Independent Ethics Commission found that Gessler's use of the fund violated ethics rules. A Denver District Court judge upheld that conclusion.

Although the grand jury found no probable cause that a crime had occurred, it criticized Gessler in its report, writing that his use of the funds was "not prudent."

Recently, the state ethics commission okayed an upcoming trip by Gessler to Las Vegas for this year's Republican National Lawyers Association election-law seminar. Gessler is a speaker, and the commission voted to allow him to accept the association's offer to pay for his travel and lodging costs for one night.

Continue for more on Lizotte's claims. After Lizotte testified, Gessler and his staff began to avoid her, she claims, taking their finance questions to lower-level employees and excluding her from important meetings.

Adding to the strain between Lizotte and her supervisors was the fact that she raised concerns about Colorado's use of federal Help America Vote Act grant funds, the notice says. Lizotte told Gessler that the funds couldn't be used for voter registration, but says Gessler disregarded her warnings and spent the money on "multiple improper items." A January 2014 audit found that the funds had been misused, in addition to other issues.

However, a spokesman for Gessler says the secretary of state's office contested the audit's findings, and the federal Election Assistance Commission found in March 2014 that the media materials produced by Gessler's office "were sufficiently focused on educating voters and not focused on a voter registration campaign."

After the audit, Gessler became hostile toward Lizotte, the notice says. On December 16, 2013, he "treated (her) so aggressively that she became frightened and seriously ill." Lizotte left work and went to the doctor, who recommended that she take time off.

A day later, Gessler's chief of staff, Gary Zimmerman, mailed a letter to Lizotte complaining of her "multiple performance issues," the notice says. Among them: that she left the previous day without discussing it with Zimmerman (she sent an e-mail saying she was ill); that she fired a temporary employee at a time when attrition had already reduced the number of staff in the finance department; and that she recently presented a "significantly revised" budget forecast "without a detailed justification."

Continue for more on Lizotte's current situation. On January 9, 2014, Lizotte returned to work. That day, Zimmerman hand-delivered her a more formal letter outlining the same concerns. It referenced "the possible need to administer disciplinary and/or corrective action" and informed her of an upcoming meeting she was to attend with him and the human-resources director.

Lizotte wrote a response, refuting Zimmerman's concerns. Leaving work without discussing it with him in person hadn't been a problem in the past, she noted. As for the employee, she wrote that his termination was justified; in fact, she said, she knew he was unqualified from the start, but she suspected that Zimmerman hired him anyway because the two were friends. Lizotte had wanted to hire a woman who she says was more qualified. "Your favoritism of (him) over (her) smacks of gender discrimination," she wrote.

And regarding the budget forecast, she explained that the first set of numbers she provided were projections, which changed as more information became available. "As you know, it is not uncommon for us to revise the budget," she wrote. "Your allegations against me are retaliatory and discriminatory."

Lizotte also filed a workplace-violence complaint against Gessler, alleging that he often yells at her, points his finger at her and disparages her work in front of others. "Over the months, the attacks by Mr. Gessler have been so egregious that I have had other managers present during the meeting come to me with condolences about my having to deal with that behavior," her complaint says. It also notes that she is "afraid of Mr. Gessler" and doesn't want the situation to get any worse.

Similarly, the claim notice alleges that Gessler relishes his reputation as the "Honey Badger," an aggressive animal made famous by a narrated YouTube clip. "Gessler even paid with state funds for buttons to be worn by Senior Staff at the Monday meetings that said, 'Sometimes I ask myself, what would the honey badger do?'" the notice says.

Because Lizotte had filed a workplace-violence complaint, the disciplinary process against her was put on hold while the complaint was investigated by the Mountain States Employers Council. In February, the investigator found that Gessler hadn't acted aggressively toward Lizotte, a conclusion that the notice argues is false.

The investigator, the notice says, "refused to accept that any of Ms. Lizotte's assertions about her mistreatment...were true." For example, it says the investigator "completely overlooked Ms. Lizotte's concerns about sex stereotyping.... When Ms. Lizotte raised objections to Gessler's practices, she was professional but firm. Gessler did not like that. He expected women, even strong women, to do as he said and not question him."

After the investigation, the disciplinary process resumed. In June, Lizotte got a letter from Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert informing her that most of the concerns about her performance, including some that had been added, were founded. Lizotte was demoted by two levels and her pay was reduced accordingly.

Lizotte claims that the demotion was the result of gender discrimination and retaliation for testifying before the grand jury, the ethics commission and the auditor. "Her reputation has been severely damaged, and her economic losses are significant," the notice says.

Lizotte is currently working in that demoted position. She has appealed her demotion to the State Personnel Board. But the board's determination is on hold pending a decision by the Colorado Civil Rights Division, which has 270 days to investigate her claims.

Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at melanie.asmar@westword.com

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