"I don't want to send Romer to jail," says Dick Sargent, a Republican candidate for governor back in 1994, "but I filed this thing because I think he has to quit one of his jobs." Romer's been governor of Colorado since 1986; last January he picked up a second shift as co-chair of the Democratic National Committee.
In October Sargent filed suit with the Colorado Secretary of State, claiming that Romer's double duty violates the law. Secretary of State Victoria Buckley turned the case over to an administrative law judge, whose decision may come down this month.
Any bets on which side will win?
Sargent contends that by law, the governor's post requires a 24-hour-a-day commitment. "If he is giving one second of his time to anybody else," he says of Romer, "he is shorting the contract."
But Maurice Knaizer, a lawyer in the state attorney general's office who argued Romer's side at a hearing this fall, claims that Sargent's interpretation of the law is fundamentally flawed. "I think this kind of political activity is what goes along with a political job," Knaizer says. "Historically, governors often do these sorts of things."
John Love, Colorado's last Republican governor, was appointed to several positions by Richard Nixon, Knaizer points out; he even made a fact-finding mission to Vietnam.
And Knaizer has legal precedent as well as history on his side. In his formal response to Sargent's suit, he quotes from U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch's decision in a 1990 case, a suit in which the Colorado Union of Taxpayers claimed Romer was improperly using his time and state property on political issues. Matsch disagreed, ruling that the governor's job was inherently political.
Sargent has heard those arguments before, but he remains unconvinced. "There's so much meat on the bone here it's unbelievable," he says. Still, the only meat in his complaint predates Romer's taking the DNC job. Sargent cites statistics indicating that state road conditions deteriorated between 1987 and 1993, for example, and he claims that Romer mishandled the 1994 fire on Storm King Mountain, in which fourteen firefighters were killed. Although Sargent doesn't offer any recent instances of Romer failing to do his duty, he adds, "I'm sure there are plenty of things that I just don't know about."
To help press his case, Sargent hired Guy Heyl, a former candidate for district attorney in Jefferson County. Although Heyl's run for office was no more successful than Sargent's, unlike Sargent, he's at least a licensed lawyer.
And as a lawyer, Heyl says, he believes that Romer's dual posts violate the Colorado Fair Campaign Practices Act, specifically that portion of Amendment 15 that dictates if a person works for candidates during time for which he or she is compensated by an employer, the time and services are considered valuable contributions to candidates from the employer, which is prohibited. "Furthermore," adds Heyl, "the law specifically states that if the employer is a department of the State of Colorado, then any contribution is a violation of the law." Although the attorney general's office has argued that the DNC doesn't work specifically for Colorado candidates, "that argument doesn't hold up in light of Clinton's last visit," Heyl says. When President Bill Clinton attended a Denver fundraiser in November, some of the money raised was set aside for local Democratic candidates.
"What the statute says is that the governor can't contribute anything to other political candidates," Heyl says. "The way I look at the law, it seems like a clear violation."
But even the law's creator says Heyl and Sargent are interpreting it incorrectly. According to Ric Bainter, the former executive director of Colorado Common Cause and himself now a candidate for secretary of state, how a sitting governor spends his time "wasn't anything that Amendment 15 was intended to cover."
Not that it's all that easy to determine how Romer spends his time. Heyl and Sargent asked for a detailed copy of the governor's schedule and reams of other documents, but the administrative law judge denied nearly all of their requests. When Sargent finally received an outline of Romer's schedule from the governor's office, he says he was shocked by the paucity of information.
"It seems to me they ought to have had better records," Heyl says, "but on the other hand, the governor doesn't punch a clock."
And the clock's ticking. Both Knaizer and Heyl face a January 9 deadline for filing their motions for summary judgment; after that, the administrative law judge's decision will set the course for the rest of the case. But Romer has less than a year left as governor, and Heyl acknowledges that a court fight could take at least that long.
Sargent, however, is convinced that his case against a man he once called a "bootlicker" and a "socialist" has Democrats on the defensive. "Has President Clinton heard the name Dick Sargent?" he asks, then answers his own question. "I'll bet he has, because I threaten his head of the DNC."
"Mr. Sargent has visions of grandeur," replies Jim Carpenter, Romer's spokesman. Although the governor declines to comment about a pending case, Carpenter says Romer hasn't considered dropping either job, because "the governor is not doing anything illegal."