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Legal Actions & Statements

CO Supreme Court ends Rowland case

Today, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that decisions of the Independent Ethics Commission (IEC) to dismiss a complaint as frivolous are not subject to judicial review. The ruling overturned a Denver District Court judge’s determination that a suit by Ethics Watch challenging the dismissal of a complaint against Elbert County Commissioner Robert Rowland, for voting to spend county funds on an appeal of a campaign finance award against him personally, could go forward. The Court ruled that a state statute authorizing judicial review of “any final action” by the IEC on a complaint could not constitutionally reach decisions by the IEC not to proceed on a complaint because the legislature does not have power to enact such a statute and because the IEC is barred from disclosing a complaint ruled frivolous even to a court.

In dissent, Justice Richard Gabriel stated that “the majority’s opinion undermines a primary purpose of the IEC, namely, to preserve public confidence in government.”

Ethics Watch Director Luis Toro issued the following statement: “Obviously we are disappointed with today’s decision. Notably, the Supreme Court did not rule that the IEC was correct to dismiss our complaint; they merely held that the action was beyond judicial review. The Supreme Court has granted sweeping power to the IEC; we can only hope the Commission uses this power wisely.”Colorado Supreme Court

Read the decision here: In re Colorado Ethics Watch v. Independent Ethics Commission

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Ethics Watch Comments on IEC Jurisdiction Over Home Rule Cities

Yesterday, Ethics Watch Senior Counsel Peg Perl addressed the Independent Ethics Commission as part of the Commission’s deliberations over its own jurisdiction over home rule cities. Ethics Watch also submitted two rounds of written comments in response to the Commission’s call for comments from the public.

Section 7 of Article XXIX of the Colorado Constitution provides that home rule jurisdictions are not subject to Commission jurisdiction if they “have adopted charters, ordinances, or resolutions that address the matters covered by this article.” Home rule jurisdictions are mostly cities, including Denver, Colorado Springs, and Aurora, that have adopted city charters that allow them to enact their own laws on matters that would otherwise be governed by state law.

The issue arose due to a request for advisory opinion by a state employee who is also an elected official of the City of Aurora who asked the Commission to advise her that she remains subject to state ethics laws despite her elected position with the City. The request gave the Commission insight about the larger questions about the interaction of home rule with Article XXIX.

Ethics Watch’s view is that Section 7 requires a home rule jurisdiction to have its own ethics board and some law restricting gifts, because those topics are covered in Article XXIX. Other groups also filed written comments or testified at the meeting. The Commission has collected written comments at this link.

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Sunshine Week: Ethics Watch Releases “Campaign Finance Basics”

In honor of Sunshine Week, which promotes public access to government information, Colorado Ethics Watch has created a new tool to assist citizens and interested groups in understanding how to access and understand campaign finance contributions, expenses and reports in Colorado.

Colorado Campaign Finance Basics, a new tool posted to the Ethics Watch website, reveals:
• How to find the money involved in Colorado county or state political campaigns
• Useful websites for Colorado county or state campaign finance research
• Where to find out how much money is spent on political advertisements in Colorado county or state campaigns
• What Colorado county or state political campaigns have contribution limits

“Campaign finance can be a complicated issue to understand,” said Luis Toro, director of Colorado Ethics Watch. “Colorado Campaign Finance Basics helps Coloradans find out the groups and money involved in their Colorado county and state political campaigns.”

Colorado Campaign Finance Basics outlines the process to check the Colorado Secretary of State TRACER system and suggests checking the IRS forms of nonprofits and other political organizations to find otherwise unreported contributions. Information can also be found in political files or public inspection files that show the purchase of advertisement space for political purposes by groups or individuals, searchable on the Federal Communication Commission website.

While Colorado municipal elections fall under the jurisdiction of the municipality rather than the Colorado Secretary of State, it is possible to find local campaign finance disclosures and reporting in similar avenues through the appropriate municipality.

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Ethics Watch Files Complaint Against Glendale Mayor

On Friday, Colorado Ethics Watch filed a complaint with the Glendale City Council against Mayor Mike Dunafon. The complaint alleges that on February 3, 2015, Mayor Dunafon cast the tie-breaking vote to approve a site development plan and special use permit for a marijuana retail store owned by his wife – after having first recused himself due to the conflict of interest. The complaint also alleges that Dunafon voted to approve a liquor license renewal for a bar owned by his wife in April, 2015.

“The City of Glendale should not be run for the benefit of Mayor Dunafon and his family,” said Luis Toro, Director of Colorado Ethics Watch. “We are calling upon the City Council to pass a resolution of censure so that nothing like this happens again.”

Glendale is a home rule city with an ethics code vesting authority in the City Council to hear ethics complaints against Glendale officials, including the Mayor and City Council members themselves.

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Ethics Watch Submits Comments On Proposed SOS Rules

January 14 – Today, Ethics Watch submitted comments opposing proposed changes to the Colorado Election Rules that would increase the chances of partisan mischief in elections and exceed the authority of the Colorado Secretary of State.

The two rules would (1) allow political parties to dictate to clerks which election judges should perform the task of signature verification and (2) apply electioneering prohibitions to drop-box locations, which would increase opportunities for harassing election complaints if, for example, a car with a political bumper sticker inadvertently drove within 100 feet of a drop box located on a public street.

The hearing on the proposed rules is today at 9:00 a.m. Ethics Watch will not submit additional testimony at the hearing.

Click here to read Ethics Watch’s comments.

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SOS Goes Easy On Undisclosed Lobbying

Yesterday, the Colorado Secretary of State ruled that American Lands Council (ALC) did not violate Colorado lobbying law by sending an email to Colorado citizens urging them to support a measure to study the privatization of federal public land in Colorado.

According to Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert, the ALC’s email was similar to a “one-time occurrence” under which “a corporate newsletter includes a small item encouraging readers to contact legislators urging them to support or oppose a particular bill” that a previous Deputy Secretary had found not to rise to a level requiring registration. To the contrary, the ALC’s message of support of the bill was the sole subject of the email, not a small item in a newsletter about other topics.

“Unfortunately, the Secretary of State’s office is continuing to err on the side of not enforcing Colorado’s disclosure laws,” said Ethics Watch Director Luis Toro. “We are disappointed to see the current Secretary continue the lax policies of his predecessor and keep opening the door to more unregistered lobbying that violates Colorado’s strict law requiring disclosure of all corporate spending to influence legislators. We fear that the exemption created solely by Deputy Secretary decision will continue to expand, denying Coloradans their right to know who is spending money to lobby legislators. For American Lands Council, however, the message is clear: while they may have gotten away with it this time, future lobbying in Colorado must be conducted in full compliance with our disclosure law.”

Click here to read the full decision >>

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SOS finds “reasonable grounds” that ALC violated lobbyist law

Today, Colorado Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Steiert found that “reasonable grounds” exist to believe American Lands Council (ALC) or its staff broke Colorado lobbying registration law.

The finding came in response to a lobbying complaint filed by Ethics Watch after ALC emailed Coloradans and urged them to contact legislators in support of a bill to study transferring federal public land to the state. ALC did not report any lobbying spending nor registered itself or a paid staff member as a registered lobbyist, as required by Colorado law.

ALC has thirty days to respond in writing to the finding.

The Secretary of State could issue a cease-and-desist order requiring ALC to comply with lobbying disclosure law or refer the matter for criminal prosecution. Willful violation of the lobbying law is a misdemeanor.

Ethics Watch Director Luis Toro said: “We are pleased that the Secretary of State has taken this complaint seriously and conducted a thorough preliminary investigation. American Lands Council is free to lobby like anyone else; all we ask is that they abide by the same rules that apply to everyone else who lobbies the Colorado legislature.”

Helpful Links:

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Ethics Commission runs to Supreme Court in bid to avoid accountability

Late Friday afternoon, the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission (“IEC”) asked the Colorado Supreme Court to intervene in an ongoing lawsuit filed by Ethics Watch in May for judicial review of the IEC’s 3-2 decision to dismiss a complaint, filed by Ethics Watch, asking whether Elbert County Commissioner Robert Rowland violated ethical standards of conduct when he cast the deciding vote to authorize the county to pay for an appeal of a campaign finance award against himself personally. The extraordinary petition asks the Supreme Court to hold that IEC decisions to dismiss complaints without a hearing cannot be reviewed by any court.

The IEC’s argument is based on the constitutional provision stating that complaints may be dismissed without a hearing only if they are frivolous, and frivolous complaints must be maintained as confidential. The IEC maintains that this means it may not disclose a dismissed complaint even to a court. Denver District Judge A. Bruce Jones rejected the IEC’s argument and ruled that Ethics Watch’s suit may go forward. Ethics Watch had argued that a routine confidentiality order would address the IEC’s concerns.

“We are at a loss to understand why the IEC wants to make a Supreme Court case out of a simple failure to proceed on a case that two of the five commissioners thought deserved a hearing,” said Luis Toro, Director of Colorado Ethics Watch. “Nevertheless, we will fight to make sure the Ethics Commission does the job it was established to do, even if that means going to the Colorado Supreme Court.”

Helpful Links:

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Court allows Williams to settle Ethics Watch’s suit against Citizens United

Yesterday, Administrative Law Judge Robert Spencer dismissed Ethics Watch’s lawsuit against Citizens United for failing to report its spending on television ads attacking Governor John Hickenlooper during the last weeks of the 2014 election campaign. Judge Spencer ruled that a settlement agreement between Citizens United and Secretary of State Wayne Williams in a federal lawsuit filed by Citizens United eliminated Ethics Watch’s ability to enforce Colorado campaign finance laws against Citizens United.

In October 2014, Citizens United filed a federal lawsuit against the Colorado Secretary of State, and won a partial injunction against enforcement of electioneering disclosure laws. The ruling by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals stated that Citizens United need not disclose spending on the film “Rocky Mountain Heist,” a “documentary” released just before the election, but may be required to disclose spending on television ads for the “documentary” that identified Governor Hickenlooper.

Ethics Watch later filed a complaint against CU for electioneering disclosure violations as to television advertisements that were not subject to the injunction. Then, the Secretary entered into a federal consent decree with Citizens United enjoining the enforcement of electioneering disclosure laws, not only as to the spending that the Tenth Circuit said need not be disclosed, but also to the television ads that were the subject matter of the complaint. Yesterday’s ruling concluded that the Secretary’s settlement with Citizens United prevents Ethics Watch from proceeding with its complaint.

Ethics Watch Director Luis Toro said: “We are disappointed that the Court accepted Secretary Williams’ grant of a one-time ‘get out of jail free’ card for Citizens United only. Even though the Supreme Court case that bears its name said corporations and people must be treated equally, Citizens United was happy to accept a special dispensation that allowed it to ignore the rules that apply to everyone else. Secretary Williams should be fighting to enforce campaign finance laws, not cutting special deals with his conservative allies.”

Helpful Links:

  • Click here to read the ALJ’s decision.
  • Click here to read the settlement between Citizens United and Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams.
  • Click here to read the federal district court’s order on the settlement agreement.
  • Click here to read Ethics Watch’s complaint (exhibits).
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Ethics Watch statement on federal coal program

Today, Ethics Watch Senior Counsel Peg Perl made the following public statement at the Bureau of Land Management public listening session regarding the federal coal program in Golden.

“When some coal companies use corporate subsidiaries to artificially lower royalties paid to the federal and state governments, they not only cheat the citizens, they also gain an unfair advantage over competitors. Regardless of where you stand on the proper standards for power plant emissions, we should all agree that the American people should get fair royalty payments for mining operations on our public land, and that companies who bend the rules should not get an unfair advantage over their competitors who aren’t gaming the system. Any losses the mining company may suffer from a lower priced transaction are more than made up for by profits of the marketing company that flow up the chain to the corporate parent. However, every dollar of royalty revenue that the government should be but isn’t collecting, adds to our deficit and shifts more of the cost of government on to hard-working taxpayers in Colorado.

There is little doubt that the current loophole exploited by some larger coal companies is subject to the influence of money in politics and lobbying. According to public disclosures analyzed by opensecrets.org, in the 2014 election cycle the coal mining industry spent $9.8 million on lobbying for favorable treatment under federal programs. The coal industry is also a major player in campaign contributions for members of Congress, giving over $26 million in candidate contributions in the 2012 and 2014 cycles alone (opensecrets.org). The public record in the coal valuation rulemaking includes a letter from fifteen members of Congress urging the DOI to slow down reform efforts – a position consistent with larger coal companies that benefit from the current loophole. Each of those legislators has received thousands of dollars in contributions from the coal industry since 2012, including all three of the Colorado delegation members who signed that letter. Such a large checkbook wields influence in Congress (opensecrets.org).

It is hard for smaller companies and the citizens who suffer the effects of lower royalty payments to be heard when big money is spent in politics and lobbying to enrich profits of large coal companies. We hope you use this listening session to hear the voices that cannot spend millions on campaign contributions and Washington lobbyists. The BLM should ignore the calls to go slow and fix the coal royalty loophole so that all coal companies pay fair market prices for using our public lands for their private profit.”

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