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Legal Actions & Statements

Ethics Watch Comments On IEC Draft Home Rule Position Statement

Today, Colorado Ethics Watch submitted written comments to the Independent Ethics Commission on its draft position statement regarding the application of Article XXIX of the Colorado Constitution, the Ethics in Government Amendment, to home rule cities. Ethics Watch told the IEC that it went too far in requiring home rule cities, such as Denver and Colorado Springs, to enact laws at least as strict as those found in Article XXIX. Ethics Watch agreed with the IEC that in order to opt out of the ethics system set out by the Amendment, a home rule city must have some sort of enforcement authority for its ethics system.

Article XXIX provides that home rule jurisdictions may opt out of the Amendment’s coverage if they enact laws “that address the matters covered by this article.” Last month, the Commission released a draft position statement that would require home rule cities to submit their ethics codes for approval and have laws at least as stringent as those found in Article XXIX if they wished to opt out from Article XXIX and IEC jurisdiction. Ethics Watch disagrees and joins other commenters in arguing that a home rule jurisdiction can have different and even weaker ethics rules so long as they have a gift rule and an enforcement mechanism.

Ethics Watch also urged the Commission not to act until it is at full strength. The empty seat on the Commission happens to be the seat reserved for a representative of local government; Ethics Watch believes the views of the local government commissioner will be very helpful toward resolving this issue.

Ethics Watch submitted two sets of written comments during the discussion phase of this process. Ethics Watch’s comments today are the first submitted since the IEC published a written draft statement.

Click here to read Ethics Watch’s comments.

Click here to read all comments filed with the Commission on this topic.

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Ethics Watch Comments On Proposed Campaign Finance Rule Changes

Today, Colorado Ethics Watch submitted comments on proposed changes to the state campaign finance rules. The rule changes were primarily designed to implement new laws regarding school board elections and small groups involved in ballot initiative advocacy, however, Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams also proposes to eliminate a rule, first enacted in 1999, that establishes guidelines for when the Secretary of State will initiate a campaign finance enforcement action. That rule allows the Secretary of State to notify filers of technical violations and give them an opportunity to cure the violation before a complaint is filed.

Instead of repealing the rule, Ethics Watch urges the Secretary to strengthen it. The state’s TRACER system already provides notices to filers when they have missed a filing. Ethics Watch urges the state to modify the on-line filing system to flag technical reporting violations such as failure to provide employment information for persons who give $100 or more to a committee. If the rule is repealed, the only recourse for such violations will be the state’s cumbersome and expensive litigation system for campaign finance violations.

Ethics Watch also provided comments to help clarify and strengthen rules implementing new laws regarding school board elections and ballot issue committees that raise and spend less than $5000.

Ethics Watch’s comments were submitted in advance of a public hearing to be held Tuesday, July 26 at 9:00 a.m. at the Colorado Secretary of State’s office.

Click here to read Ethics Watch’s comments.

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Ethics Watch Gains Independence

After 10 years of representing Colorado as the only statewide project of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Colorado Ethics Watch has become an independent organization.

“A decade of serving Colorado citizens by promoting government transparency and holding public officials accountable has rewarded us with tremendous support, and lots of work to do, right here in Colorado,” said Luis Toro, Director of Colorado Ethics Watch. “We are thrilled to stand on our own.”

In tandem with legal actions, Ethics Watch executes a comprehensive communications strategy to bring attention to misconduct in public life while also educating the public about ethics, transparency, nonpartisan election administration, and the importance of a strong, independent state and federal judiciary.

“From monitoring the IEC since its inception, to bringing to light some of Colorado’s most egregiously corrupted officials, Ethics Watch is the difference between corruption and honesty in Colorado’s government,” said Toro. “Without Ethics Watch, there is no barrier to corruption.”

In addition, Ethics Watch has been actively monitoring the activities of the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission (IEC) since the IEC first met in 2008. To provide an independent source of information about IEC activities, Ethics Watch compiles a chronology of IEC activities and related documents submitted to or produced by the IEC.

Ethics Watch also leads Courts Matter Colorado, a coalition of organizations united to educate the public about the importance of federal courts and to advocate for a fair, diverse, and fully staffed federal judiciary.

ABOUT COLORADO ETHICS WATCH
Founded in 2006, Colorado Ethics Watch is a non-profit, legal watchdog group dedicated to identifying and exposing ethics issues in city, county and state governments in Colorado, ultimately holding public officials accountable. Ethics Watch’s experience using existing legal tools to promote clean government uniquely positions the organization to hold public officials accountable and to encourage reform.

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Legislative Recap – Transparency & Accountability for Thee, Not For Me

Ethics Watch’s years of experience using legal tools to enforce accountability have taught us that legal action alone is not always enough – sometimes the laws themselves need to be changed. During the 2016 legislative session, we worked to craft and support legislation in all three core areas of our work: government ethics, money in politics, and public records transparency. Of the five bills we prioritized this year, two passed and are awaiting the Governor’s signature, while the other three were killed in the Senate State Affairs Committee on party-line votes.

The majority of the bills we championed this session had supporters from across the political spectrum and many had bipartisan legislator teams as sponsors. So why the differing results? It seems this year’s general assembly was more willing to pass good government measures only when they affect other people but refused to advance measures that would affect the accountability of legislators themselves.

Transparency wins for Colorado voters in some arenas

The two bills which passed this year both targeted transparency of political spending outside of the context of legislative races: school board elections and ballot measures.

Our major win for Colorado voters this year was the passage of HB16-1282 (Align Regular Biennial School Elections & Fair Campaign Practices Act). Building off our work tracing, tracking and charting the spending in 2015 school board elections, we worked to eliminate loopholes in campaign finance disclosure law which previously allowed political ads regarding school board candidates to remain hidden from the public record. The bill also increases the frequency of reporting for state-wide political committees and other political players who spend money in school board elections in order to provide that information to voters before they cast their ballots (instead of months after the election). Bipartisan sponsors (Reps. Becker & Pettersen/Sens. Todd & Tate) and support from the Secretary of State led to unanimous passage of this bill in both chambers. These changes are a major improvement in Colorado and will provide needed transparency in school board elections for 2017 and beyond.

 

 

 

We also supported SB16-186 (Small-Scale Issue Committees) which passed this year. This bill was crafted as a response to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals decision in CSG v. Williams holding that the $200 threshold for ballot issue committee registration and reporting was unconstitutional as applied in certain circumstances (Ethics Watch was an amicus in the case supporting the Secretary of State’s defense of the law). We worked with Colorado Common Cause and the Secretary of State’s office to create a two-tiered reporting scheme in the law for those supporting and opposing ballot issues as a temporary fix while the State sought review of the case from the U.S. Supreme Court.  Bipartisan sponsors (Sen. Tate/Rep. Lontine) helped pass the fix through both chambers after the court case was decided during session. This measure avoids a complete free-for-all of undisclosed and untraceable political spending when Colorado voters consider a number of state-wide ballot measures this year.

Accountability fails when including legislative branch in its scope

Three bills supported by Ethics Watch and other coalition partners would have increased transparency and accountability across the state government, including the legislative branch. Each of these bills were killed in the Senate State Affairs committee, even when supported by bipartisan coalitions.

Our biggest disappointment was the failure of the General Assembly to support the independence of the Independent Ethics Commission, which has jurisdiction over legislators, in HB16-1216 (Facilitate Administration of IEC). The centerpiece of this bill was to remove the Attorney General’s office from providing legal counsel to the IEC and instead authorize and fund a separate, independent, in-house attorney for the IEC to support its mission as ethics arbiter for all state government. Legislative sponsors (Rep. McCann/Sen. Steadman) worked with stakeholders across the political spectrum and both the Secretary of State and Attorney General offices testified in support of the bill. Nevertheless, after passing the Colorado House, the bill was killed without explanation on a party-line vote in Senate committee.

A similar fate was met by SB16-37 (Public Access to Digitally Stored Data under CORA). Ethics Watch was part of a group of stakeholders who worked with the legislative sponsors (Sen. Kefalas/Rep. Pabon) to address the problem of government agents refusing to provide digitally stored documents and data in electronic form when processing Colorado Open Records Act requests. As we highlighted in our 21st Century Sunshine report, CORA provisions are in desperate need of updating to reflect the modern technological age of public record generation and storage. Despite testimony from a range of organizations across the political spectrum in favor of the bill, it was killed in its first committee hearing in the Senate, where legislators stated concerns about how the bill would affect CORA requests on legislators. We will participate in an official working group convened by the Secretary of State’s office this summer to craft solutions to this problem for future legislation.

 

 

 

Finally, our attempt to prevent a minor loophole in campaign finance public disclosure from becoming a major problem was stymied when HB16-1343 (Disclosure of Party Communication Activity) was killed in Senate State Affairs Committee. This bill would have required public disclosure and “paid for by” statements for ads that are run in the final weeks of an election to support or oppose a political party or candidates from one political party and spending at any time of the year that urges the viewer to vote for or against candidates from a particular political party. The wording of current law in Colorado only triggers these transparency requirements when a specific candidate is named, thereby creating a loophole for groups wishing to remain in the shadows while trying to influence voters to vote for one party’s ticket. Legislative sponsors (Reps. Kagan & Becker/Sen. Carroll) passed the bill through the Colorado House, but the Senate State Affairs Committee killed it on a party-line vote without much discussion.

The reluctance of the General Assembly to pass legislation that increases the transparency and accountability of the legislative branch operations and campaigns to the voters is troubling. This is the reason why many ethics, money in politics and sunshine laws are passed directly by the people through ballot measures.

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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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