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City Council may change ethics rules

May 30, 2013 Updated: May 30, 2013 at 5:05 pm

Changes to the Colorado Springs Independent Ethics Commission could let former council member Tim Leigh off the hook even if the commission says he violated the city's ethics code.

The City Council made changes this week to the rules and procedures of its ethics commission, an eight-member panel that hears complaints about violations of the city's code of ethics.

Under the changes, any elected official, board appointee or independent contractor of the city accused of violating the city code of ethics has the chance for a due process hearing when being investigated by the ethics commission. That means the accuser and the accused can call witnesses, argue their case and are entitled to see all evidence against them.

Another change says that if the ethics commission finds the accused violated the city's ethics code the City Council can dismiss the complaint for a variety of reasons, including dismissals if the accused is no longer in office.

The changes likely would affect the complaint against Leigh, who is accused by David Neumann, president and chairman of Neumann Systems Group, of violating the city's code. Neumann Systems Group has a $73.5 million contract with Colorado Springs Utilities to install emissions scrubbing system at the Martin Drake power plant. Neumann said Leigh, while on city council the Colorado Springs Utilities board, repeatedly made false statements about his company and his emissions scrubbing technology, which damaged the company's reputation, its ability to obtain financing and its future business prospects.

"This will clarify how to handle the pending cases," Tracy Lessig, division chief, human resources city attorney, told the council. "Right now the code has been silent on issues before us; their attorneys have raised these issues, in deciding if allowing their client to talk to the commission, they want to know what the due process will be."

The ethics commission is investigating a second complaint, filed in the last two weeks. However, the details of the complaint have not been released, said City Attorney Chris Melcher. Typically, complaints are not made public during an ethics commission investigation.

The Neumann complaint was released to the public and press by the parties involved.

Melcher said the changes to the ethics commission rules were made to clarify the role of commission and give the council more direction on its options, especially in the event that an appointee or elected official is found by the commission to have violated the city's code of ethics - something that has not happened since the commission first was convened in 2007.

The new rules give the City Council direction on hearings, issuing fines, censure or removal.

"We don't know if that would ever come up," Melcher said, "but we should be prepared."

Council member Jan Martin said she believed the changes to the ethics commission are connected to the Neumann/Leigh case. However, she said the changes to rules procedures for investigation and for hearings were necessary.

"It's only been in the last year that we've had multiple complaints filed," she said. "It was the first time we had the opportunity to run the process through. We did discover there were some shortcomings and that we needed to provide more due process for the person accused."

Under the changes to the ethics commission rules, the City Council can dismiss complaints if there is not enough evidence; if there is no likelihood of success if the issue elevates to a hearing; if it refers the issue to law enforcement; if the case would be contrary to the interest of the city; or if the accused person is no longer an appointee or elected official.

Neumann filed his complaint in November. Neither Neumann nor Leigh could be reached for comment. In April, Neumann's attorney sent Leigh's attorney a letter with three options for Leigh to consider before Neumann filed legal proceedings: a public retraction of false statements; a public apology; or pay $5 million in damages to Neumann Systems Group.

In April, Leigh lost his bid for reelection. He received 19.9 percent of the vote while newcomer Don Knight won with 55.7 percent. However, the seven-member ethics commission, which met for the first time on this issue in January, still is investigating Neumann's complaint.

The commission is not investigating complaints related to free speech. Melcher said the city cannot legally sanction Leigh for actions protected by free speech and the freedom of association.

The three areas the commission is investigating are allegations that Leigh was "seeking personal gain through a Utilities vendor; conflict of interest based on direct or indirect financial interests in downtown properties affected by Drake closure; and engaging in activities that may create or does create the appearance of impropriety."

There is no deadline on the commission's investigation.

"It just takes time," Melcher said. "Sometimes it takes many months."

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