The Colorado Ethics Commission Monday spent close to two hours deliberating on the facts and issues in an ethics complaint filed against Fort Collins Republican Sen. Vicki Marble. While the commission appeared to lean toward dismissing the complaint, they decided to hold off on a vote until their next meeting on March 5.
Marble is accused of violating the gift limits in the state's ethics law. She was the host of a town hall in Broomfield a year ago, which began as a conversation in her office involving several Broomfield officials as well as Extraction Oil & Gas.
The town hall at CB & Potts was billed as an opportunity to learn the facts about oil and gas development and how other communities had addressed those issues. But according to witness testimony, the event was really a pro-oil and gas presentation, paid for by Extraction and intended to persuade Broomfield residents about the pros of oil and gas development.
Last month, the commission held an all-day hearing on the Marble complaint, taking testimony from those involved in putting the event together, including Marble's then-legislative aide, Sheryl Ann Fernandez, who also chairs the Broomfield Republican Party; and Brian Cain, now a media spokesman for Extraction.
It was Cain who paid the bill at the Feb. 15, 2017 event at CB & Potts, which came to $1,121. However, Extraction was never listed as a sponsor of the event; only Marble was listed, and according to testimony putting her on the invitation as host, and later as moderator, was intended to draw residents to the meeting.
The state ethics law limits gifts to lawmakers at $50, and with inflation is now set at $59. Broomfield resident Sarah Hall Mann filed an ethics complaint against Marble shortly after witnessing Cain pay for the event.
The commission is divided over whether the event was a gift to Marble, the view from Commission Chair Matt Smith, or if the event was a gift to the public, an opinion expressed by Commissioner Jo Ann Sorensen.
But one thing commissioners all agreed upon: that the witnesses who testified on Marble's behalf, specifically Fernandez and Cain, were not credible and "lacked honesty and transparency."
During the January hearing, Commissioner Bill Leone brought up what he considered implausible explanations for the event as described by Fernandez. "I'm not buying what you're selling," he told Marble and her attorney, Marcy Glenn. That included claims by Marble's defense that she was minimally involved in the event, despite being listed as host, moderator and even as a speaker. Fernandez communicated about the event with Cain, using Marble's email address, designed the invitation, and sent out the invitations to a private, personal mail list. She also sought Marble's help in finding speakers for the event, although Marble testified she didn't follow through with that request.
Fernandez testified that in one email exchange with Cain, she asked how much money the company was willing to spend on the event, but never got a response. That didn't sit well with commissioners, either, who said that Marble should have known or asked who was paying and how much.
Most of the commissioners appeared to be uncomfortable with the idea that a ruling against Marble might be seen as an effort to keep elected officials from participating in events paid for by third parties. They pointed to a 2017 advisory opinion, sought by an unidentified House member, about being the moderator for an event that was being paid for by a non-profit group. In that opinion, the commission cleared the way for House member's participation in the event.
But there was one big difference between the House and Marble events, according to Smith: The group that hosted the House event disclosed their participation in invitations. The Marble event never disclosed that Extraction was the real sponsor, not even at the event itself.
Smith raised concerns that a ruling in Marble's favor would open the door to unlimited spending on behalf of state lawmakers. "If we go the way we're going, there will be no control over any meeting at all, and the next one may be $10,000." Smith pleaded with his fellow commissioners to "give some thought about the message you're sending. There's no limit on any meeting that's paid for by a private individual. Thats the wrong message."
Commissioner Gary Reiff said he didn't buy the explanations from Marble's witnesses, in part because between last month and Monday he had watched a video on the event supplied by Glenn. Commissioners indicated the video showed more involvement by Marble than was previously disclosed.
"My struggle with this, it feels bad but I can't find a violation," Reiff said. "But it feels bad with this much coordination" between Marble and Extraction, and he also cited a complete lack of transparency by Extraction in the whole process.
Four of the five commissioners indicated they did not find a violation, with Smith the only commissioner certain that there was one. At his request, they decided to hold off a decision until March 5.