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Complaint: Councilwoman Helen Collins 'appears' to have violated city's ethics code

March 6, 2015 Updated: March 6, 2015 at 5:50 am
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photo - District 4 Councilwoman Helen Collins after the swear-in ceremony for the newest City Council members Tuesday, April 16, 2013, at City Hall. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
District 4 Councilwoman Helen Collins after the swear-in ceremony for the newest City Council members Tuesday, April 16, 2013, at City Hall. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

Colorado Springs City Councilwoman Helen Collins, already the target of a recall election, is now facing an ethics complaint that alleges she participated in a real estate deal with tax-limitation author and convicted felon Douglas Bruce, which helped him avoid payment of a nearly $7,600 court judgment he owes the city.

The complaint, brought against Collins by the Colorado Springs City Attorney's Office, was filed with the city's Independent Ethics Commission on Jan. 21.

After a 70-minute closed-door meeting Thursday, the commission found that the complaint against Collins was within the panel's jurisdiction and wasn't frivolous, and therefore should be investigated.

"Ms. Collins' conduct appears to violate multiple provisions" of the city's Code of Ethics, the complaint said.

Collins had little to say about the complaint Thursday.

"They can do whatever they want," she said. "It's based on the recall. It's 'make Helen look bad.'"

The commission, whose five members are appointed by City Council, released the document after an open records request by The Gazette. The commission said it would notify Collins and the City Attorney's Office via letter that an investigation was being launched. The commission gave no timetable for its investigation, but said it eventually would forward recommendations to the council about what, if any, action should take place.

The city attorney's complaint says that Collins is subject to the city's Code of Ethics, which covers elected officials, the city's appointed executives, department heads and all employees.

The complaint cited portions of the Ethics Code that require Springs officials to demonstrate loyalty to the city and avoid activities that conflict with their official duties and responsibilities. It also cited a provision in the code that says any individual who breaches the public trust and does so for private gain should be liable to the city for "double the amount of financial equivalent of any benefits obtained by such actions."

As a result, the attorney's office asked in its complaint that any financial penalty levied against Collins should be "double the amount of the judgment that was avoided as a result of her participation in the (Bruce) transaction," which would be $15,139.22.

City Attorney Wynetta Massey said via email Thursday that her office won't comment on the complaint, but will cooperate with the commission's investigation.

Bruce was dismissive of what he said is an attempt to unseat Collins. "This whole thing is manufactured of nothing to create some justification for recalling Helen Collins," he said.

Asked about specifics of his deal with Collins, he declined to comment.

At issue is a real estate transaction in which Bruce transferred his ownership of a southwest side condominium to Collins on Dec. 4. According to the ethics complaint and El Paso County land records:

- Bruce had filed a civil suit in August 2013 against the city. The suit claimed, among other things, that the council received unlawful perks, and that the city attorney illegally used taxpayer money by appointing outside lawyers without council approval. A year later, Bruce lost his suit. A 4th Judicial District Court judge ordered him Dec. 1 to pay $7,569.61 to cover city costs related to the trial. Bruce already owed the city about $21,000 stemming from another lawsuit.

- On Dec. 5, four days after the judge's order that Bruce pay the $7,569.61, the city recorded a judgment lien against all real estate owned by Bruce. By placing the lien on his properties, Bruce would have to use proceeds from the sale of any real estate to pay his debt to the city.

- On Dec. 4, the day before the city recorded its lien on Bruce's real estate, he transferred his ownership in the 3-bedroom, 1 1/2-bathroom condo to Collins. The City Attorney's Office didn't learn of that deal until Dec. 8. El Paso County land records show Collins received the condo from Bruce "in consideration of the sum of $10 and other good and valuable consideration."

- On Dec. 5, with the condominium now in her name, Collins sold the property for $140,000 to a woman whose relationship to Bruce and Collins is unknown.

"No legitimate business purpose for the transaction can be discerned," the complaint said of Bruce's transfer of the condo to Collins. "Its only purpose was to hinder or delay the city from collecting the judgment from Mr. Bruce."

City Council President Keith King said he was unaware of the complaint against Collins until it was released Thursday, but made a point that the process should play out.

"I think the ethics committee report concerning Councilwoman Collins raises some very serious concerns," he said. "I believe the process that has been established by the city's Code of Ethics must be followed."

While Bruce has paid his $21,000 debt stemming from his first lawsuit, he still owes the nearly $7,600 from his loss in the August 2013 action. Bruce has appealed that second judgment; he has no deadline to satisfy the debt, but must pay interest on the unpaid amount.

Collins, 59, was part of an unsuccessful slate of at-large City Council candidates led by Bruce during the 2011 municipal election. She then was elected on her own two years later from District 4 on the Springs' southeast side.

In December, three District 4 residents launched a recall effort against Collins, citing their concerns about her opposition to a November ballot measure to fund a regional stormwater initiative. A separate group that assisted in the recall, Colorado Springs Government Watch, also has alleged that Collins is too closely tied to Bruce.

The City Clerk's Office determined that there were enough valid petition signatures, and the council placed a recall question on the April 7 municipal ballot.

However, the recall was challenged by a resident in Collins' district. A municipal court judge who heard the challenge Monday is expected to deliver his findings Friday. The city clerk will issue a determination next week whether to keep the recall question on next month's ballot.

Bruce, a Springs resident, wrote the Taxpayers Bill of Rights that was approved by Colorado voters in 1992; the measure limits the power of governments to tax and spend, among other provisions.

In December 2011, a jury convicted Bruce on state charges of tax evasion, filing a false return, failing to file a return and attempting to influence a public servant. Bruce was sentenced in February 2012 to serve 180 days in a Denver jail. He served 103 days and was released.

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Gazette reporter Stephen Hobbs contributed to this report.

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