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EDITORIAL: New law should make ethics commission a bit more ethical

By: The Gazette editorial
March 9, 2014 Updated: March 9, 2014 at 11:15 am

Ethics investigations are among the more unethical weapons in politics. Majority parties appoint ethics panels, pretend they're nonpartisan, then use them against political opponents with complaints and inquiries that lack ethical integrity.

The targeted party's allies often retaliate by asserting their own politically motivated ethics complaints. It's all so politicians can beat each other up in the next campaign by trumpeting the ostensive poor character of a foe. Ethics panels are bound by few of the due process requirements that protect individuals in standard court proceedings. Yet, all the electorate hears is that an ethics panel - presumed ethical - has ruled against a bad guy.

When Secretary of State Scott Gessler was brought up on charges related to minor travel expenses, which he later reimbursed, Gessler could not get the commission to advise him about the nature of charges even as hearings commenced. Whenever allegations became clear, and the defendant answered them, new charges arose. Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert describes a "constant moving target."

Rep. Amy Stephens would like to fix what she calls a "star chamber" and others refer to as a "kangaroo court." The Monument Republican introduced a bill intended to make the ethics commission, and its process, more fair. House Bill 14-1258 will be heard Monday and most likely killed by the House Veterans and Military Affairs Committee - aka the kill committee.

"The bill is designed to stop partisan attacks from both sides of the aisle," Stephens told The Gazette.

The Stephens bill would install a few elements of due process Americans have come to expect when charged with anything from smoking in school, to speeding, to murder. The law would require the commission to advise suspects of the charges against them at least three weeks before a hearing. It would provide legal representation, a public defender of sorts, for defendants.

"The ethics commission is defended and protected by the attorney general. This ensures that a defendant also has state representation," Stephens said.

It would hold commission members personally liable for "wanton and willful" violations of a suspect's due process rights. Few Americans, including cops and prosecutors, are immune from "wanton and willful" violations of law.

Voters established the ethics commission with Amendment 41 in 2006. They intended to stop inappropriate gifts believed to buy political outcomes. State and local elected officials and their employees are forbidden from accepting politically motivated gifts with a combined worth exceeding $53 in the course of a year.

Critics of the five-member commission, which enforces the gift ban, claim the board operates on rules pulled from thin air. Nothing protects fundamental rights of the accused.

"People are charged because they are considered political enemies. They may be enemies of board members or politicians who are supported by board members," Staiert said.

A practicing attorney for 25 years, Staiert tried to defend Gessler but said the commission wouldn't allow it. Gessler is supposed to be represented by the state's attorney general, but that wasn't possible because the AG also represents the ethics commission and the commission takes precedent. The chairman of the commission at the time, Dan Grossman, had donated to former Secretary of State Bernie Buescher, who Gessler defeated in 2010. Commission member Rosemary Marshall also donated to Gessler's opponent.

Staiert complains the ethics commission violates open meetings laws, convening without public notice on the 11th floor of the Ralph Carr Judicial Center - "which members of the public cannot access unless they are on a guest list."

The kill committee should pardon this bill and allow it to live. Part of their decision-making could be influenced by recent events. After political opponents sicked the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission on Secretary of State Scott Gessler, Republicans played tit-for-tat. They initiated ethics charges against Gov. John Hickenlooper. Each man was accused of inappropriate travel expenses for partisan events. Hickenlooper faces a hearing Monday, though the panel consists mostly of political allies.

When Coloradans created the ethics commission, they wanted cleaner politics - not an unjust means for politicians to destroy one another. We need a law that gives Coloradans the kind of independent and professional ethics commission they wanted when approving Amendment 41. We don't need a kangaroo court that facilitates more political shenanigans.

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