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EDITORIAL: We deserve genuine process in ethics inquiry of governor

By: The Gazette editorial
April 12, 2014 Updated: April 12, 2014 at 10:35 am
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photo -  Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is being investigated for using staff to plan the Democratic Governors Association meeting last year in Aspen, which critics consider a fundraising event.
( Photo/Ed Andrieski)
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is being investigated for using staff to plan the Democratic Governors Association meeting last year in Aspen, which critics consider a fundraising event. ( Photo/Ed Andrieski) 

The Colorado Independent Ethics Commission will meet Monday to decide whether to proceed with a complaint against Gov. John Hickenlooper. The members haven't yet conducted due diligence and are nowhere near the point of legitimately dismissing reasonable concerns raised in a formal complaint.

If the case is brushed aside - treated as nothing important - the commission's credibility and objectivity will come into serious question.

At issue is a complaint that says Hickenlooper used staff to plan the Democratic Governors Association meeting last year in Aspen, which critics consider a fundraising event. The complaint says Hickenlooper accepted food and lodging worth far in excess of the minimal gift allowances set forth by Amendment 41.

Hickenlooper argues his participation in the meeting, as governor of the state in which it was hosted, exceeded the value of anything the association gave him.

We aren't in a position to weigh the merits of the case. We only hope the ethics commission will put forth at least a reasonable fraction of the attention it gave ethics complaints against Secretary of State Scott Gessler, a Republican who was accused of violating gift limitations by attending a Republican lawyer's meeting and submitting minor expenses for state reimbursement.

It's no big secret the ethics commission has become a weapon for the party in control. Three of the commission's five members - Bob Bacon, Rosemary Marshall and Bill Leone - have contributed to Hickenlooper's campaigns. They can't recuse themselves, as that would leave a commission of two. But it's hard to see how people who spent hard-earned money on a candidate could scrutinize him with objectivity.

Hickenlooper's alleged transgressions aren't exactly high drama. We're talking hotel bills and food. But they are amazingly similar to the supposed wrongs of Gessler, which the Democratic commission used as the basis for two unanimous and unmerciful convictions that will be used to conveniently haunt him for years to come. Presented out of context, in commercials that isolate bad-sounding phrases from any kind of truthful framework, minor transgressions can be made to seem large.

Just as Hickenlooper argues he brought value that equalled or exceeded anything he was paid, Gessler was a featured speaker at the conference that generated his ethics complaints. He, too, brought value to the conference in question. For the commission to summarily dismiss the case against Hickenlooper, it will have to go against an array of precedents it established in harming Gessler's reputation.

In initial hearings about the complaint against Hickenlooper, it seems apparent the ethics commission wants to find and defend a meaningful distinction between the Gessler and Hickenlooper cases. Commissioners have pondered making a big deal of the fact Hickenlooper's alleged violations occurred in his state. Nothing in Amendment 41 negates the value of a gift given at home.

"What we are really looking for on this issue is parity. We all deserve additional clarification on Amendment 41, but it should be applied to everyone the same, whether you're a Republican or a Democrat," said Kelly Maher of Compass Colorado, the organization that brought the complaint against Hickenlooper.

At this juncture, Coloradans are giving the ethics commission the benefit of the doubt. The media and the general public are assuming three Democrats who donated to the defendant can maintain an objective posture in determining the facts.

If they don't move forward with due diligence - if they cut the process short - those generous assumptions will be shattered. Coloradans will begin scrutinizing the ethics of the commission, and commissioners won't like it. The public will demand a fair process and call for reforms the moment they perceive this commission giving the current defendant a pass.

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