June 13, 2013 Updated: June 13, 2013 at 8:16 pm
DENVER — Republican Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler, a potential gubernatorial contender, was admonished Thursday by an ethics panel over spending office funds to attend political events, a black eye to his candidacy before it's officially launched.
The Colorado Independent Ethics Commission ruled it was inappropriate for Gessler, the state's elections chief, to use his office's discretionary account for travel last summer to a GOP elections law conference in Florida. While in the state, he also attended the party's national convention there.
Gessler faces a $1,514 fine.
In ruling against Gessler, the commissioners said he "breached the public trust for private gain." He insists he did nothing wrong and that the conference was educational and qualified for reimbursement from his office's discretionary fund. He used campaign funds for expenses related to the RNC, but the ethics complaint noted the state paid for airfare which facilitated his attendance to both events.
He plans an appeal, which would go before Denver District Court.
The left-leaning Colorado Ethics Watch filed the complaint. The group said discretionary funds are meant for state business, not for partisan events or personal benefit. Attorneys for Ethics Watch said in written closing arguments that the elections conference was clearly political.
"A Secretary of State may not ethically spend public dollars to participate in such an event," the group said.
Gessler's attorneys said in their written closing arguments that the ethics complaint was "partisan, baseless, and costly."
The ethics panel also ruled that Gessler violated rules when he took $117.99 from his discretionary fund at the end of last fiscal year without providing any receipts.
Past secretaries have used their discretionary fund for income, office parties, or family trips that included state business.
"There is clearly confusion among past and current elected officials about the use of their discretionary accounts," Gessler said in a statement after the ruling.
Last month, Gessler repaid the state $1,278 for travel expenses to Florida — a move seen by some as trying to rectify potentially politically damaging case while he weighs a gubernatorial run. Gessler said he repaid the money to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
Gessler did not pay back the state for cutting his Florida trip short to return to Colorado because of death threats against his family. The ethics panel found that the cost to change his plane ticket did not violate rules.
The rulings come on the same day that a Quinnipiac University poll suggested a tight race in the 2014 gubernatorial contest between Gessler and current Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper. The poll of 1,065 registered voters, conducted from June 5-11, showed Hickenlooper leading Gessler 42-40.
Gessler accused some on the commission of being biased against him because they had donated money to Hickenlooper. Before the panel's decision, Gessler's attorneys unsuccessfully tried to get those commissioners, Rosemary Marshall and Dan Grossman, removed from the proceedings.
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