State Sen. Vicki Marble has violated the state constitution's ethics law, known as Amendment 41, the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission decided Monday in a 3-2 vote.
The commission found the Fort Collins Republican violated the constitution's gift limit but dismissed a second statutory violation, which would have been a misdemeanor.
"This is not a criminal case," said Commissioner Bill Leone.
Marble was fined $2,242 - twice the cost of holding a Feb. 15, 2017, forum on oil and gas issues that was secretly hosted by Denver-based Extraction Oil & Gas at the CB & Potts restaurant in Broomfield.
The state constitution requires a penalty valued at twice the cost of the gift, although Marble's attorney argued the gift was not made for private gain and hence should carry no penalty.
However, Commissioner Gary Reiff won the argument and the commission voted 3-2 to fine Marble for the event. "She's the only one on the invitation, it's her host and her event. The cost is hers."
According to the office of Legislative Legal Services, Marble's legal bill, as of last week, was $48,000 and it's being paid for by the General Assembly. That's for the services of attorney Marcy Glenn of Holland & Hart, which agreed to a reduced rate of $200 per hour. That cost does not include representation at Monday's hearing or subsequent appeals.
According to testimony presented in a Jan. 8, 2018, hearing, the event started out as a meeting on Feb. 1, 2017, in Marble's office, that included the senator; her then-aide, Sheryl Ann Fernandez; two people associated with Extraction Oil and Gas; and two Broomfield City Council members.
Marble suggested a forum that would feature elected officials from Windsor who had successfully resolved oil and gas development issues.
That was the genesis of the Feb. 15, 2017 event, which was organized by an Extraction contractor and Fernandez, who suggested the venue, designed the invitation, developed the agenda, and sent out the invitations, including to a mailing list for her private public relations firm.
It was also advertised to members of the Broomfield County GOP, of which Fernandez is the county chair.
Marble was listed in the invitation as the host; she also was the event's moderator and spoke at the event.
But the event's true sponsor, according to the deliberations of the ethics commission, was Extraction Oil & Gas. Its media relations person, Brian Cain, paid for the event and coordinated with Fernandez on the logistics.
Broomfield resident Sarah Hall Mann observed Cain paying the bill, which came to $1,121. That exceeds the state's gift limit to lawmakers, which in 2017 was $59. Mann filed an ethics complaint in May 2017.
Commissioners in the majority argued that the lack of transparency is what made the forum a gift. They pointed to an ethics commission advisory opinion, issued last year, regarding a town hall meeting hosted by an environmental group that Democratic Rep. Jonathan Singer of Longmont attended. The difference, commissioners said, was the Singer event disclosed the event sponsor.
But commissioners also want to be cautious of just how lawmakers view their decision.
Commissioner Bill Leone, who voted against the finding of a violation, said he did not want to discourage people from inviting their elected officials to events. Commissioner April Jones concurred. "I'm concerned about the chilling effect" this could have on public officials who are trying to do their jobs in a way that is not a violation," she said.
One last issue that troubled commissioners was the penalty issue and whether both Marble and Extraction would both be held liable for the fine. The commission has no authority over private individuals and companies, commissioners noted, although Extraction could reimburse Marble for the penalty.
But that would create another gift, according to the commission's legal counsel. "It wouldn't surprise me one bit" if Extraction reimbursed Marble for the fines, Leone said.
"We need clarity from a court on this. That's why we're split 3-2. I look forward to that clarity," said Commissioner Gary Reiff.
The commission still has to issue an opinion on the matter, with a draft expected at its next meeting in May.
Marble had no comment. Her attorney, Marcy Glenn, said they would wait until the opinion is issued to determine whether to appeal the ruling.
"I'm pleased with the commission finding that there was a violation," Mann told Colorado Politics. "I understand that we don't want to discourage elected officials from interacting with their constituents, but those interactions need to be transparent." Mann added that private corporations should not be allowed to "use our public officials as a commercial for their interests" in a way that is dishonest to constituents.