An ethics complaint against Colorado Springs City Council President Richard Skorman that was dismissed by fellow council members ended up costing the city nearly $10,000 in attorney fees.
The city paid attorney Glenn Schlabs and his law firm, Lewis Kuhn Swan, a total of $9,845 in August, in accordance with a city ordinance allowing such payments.
Last year, Skorman was accused of abusing his position when he interceded in a minor traffic crash involving a friend.
The city’s five-member Independent Ethics Commission determined that a violation had occurred, but the council — with Skorman recusing himself — dismissed the complaint saying he had not sought special treatment as council president.
“This was offered to me,” Skorman said. “I didn’t know about it. … By the way, my attorney fees were much more than what I asked for.”
Schlabs said he has represented the city in past litigation and had been aware of the ordinance. So he brought it to Skorman’s attention.
“I retired in 2017 and I know it was well-established by that time,” he said. “It was appropriate for me to advise Mr. Skorman what his rights were under that governing document.”
City spokeswoman Jamie Fabos said the ordinance was enacted in 2013.
The ordinance offers “legal representation of his or her choice at the city’s expense” to elected officials, judges, board and commission members and more who are investigated by the Ethics Commission. Those under investigation can also seek approval for reimbursement in excess of $10,000.
“Mr. Skorman was adamant in saying ‘No, I’m not going to seek an additional penny,’” Schlabs said.
Barbara Sutherland filed the complaint in late March 2018 after Skorman appeared at the scene of a car crash near West Cheyenne Road and Fenmoor Place.
Sutherland had been rear-ended by Madalyne Mykut, a close friend of Skorman. Both cars were damaged, but nobody was injured and Mykut did not have a driver’s license.
Skorman asked Sutherland to exchange information with Mykut rather than call police, the commission found. In an attempt to vouch for Mykut and himself, Skorman identified himself as council president and gave his business card to Sutherland and her husband.
The commission interviewed Skorman, Sutherland and others and determined that he had violated the city’s code of ethics, though it was not intentional. Instead, he was frustrated at how the situation unfolded, the commission found.
The investigation took about six months, Skorman said. During that time, Schlabs said he and others in the law firm were conducting research and writing responses to the complaint.
“This was a minor incident that I apologized for,” Skorman said. “It was something the council looked at and dismissed. “
Sutherland said she is outraged that the city footed the bill. The crash had nothing to do with city business, she said, and taxpayers shouldn’t be liable for those legal costs.
“It’s not like I was at a city-sanctioned event and had a complaint against him,” she said.
Had the council not dismissed the claim, Skorman said he agreed in writing to pay his legal fees.
The council and the city are sued frequently, Skorman said. In those cases, the city attorney represents them. Because this was an internal investigation, the city attorney would have had a conflict of interest, so an outside lawyer was necessary.
Such ethics complaints are infrequent but not unheard of.
Two complaints were filed with the commission in 2016, said city spokesman Ted Skroback. Both were found to be frivolous and dismissed. Because they were frivolous, the identity of those accused in the complaints are not publicly available, he said.
That same year the Ethics Commission determined then-Councilwoman Helen Collins had a conflict of interest in 2014 when she helped TABOR author Douglas Bruce — a felon — sell his late mother’s condominium. Bruce had signed the condo’s title to Collins before the city filed a lien of more than $7,500 against the property, which he owed for court costs in a lawsuit against the city that he lost.
Collins and Bruce then filed an ethics complaint against the rest of the council, the mayor, the city attorney and the CEO of Colorado Springs Utilities. The commission found no violations in that complaint, Skroback said.
Because a conflict of interest was found— and Collins was censured by her council colleagues — she would not have been eligible for reimbursement for legal counsel, according to the ordinance. The other council members, mayor, city attorney and CEO of Utilities would have been eligible, however, because the commission found no violations.