The Republican candidate for Colorado treasurer promises not to accept a state paycheck if he’s elected. Rather, Brian Watson’s pay would continue to roll in from the commercial real estate investment company he heads because he plans to keep working there.
His company manages $1 billion in assets, owns buildings in 16 states and employs about 50 people, Watson acknowledged in June during an interview with Jon Caldara, president of the right-leaning Independence Institute.
He founded Northstar Commercial Partners in 2000 and is its chairman and CEO.
If elected, Watson told Caldara, he’ll continue as chairman of his company, though he wants to be a “proactive” state treasurer.
Asked why he wouldn’t place his assets in a blind trust and let someone else run his business, Watson told Caldara: “Partly, just like I’m going to have a fiduciary responsibility to the people of Colorado with their money at the state Treasurer’s Office, so I am in a fiduciary responsibility with my current investors.”
The exchange was little noted at the time, but the Colorado Democratic Party spotlighted Watson’s comments in a news release Tuesday.
Watson told Colorado Politics his company does not do business for the state and wouldn’t take any state incentives.
“We do not want to incur any conflicts of interest or any benefits in my role as public servant other than serving the people of Colorado and trying to make a positive difference,” he said.
But Watson would be “quite a bit more hands off than now” at his company, said campaign spokesman Kyle Forti.
Indeed, Watson told Caldara he’ll give the treasurer seat its full-time due and will “donate” a few hours a week or a month to his company to “make sure that people are executing and moving forward.”
“The people that know me know I work really, really hard,” he said.
But a failure to step down or place his assets in a blind trust would almost certainly be a conflict of interest, said Jane Feldman, former executive director of the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission and now an ethics consultant in Denver.
“To me, it presents a clear conflict of interest because one of the things that the treasurer does is decide how to invest the state’s funds,” Feldman said, citing the state statute that says conflicts can occur between an official’s public duty and private interest.
“If he is going to be investing the state’s funds while still also advising private clients, to me that’s a clear conflict of interest,” Feldman said.
The state investments could benefit Watson’s company or his clients, she said.
Elected officials or state employees with concerns could file a complaint with the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission, which then could rule on the question, Feldman said. Or they could ask the Attorney General’s Office for guidance.
A similar issue arose in 2011 with then-Secretary of State Scott Gessler, Feldman noted.
Gessler wanted to work as an elected official but keep his job as an attorney. He ultimately left the law firm. The public’s distaste for his split time was a significant factor, she said.
“But I think most people think he got an opinion from the state Attorney General’s Office,” Feldman said.
The AG’s Office didn’t respond to messages seeking comment, and Dino Ioannides, executive director of the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission, declined to comment.
Feldman acknowledged that she supports Watson’s opponent, state Rep. Dave Young, D-Greeley.
Watson told Caldara: “My whole business model is going out and buying vacant, distressed commercial real estate assets to create jobs and opportunities and to empower Americans. What we’re looking for is how can we take a vacant building and turn it into a charter school or a business incubator or a productive work environment.”
Young takes issue with part of that business model, though.
“Charter schools are funded by taxpayer dollars in Colorado,” he said. “To remain as chairman of a company that profits off taxpayers is a huge conflict of interest for a state treasurer.”
If he’s elected, Young said, he’ll be “completely transparent” with his finances.
Potential conflicts aside, Feldman also noted that the treasurer’s job is a full-time. She questioned how Watson could juggle both positions.
Ernest Luning of Colorado Politics contributed to this report.
Correction: This story has been updated to include a word that was inadvertently omitted from a quote of Watson’s.