Colorado Watch logo

A panel of Colorado senators on Thursday agreed to put off its decision on a bill that would bar non-disclosure agreements with government employees. The senators want to haggle out additional details that might ensure its passage.

The five-member Senate state, veterans, and military affairs committee opted to push to next week a vote on Senate Bill 23-053, which aims to prevent any level of government in Colorado from silencing employees through confidentiality agreements.

The reason is so bill sponsor Sen. Barb Kirkmeyer, a Weld County Republican, can offer modifications to the bill that could improve the likelihood it moves to the full Senate. At least 16 states already ban the use of NDAs with state employees as well as the federal government.

Nearly a dozen people – some of them journalists – testified in favor of the proposed law, frequently noting that NDAs, as they are commonly called, muzzle the free-speech rights of government employees, many of them whistleblowers to malfeasance or fraud.

The agreements are often pressed on the employees during settlement negotiations and, according to attorneys who represent them, ensure the public can never know what’s at the root of the reason for a taxpayer-funded payout that can easily top $100,000.

A Denver Gazette investigation last November revealed how the state had paid more than $4 million to employees who signed more than 80 NDAs in just three years. The newspaper did not look into the number of confidentiality agreements that employees of county or local governments might also have been forced to sign.

But Kirkmeyer’s bill directly looks to prohibit the practice, the second time she’s tackled the subject. She was unsuccessful in 2021 with a similar bill. She has said the topic is too important and the Denver Gazette investigation too revealing to not make another effort.

In testimony Thursday, the bill landed stern support from the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado and, although they were officially neutral on the bill, the Colorado branch of the AFL-CIO.

Sign up for free: News Alerts

Stay in the know on the stories that affect you the most.

Success! Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter.

“The practices by the government have advanced to the point to where the civil liberties of the people themselves are threatened,” ACLU policy strategist Anaya Robinson testified. “It is vital that the line between non-secret and secret information be clearly drawn. Unclassified material should not be restricted at all.”

Committee members queried Kirkmeyer about the breadth of the bill and some of its finer points, but did not seem resistant to its overall intent.

Several journalists also testified, noting how their work to inform the public about government action has often been thwarted by government-required non-disclosure agreements that its employees signed.

Casey Leier, an attorney who often represents state employees in whistleblower and discrimination matters, testified that Colorado government has become “more aggressive” in requiring NDAs for any employee grievance.

“More often than not it’s a complete gag to any information related to the case it’s about,” Leier said.

He added to the Denver Gazette later: “This legislation would ensure that individuals are no longer held captive by these agreements, allowing them to speak out freely, and allowing the people to hold wrongdoers accountable.”

There was no testimony opposing the measure.

The committee is likely to take up the bill at its meeting scheduled for Feb. 9.

Load comments