By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
On Feb. 3, a joint legislative ethics committee will decide the outcome of a complaint filed by Rep. Cindy Acree, R-Aurora, against Erik Groves, a lobbyist for the Colorado Chiropractic Association. Groves is accused of attempting to influence Acree’s vote in the race for Republican leadership posts in the Colorado House of Representatives — a violation of rules governing lobbyists.
Colorado Chiropractic Association lobbyist Erik Groves, left, with attorney Dick Kaufman.
The three-member ethics committee heard testimony from Groves, Acree and witnesses Brent Jones and Rep. Laura Bradford, R-Collbran, on Jan. 16.
Acree filed a complaint on Dec. 16 alleging that Groves and two chiropractors attempted to influence her vote in the race between Assistant House Minority Leader David Balmer, of Centennial, and Rep. Frank McNulty, of Highlands Ranch.
Both men launched aggressive campaigns on Dec. 12 when House Minority Leader Mike May, of Parker, announced plans to resign. May scrapped his retirement plans after learning of Acree’s complaint and filed a complaint against Balmer.
This week, the ethics committee members — Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs; Majority Whip Andy Kerr, of Lakewood; and Sen. Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs — will weigh the witnesses’ memories against e-mails, some phone records and Acree’s written complaint and sticky notes of cell phone messages.
However, the evidence apparently won’t include Acree’s phone messages or Bradford’s record of cell phone calls made and received during the leadership election period of Dec. 12-16. Bradford said she didn’t know which company provides her cell phone service, much less how to obtain a record of those calls.
Acree’s complaint is based on cell phone messages that she deleted. Instead, Acree submitted post-it note jottings about calls left on her voice mail as evidence.
On one she wrote Groves’ name and phone numbers, and the words “Leadership Vote” on the back.
Another note referenced a call from Steven Schuster, president of the Colorado Chiropractic Association, and mentioned a check.
Ears perked and eyes popped when questions arose about a $300 campaign check from the chiropractors to Acree.
“That sort of screams of vote buying, doesn’t it?” Morse asked Groves.
Groves and his attorney, Richard Kaufman, said that was not true.
Acree was asked if the check was contingent on voting for Balmer in the leadership race.
“Absolutely not,” declared Acree.
Reps. Laura Bradford and Cindy Acree review their conversations and calls to House Minority Leader Mike May.
The Chiropractic Association had offered the check after a fundraiser for Acree was scrapped in late October — but Acree and the chiropractors agreed to postpone the contribution until after the November election. She said she had planned to use the money for constituent outreach.
Acree was one of three legislators slated to receive campaign checks from the association and its members just before last month’s leadership election. At a Dec. 11 fundraiser, they gave checks to Reps. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, and Glen Vaad, R-Mead.
Groves said the chiropractors had not been able to reach Acree to give her a check — and that Chiropractic Association President Schuster had planned to deliver the check in mid-December. When the ethics storm began brewing, the association voided the check.
To determine the extent of Groves’ ethics breech, the committee must grapple with conflicting witness accounts — and with deciphering the sources and content of cell phone messages in Acree’s complaint. Her testimony was more precise in detail than the written complaint — and it didn’t always mirror the handwritten post-it notes.
“Messages were left on my cell phone… by chiropractors asking for meetings with me prior to the Friday (Dec. 19) vote. Some of the messages stated that they had checks for me as they had promised before the election,” Acree stated in her complaint.
“One stated he was calling to get my vote support for David Balmer for House Minority Leader and another referenced a potential chairmanship on a committee next term,” stated Acree, identifying the callers as Groves, chiropractor Nelson Vetanze and Schuster.
“One message said they knew I was on the fence regarding my vote — something I had expressed to Representative Balmer that morning,” said Acree of the Dec. 15 phone calls.
Acree told the committee that Groves mentioned Balmer in the voice mail — but the lobbyist said he didn’t.
Political intrigue regarding the e-mails conveyed unintentional hilarity reminiscent of Mad Magazine’s old “Spy vs. Spy” feature.
Cadman asked Groves about an e-mail to arrange an emergency meeting on Dec. 16. The recipients, Cadman noted, were code-named, which made it look like the lobbyist was trying to hide their identities.
The e-mail was sent to “Punk Man, Sideburns, The Conscience, The Maverick, The Mayor, The Scientist and The Wise One” — all nicknames of chiropractors serving on the executive committee of the Colorado Chiropractic Association.
Groves identified “The Mayor” as Mike Simone, “Sideburns” as Mike Springfield, “The Wise One” as Schuster, and “The Punk Man” as Ken Murphy, a chiropractor who plays in a punk band.
Groves said he hadn’t been trying to hide anything — each recipient’s e-mail address was clearly visible next to each recipient’s nickname on all messages.
Bradford appeared to be the driving force behind Acree’s decision to file the complaint. Bradford said she called several people — including May — to determine if the phone messages were a violation of rules.
A couple of hours after Acree filed her complaint, Groves strolled into her office. He helped her move some furniture as they chatted — and brought up the leadership race.
Suddenly, Acree asked Groves if he was a lobbyist and requested his business card.
This sounded odd to Groves, who knew Acree during the campaign season last year.
In her testimony, Acree recalled looking at the business card and exclaiming, “This is the man!” Then she took the business card to May’s office.
Bradford interjected, “I was aghast! Incredulous that this same lobbyist contacted her again!”
Groves said the encounter ended abruptly after he gave his business card to Acree, and that the subject of Balmer and leadership race was dropped. The legislator said further discussion would be improper and in violation of the rules.
“I thought the leadership race was like any other vote here,” Groves said. “I didn’t see it as something that cannot be discussed.
“I’m responsible for following the rule whether I know it or not,” he said, apologizing for having “walked dangerously close to the edge.”
The chiropractors and their association contributed more than $5,000 to Acree’s campaign, distributed her campaign literature in chiropractors’ offices and viewed her as a rising star. Having survived a stroke, Acree is very knowledgeable about medical issues, including chiropractic treatments.
In contrast, Acree’s colleague Bradford, who ran a “take no prisoners” campaign against incumbent Bernie Buescher, received only $400 from the chiropractors — at her request.
Buescher’s campaign, however, received about $2,600 from individual chiropractors, their association and a 527 committee. Groves’ wife, Jennifer Groves, contributed $200 to Buescher.
Had Buescher won re-election, he was expected to become the House Speaker. Buescher has since been appointed Colorado Secretary of State.