Buescher a target of complaints

By Marianne Goodland
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Bernie Buescher’s calendar is getting a lot of attention these days.

In the past month, the Secretary of State has been the target of a complaint from a former employee who alleges he spends a lot of time out of the office on personal business.

Bernie Buescher

Wednesday, a Republican activist from Adams County and her attorney, who has made campaign contributions to Buescher’s general election opponent, filed a campaign finance complaint against the Secretary of State. The complaint, filed with the Attorney General’s office, alleges a member of Buescher’s staff maintained his schedule for official business and also maintained his campaign calendar, without reimbursement to the state from the Buescher campaign for her paid state time.

Nickelette Bigham-Gullette of Thornton is listed as the complainant on the campaign finance violation against Buescher, a copy of which was sent to members of the media on Wednesday. Mike Saccone, spokesman for Attorney General John Suthers, said Suthers has not seen the complaint yet and could not comment on it, but once it is received Suthers would review it and decide whether to represent Buescher on the case, if it is related to Buescher’s official duties. Saccone said the complaint was sent to Suthers because pursuant to state law, campaign finance complaints dealing with candidates for Secretary of State must be referred to the Attorney General.

The complaint will be heard by an administrative law judge with the Office of Administrative Courts, with a hearing to be scheduled within 15 days.

According to the complaint, Heidi Hamilton, who is Buescher’s executive assistant, maintains Buescher’s official schedule, and did the same for Mike Coffman when he was Secretary of State.

The complaint alleges that this year, during normal working hours, Hamilton also maintained Buescher’s candidate schedule, including serving as a “clearinghouse to ensure that Buescher did not have campaign appointments that conflicted” with his official duties. The complaint said Hamilton did the same for Coffman while he was running for Congress in 2008.

Coffman’s campaign reimbursed the Secretary of State’s office for Hamilton’s time, something that Buescher’s campaign has not done, the complaint said. Hamilton’s time should be noted as a campaign contribution, but according to the complaint that would be a violation of state law that says state and local governments cannot make contributions to candidates.

Buescher also ordered Hamilton to attend a campaign meeting with him, campaign manager Faye Diamond of RBI Strategies & Research and campaign committee member Eleni Albrechta, the complaint claims.

Finally, the complaint alleges Buescher’s campaign has used the official state seal for political purposes, including in numerous photos on Buescher’s campaign website. In one example, the complaint said, the state seal is clearly visible in a campaign photo taken in Buescher’s state office, and that photo also shows that Buescher has allowed entry into his office for campaign purposes.

In a series of photos featuring Buescher at bill signings, there are “at least 16 instances” in which the seal has been used on the campaign website, the complaint said. The state seal can only be used in furtherance of state business, a directive that comes from the Secretary of State’s office, according to the complaint, and that illegal use of the state seal is a class 5 felony.

The complaint seeks a $50-per-day fine for every day the contributions or expenditures are not filed, as well as other penalties.

Saccone noted that the issue of the state seal in political campaigns has come up numerous times before, with the campaigns of Gov. Roy Romer, Lt. Gov. Gail Schoettler, and then-state Treasurer Bill Owens.

Buescher told The Colorado Statesman that the allegations are “flat out wrong.” He said he made a decision early on that Hamilton would not work on his campaign. “I take the separation of duties seriously,” Buescher said. “No one in my office works on my campaign.” As to the allegation that he ordered Hamilton to attend a campaign meeting, Buescher said he has never ordered her to do anything related to the campaign. Hamilton did talk to Diamond over a cup of coffee, Buescher said, in order to find out how she would get in touch with Buescher when he is campaigning.

Bigham-Gullette is a long-time contributor to Republican candidates and the Adams County Republican Central Committee. She also was a delegate from Adams County to the Republican state assembly in June. Bigham-Gullette did not return a call for comment.

The attorney on the complaint is Robert McGuire, a Republican lawyer who recently filed a campaign finance complaint against Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder, as attorney of record for Stephanie Cegielski of the Colorado Government Accountability Project (CGAP). This year, McGuire has made two $250 campaign contributions to Buescher’s general election opponent, Republican Scott Gessler, and one $250 contribution to Republican Walker Stapleton, who is running for state treasurer. In a statement issued Wednesday, Gessler said Buescher, as secretary of state, “should know better than to use the Colorado state seal on campaign materials, or to use state employees to help his campaign when taxpayers are footing the bill.”

Until May of this year, Cegielski was a legal specialist in the elections division of the Secretary of State’s office, where she had worked for four years, serving Gigi Dennis, Coffman and Buescher. Cegielski set up CGAP shortly after leaving the SOS office.

Cegielski said she does not know Bigham-Gullette and is not involved in any way with the new complaint. She did say she had spoken to McGuire last week about a possible conflict of interest but believed there would be no conflict since she is not pursuing a complaint against Buescher. McGuire told The Statesman Wednesday that Bigham-Gullette contacted his office after hearing about some of the issues around Buescher’s schedule raised by CGAP.

Last month, Cegielski, as director of CGAP, issued a news release alleging that Buescher had spent as much as 14 weeks out of his first 20 months in office on personal business. Cegielski told The Statesman that she obtained copies of Buescher’s calendar through a Colorado Open Record Act request. She said she looked only at Buescher’s activities on his official calendar between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., because that’s when the policy discussions take place. “He was completely absent from the office 14 weeks during 20 months,” she said. “A number of times it was two or three weeks at a time; sometimes it was one to three days at a time,” she said. The 2009 calendar notes a two-week vacation in Grand Junction in late May, plus dozens of “private appointments” throughout the year for which no explanation is provided.

Some of the absences were when Buescher was in Grand Junction, New York City or Taiwan, and Cegielski admits Buescher could have been conducting official business during those times. But she said Buescher maintains two separate calendars, and she is still trying to get the second one to compare the two. “It’s those times away, full of personal entries” when he’s not doing official business that concerns her.

Buescher told The Statesman last month that some of the appointments marked as private are recurring meetings pertaining to his official duties, such as meetings with county clerks. Buescher also noted that his role as Secretary of State is not an 8 to 5 job, which also is reflected in the calendar.

Cegielski said CGAP was not just looking at Buescher. She has filed CORA requests for the calendars of Suthers and Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, although the CORA request on Suthers was not filed until Sept. 16, the same day she released Buescher’s calendar to the media. As to her connection to McGuire, she said she retained him before submitting the CORA request, and knew him from law school, where he had been her election law professor.

Cegielski said she hopes to fill in some of the gaps left by Colorado Ethics Watch. “I’m trying to operate in a nonpartisan fashion,” she said, but she is focusing on Democrats because “there’s a lot unchecked right now.”

CGAP is listed as a nonprofit with the Secretary of State; to date, it has been mostly self-funded by Cegielski, but she said she intends to seek 501(c)(3) status.

“There’s a very valid argument in looking at [cabinet officers], and looking at how state employees spend their time,” Cegielski said.

Marianne@coloradostatesman.com