McInnis won’t face discipline over plagiarism charges

The Colorado Statesman

The former Republican congressman whose gubernatorial aspirations were derailed last summer by a plagiarism scandal won’t be disciplined by a state board that investigates complaints against attorneys.

That’s the conclusion announced by the state Supreme Court’s Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel, which last week concluded a probe into whether former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis violated professional standards of conduct when he handed a nonprofit foundation a series of articles on water policy that included passages copied verbatim from the published writing of a Colorado Supreme Court justice.

In letters sent last week to McInnis’ attorneys and to Colorado Ethics Watch — the liberal watchdog group that filed a complaint over the matter last summer — regulation counsel John S. Gleason said his office’s investigation revealed that “there is no clear and convincing evidence Mr. McInnis knowingly engaged in dishonest conduct.”

Former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis won’t be disciplined by a state board that investigates complaints against attorneys. Plagiarism charges against McInnis stemmed from “Musings on Water,” a series of articles McInnis turned in as part of a lucrative two-year fellowship with the Colorado-based Hasan Family Foundation starting in 2005.
File photo by Jamie Cotten/The Colorado Statesman

The report arrived 10 months after revelations in a Denver Post story threw the state Republican Party into turmoil. In the months that followed, McInnis, a former six-term congressman, lost the Republican nomination for governor to a rookie politician named Dan Maes, but only after another former Republican congressman, Tom Tancredo, tried to force both from the race. When that failed, Tancredo bolted the party and ran under the banner of the previously obscure American Constitution Party, finishing in second place behind Democrat John Hickenlooper.

The plagiarism charges stemmed from “Musings on Water,” a series of articles McInnis turned in as part of a lucrative two-year fellowship with the Colorado-based Hasan Family Foundation starting in 2005. After the Post broke the story, he admitted that material submitted under his byline included lengthy passages that were instead written by his “research assistant,” retired water engineer Rolly Fischer, including sections lifted from a decades-old article authored by Colorado Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs. McInnis blamed Fischer for providing the material without attribution, but Fischer told Channel 7 News reporter John Ferrugia that McInnis was lying and that he never knew the background material he gathered for McInnis was intended to be published.

According to sworn depositions and documents unearthed by Gleason’s investigators, the regulation counsel said it was “clear” that McInnis had informed Fischer his research material might be published. Moreover, Gleason concluded, McInnis had “instructed Mr. Fischer … that he must not plagiarize anyone’s work” and should provide necessary citations when quoting from other material.

Fischer didn’t respond to a phone message from The Colorado Statesman.

Gleason also concluded that, “based on our interview with Ms. Hasan and our review of the documents she provided to us, including contemporaneous emails between her and Mr. McInnis, it is also clear Mr. McInnis notified her of his retention of Mr. Fischer as a research assistant.”

Not so fast, said the woman who heads the foundation that paid McInnis $300,000 to spread the word on water – and then got a full refund when the plagiarized passages came to light last year. Hasan disputed Gleason’s characterization of the documents she said the foundation provided to investigators.

It’s true a previously undisclosed document came to light, said Seeme Hasan, the foundation’s president, in an interview with The Statesman this week. But it wasn’t an email and it didn’t describe Fischer as a “research assistant.”

What the foundation’s attorneys turned over to the OARC was a fax cover sheet that had been buried in boxes of foundation documents for years, she said. It accompanied an article McInnis submitted in June 2005 and included the handwritten note, “I feel very good about the articles and the goal of serving the public interest. On a regular basis I have been assisted by Rolly Fischer, and his confidence that we are reaching our goal is high as well.”

Hasan said that was the only mention McInnis made of Fischer in any of their correspondence and hardly qualifies as the kind of disclosure the OARC claims it is.

“As far as I’m concerned, it did not say research assistant, it did not say co-author, it did not say he would help me write, it just said assistant,” Hasan said. “That could mean the assistant who faxes his papers.”

Gleason didn’t return a phone message from The Statesman seeking comment.

At the end of 2005, McInnis submitted a memorandum to the foundation that included this assertion: “All the articles are original and not reprinted from any other source.”

This was important to Hasan, she said, because the foundation expected the fellowship to yield the wisdom of a former lawmaker steeped in the intricacies of the region’s relationship with scarce water.

“I told him I wanted him to be writing, 100 percent, because I wanted what was in his brain, what was in his mind, because he had been a congressman, he had traveled the 3rd Congressional District, he knew what our problems were.”

After learning of the OARC’s decision, Hasan said she was ready to lay the matter to rest, even though she disagreed with the counsel’s finding. “Our conclusion is unchanged, because we were told that this was all original, and then last summer he acknowledged himself it was not all original,” she said.

Last year, Hasan said she was “shocked, angry and disappointed” to learn McInnis might have fudged his work for the foundation. Days later, the foundation demanded repayment of the two $150,000 annual stipends it had paid McInnis for his work. McInnis later announced he had squared up with the foundation.

“He has paid the foundation back, what’s been done has been done,” Hasan said. “But in my mind, it doesn’t take away what happened. I’m not sitting in his mind — I don’t know what he was thinking — but I am confident that some of the articles he sent to me, he had never even read them, he had never even looked at them. If he had looked at them, he would have been appalled.”

She said some of the articles were written in such dense legalese she wondered whether McInnis had accidentally faxed her his research materials instead of the finished articles. But an extended trip to California to care for her ailing mother took her focus off McInnis. By the time she returned to Colorado, after the foundation had decided not to renew his fellowship, she said, the board decided it was best to move on.

The man who edged McInnis in the Republican primary agreed that his former opponent’s plagiarism scandal was water under the bridge.

“This is a pretty specific group within the Supreme Court that was looking at his viability and future as an attorney, and with that taken into consideration, they probably made a fair decision for one of their peers,” said Maes. “I think there are more questions for me that are left unanswered than answered, but we need to put it behind us. As conservatives, as Republicans, we must stop nitpicking each other, we’ve got to stop attacking each other.”

The head of the watchdog organization that initiated the probe said he was satisfied with the outcome.

“We’re pleased that there was an investigation that brought out these facts on this issue of public concern,” said Ethics Watch director Luis Toro. “We think that they exercised their discretion and we’re not going to challenge it based on a full investigation.”

Reflecting on events of the last year, Hasan sounded almost wistful.

“It’s very difficult for me. I’m a pretty strong Republican,” she said, perhaps understating her family’s support for Republican causes over the years. “I have always liked Scott, I thought he did a superb job as a congressman.”

She said she was sorry when he retired from Congress and had hoped he would run for higher office. “I would have loved for him to be governor, whether I had disagreements with him about the work he did for the foundation — I would have voted for him.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com