SoS Gessler sticks to his guns

Secretary of State Scott Gessler insists there's no conflict of interest in appearing at the Larimer County Republican fundraiser to help reduce the fine his office levied.
The Colorado Statesman

Embattled Secretary of State Scott Gessler, who has come under recent fire by Democrats and public watchdog groups for agreeing to participate in a Sept. 22 fundraiser to help the Larimer County Republican Party pay a $15,700 fine which his own office has levied, isn’t backing down.

In fact, Gessler reaffirmed his stance Friday in an interview with The Colorado Statesman shortly after he addressed a Republican business group on “all the great things that have happened since you’ve elected a conservative to the Secretary of State’s office.”

Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler at a recent Club 20 function.

Gessler maintains that those who are criticizing him refuse to accept the fact that he has created “the first open, transparent process” ever in the history of the Secretary of State.

“This is the thing that’s frustrating me — people don’t pay attention to the rule on what we did, and that is that we followed a rule… We published a rule. No one has ever done that, no one’s ever published a waiver rule at all. No one’s ever published what the standards are for granting waivers, ever, in Colorado, and we did it for the first time. And then not only did we take that rule, we followed it to the tee,” Gessler explained.

“And in following it to the tee, we assessed the largest fine in history after going through the waiver process, largest fine against Larimer County,” Gessler continued. The only one larger has been (2010 Republican gubernatorial candidate) Dan Maes who paid $17,000 and that was with the court.

“You have a situation where organizations got hit with hundreds of thousands in penalties and then they went through the waiver process and they paid, you know, $8,000 or $5,000, fees reduced 70 percent, which may or may not have been proper. I don’t have a problem with any of that, but when you look at the reduction we had, not only is it in line but if anything, we were stricter against Larimer County than historically this office has been with other people. And yet I still get criticized for it. That’s my frustration.”

Plus, said Gessler, his decision to participate in the upcoming Larimer County GOP fundraiser isn’t improper at all. Originally billed as a ‘dunking’ event where people could pay $10 for a chance to throw a ball to dunk him in a tank filled with water, the fundraiser was suddenly moved to a private home earlier this week by County Chair Tom Lucero. If the press wants to cover it, Lucero said, they would be required to purchase a $20 ticket and instead of a dunking contest, Gessler would now be making a speech.

“People go to political events all the time, now people are upset because they’re using the purpose of the money to pay off the fine,” Gessler complained. “But my decision to get involved in that was made well after we’d already assessed the fine... People are saying, ‘It looks bad,’ but I haven’t seen how it is bad. And they say, ‘Well, the claim is it’s going to cause your staff not to assess fines.’ That’s absurd, that’s absolutely absurd. I have followed my staff’s recommendations, I respect them and they know it, and we’ll continue to follow the rule in the future.

“Had I not wanted my staff to do that, I could have stepped in there, but I supported them 100 percent, and that’s exactly what’s happened,” the Republican official continued. “And the people who say otherwise just don’t know what the heck they’re talking about,” Gessler said.

Here’s a transcript about the topic from the conversation between Gessler and The Colorado Statesman Friday afternoon:

Colorado Statesman: You don’t see it as an appearance of impropriety (to attend the fundraiser)?
Gessler: Well, tell me what the appearance is.

CS: No, I’m asking you.
Gessler: No, no, I’m asking you. My answer is no. But tell me what the appearance is.

CS: Well, I think people say that your office… levied the fine...
Gessler: Exactly.

CS: …And now you’re helping to pay it off.
Gessler: Okay, I’m doing that in my personal capacity. So what’s the problem with that? Because remember, the fine was levied according to a published standard in advance that we followed. And we followed that process to the tee, to Larimer County party’s detriment. They got hit with a larger relative fine than other people have historically.

CS: Yeah, okay.
Gessler: So I mean, what’s the impropriety of that? Nothing, absolutely nothing, in my view.”

Gessler, elected secretary of state in 2010, is a former partner with an election law firm in Denver. He addressed the Colorado Republican Business Coalition on Sept. 16 and discussed several topics, including the business and political aspects of his office. Following are some of the comments he made to the group:

On Colorado’s campaign finance system:

Our campaign finance system has debased our politics, it has screwed things up, and here’s why: If you’re a candidate or a political party, you have massive amounts of regulation. And when you regulate stuff more, what do you get? Less of it. You get less of it. And the nanny state folks are like, ‘Oh, this is so easy, it’s no problem.’ They’re of course the ones who never do it, they just sort of like to talk about how it gets done. We did an analysis and we said, ‘Look, let’s look at fines and who pays fines and what not.’

Less than half the money in the last election cycle was raised by candidates, generally small candidates, small budget candidates.

I mean you’ve got the governor’s race that has money and that’s about it. My race got some, but you know, more than half of all the money that was fined, assessed, went against candidates. So they’re paying more than their fair share. You look at political committees, smaller ones and small donor committees, they’re paying a higher share…

So who’s paying less? Well, the large, sophisticated, 527 organizations. Last cycle, they raised about a quarter of all the money in Colorado politics, they raised a quarter of the money. And you know how much they paid in fines? About 1 percent of all the fines. Well actually, less than 1 percent. Why is that? Large organizations can hire attorneys — they used to hire me —they can hire accountants, all right, to work their way through all these complex regulations. Meanwhile, campaigns and small grass roots groups are the ones that are getting whacked by our campaign finance laws. It’s a bad system. We try to create waiver rules that allow people not to get whacked so hard.

Of course people still criticize. But I’m not going to relent because I think when it comes to politics in Colorado, grass roots groups should be able to participate without fear of getting hit by huge campaign finance fines.

And Colorado is one of the harshest, if not the harshest in the entire country. So we’ve got to try and turn that around.

On voting integrity in Colorado:

Voting integrity starts with having good databases. Let me tell you, there’s a lot of work for me to do. I wish I could come to you and say things are great. They are not. And part of it’s because of statutory problems. We did a study and compared the driver’s license database to our voting database, because to get a driver’s license you have to be legally present. And a lot of people can get driver’s licenses if they’re here legally, like a green card or a student visa, but they’re not a citizen.

So we just compared that against our voting rolls where you have to be a citizen. We found thousands of people who are likely non-citizens, yet registered to vote, and those are just the little folks who’ve got a driver’s license here in Colorado. So I think this is a big problem. What I wanted to do was simply to send those people a letter and say, ‘Hey, give us evidence of your citizenship.’ I didn’t even ask for it up front because the Legislature had already denied that. I said, on the back end, let’s just clean this stuff up and if you’re not a citizen, fine, we’ll take you off the voting rolls. But if you are a citizen, send us the information because we know at one point in the past you were not a citizen.

Well, the Democrats screamed bloody murder. It was sort of interesting to watch them in the Senate because at first they were like, ‘Well what do we do? No one’s ever proposed this before. We can’t scream that they’re intimidating people from registering to vote.’

But they finally figured out something relatively incoherent. Here’s what they accused me of: They said, ‘This is a power grab and you already have the ability to do this.’ Those are two mutually inconsistent statements.

In fact, the Denver Post editorialized and they said those exact sentences next to one another. And I’m like, well if this was a power grab then I don’t have the authority to do it. But if I already have the authority, this can’t be a power grab.

So anyway, they’re a little bit incoherent but they still control the Senate and so I couldn’t get that through.

I’m working now with the federal government, we’re working through the bureaucracy and it is a big one, because there’s a federal law that says every time a state official asks to verify the citizenship of someone, the federal government has to give the information that they have. So that’s what I want to do now, so we’re working with them. The other thing I want to do is photo identification. Something really basic.

In fact, every country in the northern hemisphere except the U.S. — that means Canada and Mexico — have photo ID and almost every single country in the southern hemisphere has photo ID. Actually, I should say the northern hemisphere, Central America, Panama has, all kinds of other countries have. We’re like the only one that doesn’t, and the reason why is because we sort of have this view on the other side of the aisle that they hold their hands to their ears and shut their mouth and closes their eyes and yells, “Na, na, na, I can’t hear you.” And that’s sort of the level of debate.

We have other states in the country that use photo ID and they use it successfully. It doesn’t detract from voting at all and it provides an additional security measure. In fact, some states have instituted photo ID after there have been major scandals. I don’t believe we should have a huge election stolen in Colorado before we wake up.

It’s like if you look up there’s probably a fire suppression system here, not because this building’s burned down before, but we know buildings burn down, and so we protect ourselves. We know elections can be stolen, so we want to protect ourselves. But unfortunately, with the Democratic Senate, you can’t get that through. So that’s going to be a bit of a struggle. Let me tell you something, though: I am continuing to fight on this issue.

For example, our Citizenship Study has been used nationwide now and a lot of other states have replicated the results. Some of them have been sending out letters and getting people removed from the rolls who are non-citizens, that’s a good thing. I’m hopeful we can do that in Colorado as well.

You know, we’ve got the lowest fees in the country, we’re doing some cutting edge things in the country as well. Business identity theft, for example, some people may have heard of where people go into the Secretary of State’s database and they steal the identity and then they rip people off basically. Well, we’re instituting an optional password protection system, hopefully by the end of the year we’ll have that done.
It’ll be the first of its kind in the country. So I’m trying to lean forward and make sure that we’ve got fair elections, make sure that we’re a partner here in business.

The challenge that I’ve found is that, you know, frankly, I’ve become a lightning rod… I always was a lightning rod for controversy, unfortunately. You know, right after I took office I was over at the Legislature and a friend in the Legislature, a woman named B.J. Nikkel, she sat down next to me, she’s a representative and she said, ‘Scott, you know in the Senate there, the Democrats, they hate you.’
And she said, ‘No, no, they really hate you.’

And I thought to myself, what did I do to make them hate me? And I thought about my legal career and I thought okay, well maybe I got it. But the fact of the matter is it’s very partisan over there, it’s very partisan. And to break the logjam on some of this stuff, we just have to have a Republican Senate, that’s the bottom line, and we have to maintain a Republican House.

You know, so far Hickenlooper has been someone we’ve been able to work with, it seems like, but the State Senate Democrats have just been relentlessly partisan... So I’m going to say something to you —this next legislative session and this next election is a big one. Obviously we’ve got the presidential election, everyone’s paying, rightfully, a lot of attention to that, but don’t forget about the State Legislature because that really matters. We’re barely holding on 33-32 in the State House. Had 1,800 votes changed last cycle, 1,800 votes across three State Senate races, we would have been in the majority, 18-17 in the majority. Instead, we’re a 20/15 minority.