Liberal watchdog group files complaint against SoS

At issue are Gessler’s travel expenses to GOP Convention
The Colorado Statesman

Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler is under fire yet again from voters and government watchdog groups, this time over concerns pertaining to ballot secrecy and a possible breach of ethics and criminal laws in connection with department budgetary spending.

Liberal-leaning Colorado Ethics Watch has filed two separate letters related to accusations that Gessler, a frequent target of Democrats since taking office two years ago, misappropriated state funds for personal and political purposes. The group is asking Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey and Denver Police Chief Robert White to investigate whether Gessler made false statements about travel expenses incurred during a trip to Florida in late August.

Reports surfaced recently that Gessler spent state money to attend the Republican National Convention and a Republican election-law training event. The allegations came to light after David Paladino, a Democrat running for state Senate in District 27, filed an open-records request. The records showed that taxpayers had funded Gessler’s trip to attend a Republican National Lawyers Association event in Sarasota, Fla. at the time the RNC was taking place in Tampa, Fla.

State law prohibits expenditure of state funds for anything other than “official state business purposes only.” State law is also explicit that discretionary funds should only be spent on “official business as each elected official sees fit.”

Gessler was reimbursed through his office’s discretionary fund for what has been recorded as “RNLA/RNC Trip, Sarasota and Tampa Bay.” The trip took place from Aug. 23-Sept. 1.

Gessler — who campaigned for office partly on a platform of curbing government spending — lodged at the luxurious Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Sarasota. With meals and airfare, the cost was $1,453. Gessler then hopped over to the RNC, his party’s largest and most important political convention, in which Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney was nominated.

Denver Post political reporter Tim Hoover reported that Gessler said he was forced to return a day early from the trip — a flight change of $422, which was charged to his regular budget — because of a security threat involving his family. Gessler said his family had received threats, but did not specify.

Gessler told Hoover that his attendance at the lawyers association meeting was state business because it helped him to “better anticipate what kinds of challenges there may be, what types of complaints there will be for election administration, for campaign finance — things along those lines.” He spoke at the meeting on a panel titled “The Department of Justice, the Role of the States and Voter ID.”

Gessler has been the state’s leading proponent of instituting voter ID laws, which some believe would disenfranchise large voting blocs, including the elderly. Other critics say Gessler’s mission is to take a stance against undocumented immigrants. Gessler once believed that as many as 11,000 non-citizens were on the state’s voter rolls. Ultimately, he sent letters to 4,000 registered voters asking them to prove their eligibility to vote. Subsequent reports found that the number of potential non-citizens on Gessler’s list was really 141, with only 35 having voted.

In a separate filing, Gessler also requested department budget expenditure for a trip to Washington, D.C. in July in which he met with Republican U.S. Reps. Mike Coffman of Aurora and Cory Gardner of Yuma. The trip cost $1,105. During the trip he attended an event at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Ethics Watch is calling for a criminal investigation to look into possible false statements on the part of the secretary and misappropriation of state funds. The group also filed a complaint with the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission, asking it to investigate and fine Gessler for using state funds for the trips.

“The Secretary of State’s conduct implicates several laws against public corruption,” Luis Toro, director of Colorado Ethics Watch, said in a statement. “This is an important moment for enforcement authorities in Colorado. Will we continue to pat ourselves on the back that we haven’t seen the abuses found in other states, while turning a blind eye to misconduct when it does happen? Or will we act swiftly to stamp out corruption before it becomes an accepted part of our politics?”

A spokeswoman for the Denver District Attorney’s Office said the office is reviewing the request, but no timeline for a response was available as of press time this week. The Colorado Independent Ethics Commission is currently reviewing whether the complaint merits an investigation.

Gessler was not available to comment on the complaints filed by Ethics Watch, but a spokesman for the secretary’s office, Rich Coolidge, dismissed the letters as partisan games being played by a liberal organization.

“This is the kind of partisan behavior Ethics Watch is known for,” he said. “It shouldn’t come as a surprise that they would attack a Republican Secretary of State, just as they have in the past.”

Ballot secrecy back in the courts

In an unrelated matter, Gessler is also being sued by a group of voters from Teller and Douglas counties who contend that the secretary’s office is doing little to guarantee ballot anonymity in Colorado.

Four Republicans from the two counties filed a lawsuit in Denver District Court asking a judge to void all of the 2012 primary votes cast in both counties after evidence showed that some ballots could be traced to individual voters.

The judge in the case said on Monday that he would not void any primary votes, but he did leave open the issue of whether voters’ constitutional right to a secret ballot were violated.

Advocates for ballot secrecy have determined ways to trace mail-in ballots to individual voters using identifying marks on the ballots. An algorithm was even developed to trace ballots with bar codes.

The Aspen-based Citizen Center filed an earlier federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court to temporarily block counties from printing ballots with identifying bar codes. But the judge in September dismissed the case, which had been filed against Gessler as well as the clerks in Boulder, Chaffee, Eagle, Larimer, Mesa and Jefferson counties.

In her ruling, U.S. District Judge Christine Arguello said tracing a ballot back to an individual voter does not violate federal voting rights.

But Lu Ann Busse, one of the plaintiffs in the Denver District Court case, does not believe the federal court ruling will impact her case, noting that her case looks at state law.

“Obviously the defendants are trying to use that, but even the federal judge in her ruling stated that a state court might find differently because it’s a state constitutional issue, not specifically mentioned in the federal constitution,” Busse said. “Obviously judges are going to decide what judges decide, but it certainly… seems unambiguous to us.”

Plaintiffs did come to one settlement this week over alleged “major breaches of election security procedures” in Teller and Douglas counties. They say that they have toured elections facilities in the two counties and are confident that new cameras were installed, and that numbered locks are being used to secure ballots. As a result, all parties agreed to a partial settlement in the case.

“We are pleased that fellow citizens of Douglas and Teller counties can now have greater confidence in the security and integrity of our elections,” said Busse.

Peter@coloradostatesman.com