Ethics committee hears X-rated testimony about alleged lobbyist threats against legislator

Rep. Gerou responds to gun rights lobbyist with two words
The Colorado Statesman

A bipartisan legislative ethics committee on Wednesday morning took shots at Rocky Mountain Gun Owners lobbyist Joe Neville during a hearing into whether he threatened political retribution on Republican Rep. Cheri Gerou of Evergreen.

Neville is accused of telling Gerou that she would be the target of political attack mailers after a conversation he had with her on Feb. 15 about gun control legislation. Gerou approached Neville after she received calls and e-mails from constituents who were concerned that she might support the gun control bills, despite her commitment to vote against the four measures. She believes Neville and Rocky Mountain Gun Owners were spreading “lies.”

Standing outside the House chamber, Gerou told Neville to stop disseminating the misinformation. The conversation turned into a heated exchange, in which Gerou allegedly began waving her finger at Neville, ultimately telling him to “fuck off.”

Neville allegedly replied, “You just earned yourself another round of mailers in your district.”

Gerou asked a sergeant-at-arms to remove Neville form the Capitol. A sergeant and state patrol escorted him out.

Gerou believes Neville violated “Rule 36,” which states that lobbyists can’t influence legislators “by means of deceit or threat… or political reprisal.”

The complaint against the lobbyist for the very conservative-leaning Rocky Mountain Gun Owners was brought by a Republican, ironically. But fears around RMGO’s campaign strategies have broken party lines after the organization last year became involved in several high-profile Republican primaries.

Executive Director Dudley Brown supported campaign mailings showing two men kissing, which targeted primary races of Republicans who had supported same-sex civil unions legislation. The measure died on the House floor after Republican leadership blocked a vote, even though it had the support to pass. Under Democratic leadership this year, the bill came to a vote on the floor, and Gerou supported it. Gov. John Hickenlooper recently signed the bill.

Tough questions

The Committee to Investigate a Complaint under Joint Rule 36 includes Reps. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, and Sens. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, and Mark Scheffel, R-Parker. The Executive Committee of the Legislative Council, including bipartisan legislative leaders from both chambers, convened it.

The three members each took turns questioning Neville. Much of their inquisition rested on his political strategy and why he would have debated Gerou, especially given her opposition to the gun control bills.

“I’m having trouble understanding,” said Scheffel. “You felt that… somehow your duty as a lobbyist in defending the Second Amendment was in play… and I just haven’t heard anything that indicates it was.

“You weren’t chasing her vote; you weren’t trying to effect, or influence her vote on the bills that were going to be coming up on that day,” Scheffel continued. “What were you trying to accomplish?”

Neville said he felt like he had to stand his ground, especially as Gerou allegedly became confrontational. He added that he contemplated filing a report with the Denver Police Department.

“I had no agenda to talk to Rep. Gerou that day,” he told the committee. “She requested my presence; she asked for me to come talk to her. I went and followed up with that request to where she got in my face, she cursed me out, she put her hands on me, and I simply said, ‘You earned yourself another round of mail.’ That’s it,” responded Neville.

His attorney, former Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, believes Gerou may have committed at least two crimes, including harassment and disorderly conduct. Mitchell — who acknowledged the “cozy” situation as a former senator who has been lobbied by RMGO — did not testify on his client’s behalf on Wednesday. But the week before, he told the committee that he believes the ethics hearing is unconstitutional, suggesting that Rule 36 is “fatally flawed and overbroad.”

In a letter to the committee, Mitchell said much of the issue is about free political speech.

“A rule which purports to ban undefined threats of ‘political reprisal’ is a squeamish fiction that goes too far,” he wrote to the committee. “The idea that legislators could declare it unethical to say: ‘If you oppose the positions I support, then I will oppose you,’ is a gross assault on the letter and spirit of the First Amendment.”

Neville did not press the constitutional argument, but he certainly belabored his point that Gerou approached him. He also pointed out that Gerou had never completed a RMGO survey on how she would vote on the gun control bills, which led him to believe that she might support the measures.

“What this comes down to is very simple: She requested my presence, I came to the lobby, a representative that’s elected by her people got in my face, cursed at me, put her hands on me, and I simply replied, ‘You earned yourself another round of mail,’ and now I’m sitting here on ethics charges,” remarked Neville.

But Pabon suggested that Neville was missing the point: “Words matter, and that’s why you’re here,” commented Pabon. “If you were to have said a curse word, or you would have walked away, or you would have done a number of other activities, you may not be here today.

“But the fact of the matter is the words that you said in relationship to the activities that were previous to this encounter can potentially rise to an ethics violation,” he continued.

Neville then went on the defensive when Pabon questioned the political strategy of threatening Gerou with mailers.

“I think I’ve gone over that,” responded Neville. “I’ve answered that question.

“My frustration here, as we’re going back and forth here, isn’t with the question, as much as it is she requested my presence… It was not on my agenda,” he added.

Gerou felt ‘bullied’

But Gerou — who also testified — justified approaching Neville based on the misinformation that she believes his organization was spreading. She pointed to the emotionally charged atmosphere at the legislature surrounding the gun bills, and said she didn’t want to become a target based on falsities.

She approached Dan Carey, lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, and asked if he would deliver a message to Neville on her behalf. Gerou said she did not know Neville, so she asked Carey to pass along the information. That message included, “Fuck off,” according to Gerou’s own testimony. Carey declined to deliver the statement, so Gerou asked to speak with Neville herself.

“I told him that he should stop lying and trying to scare my constituents,” recalled Gerou. “And when he responded to me after I said this, he had kind of a sneer on his face, which made me very angry because the sneer, to me, indicated that not only did he have no respect for what my position was on the bill, but also I had the feeling that he had no respect for my constituents, which is really what tipped my anger.

“And at that point, I looked at him and said, ‘Before I forget, go fuck yourself,’” Gerou testified.

She added that she felt Neville was attempting to bully her: “I definitely felt that there was an aspect of bullying going on,” stated Gerou. “I wasn’t sure why the bullying was going on at that point.

“What I was more concerned about was the fact that I had so many constituents that were calling me and e-mailing me and in disbelief that I was going to be voting in favor of the gun bills, and that was actually what I was feeling more than any type of threat about the mailers,” Gerou concluded.

The Committee to Investigate a Complaint under Joint Rule 36 is scheduled to meet again Wednesday, April 3 at 7:30 a.m. when it is expected to finish witness testimony. From there, the committee will present its fact-finding investigation to the Executive Committee of the Legislative Council. If Council believes an ethics violation has occurred, it has the power to suspend the lobbyist, issue an admonition letter or recommend that Neville be censured.

Peter@coloradostatesman.com