Lobbyist Neville walks, legislative committee balks

The Colorado Statesman

In an act of revolt, Rocky Mountain Gun Owners lobbyist Joe Neville on Wednesday walked out of a legislative investigation into whether he threatened political retribution on Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen.

The Committee to Investigate a Complaint under Joint Rule 36 — including Reps. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, and Sens. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, and Mark Scheffel, R-Parker — must now decide how to move forward without Neville’s cooperation.

A conversation between Neville and Gerou took place on Feb. 15 during a marathon debate on four gun control measures. Gerou allegedly summoned Neville, and asked him to cease telling her constituents that she planned to support the Democratic-sponsored gun bills. She ultimately opposed the measures.

During the conversation with Neville, Gerou has acknowledged that she told him to, “Fuck off.” Neville has admitted to responding, “You just earned yourself another round of mailers in your district.”

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

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

As the investigative committee on Wednesday asked Neville to turn over documents related to the complaint, he declined to participate in the process, reading a statement before walking out of the hearing.

“I strongly believe that Rule 36 is unconstitutional… people with strong beliefs support or oppose politicians based on whether or not they share and vote with the same beliefs,” asserted Neville. “That is the spirit of self-government. It is the essence of free speech and the right to petition government.

“She summoned me to insult, bully and abuse me, and yet some of you ask probing questions about how I responded to her assault…” he continued. “Well, how do some of you respond when you are under heated attack? Is that always your best moment?

“Turning the other cheek is a higher law. We don’t always live up to it,” Neville added. “And this experience reminds me I should try harder in the future.”

Neville pointed out that it would be “silly” to believe that he was truly trying to influence Gerou’s vote considering the vote was that day.

“Do you think I actually had a calculated motive to influence her vote with mailings that couldn’t reach her constituents until long after the final votes were cast and counted?” Neville asked the committee.

“I’ve decided not to be the model penitent for your unconstitutional tribunal,” he concluded. “In fact, I reject this entire process. So, with all due respect, I decline to participate further.”

The committee was taken aback, shocked by Neville’s abrupt rejection of the process. Jennifer Gilroy, with the Office of Legislative Legal Services, said she would have to explore what options the committee has.

“It’s unprecedented, I can tell you that,” she informed the panel.

The committee could issue subpoenas, but only with approval from the legislature. The committee is also waiting to hear back from Dan Carey, lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, who could offer witness testimony. Gerou had also approached him on the subject. Carey had not responded to requests by the committee for his testimony.

“For the 26 years I’ve been here, I’ve never seen the General Assembly actually issue a subpoena,” said Sharon Eubanks, deputy director of the Office of Legislative Legal Services.

It appeared by the end of the meeting like the committee would simply move forward with compiling a report to present to the Executive Committee of the Legislative Council, which includes bipartisan legislative leaders from both chambers. The Committee to Investigate a Complaint under Joint Rule 36 is simply a fact-finding panel; the Executive Committee of the Legislative Council ultimately makes decisions on possible punishment.

Politics involved

But the investigation crosses from simple facts to complicated politics. Gerou’s support of same-sex civil unions legislation last year in committee prompted Neville’s father, former Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, to issue Robocalls criticizing her for supporting the bill.

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 passed the legislature and was signed by the governor. Gerou supported it again this year.

Rocky Mountain Gun Owners has become entangled in the civil unions debate. Executive Director Dudley Brown has been accused of stepping into the fray last year by supporting campaign mailings showing two men kissing, which targeted primary races of Republicans who had supported civil unions.

The gay New Jersey couple featured in the mailer has filed a federal lawsuit against Virginia-based Public Advocate of the United States — the firm that sent the mailers — for using their copyrighted engagement photo. Just on Wednesday, attorneys for the couple asked the court to add Brown as a defendant in the suit.

Gerou suggested to the committee that the alleged threat from Neville was part of a bigger political picture.

“Every session has a different personality… and we knew that the civil union vote was coming up… I had never made my position on the civil union vote a secret…” testified Gerou. “I had the feeling it was more than just the gun votes that were part of the conversations that were going on.”

Meanwhile, contract lobbyist Totsy Rees testified that it is not unusual for lobbyists to continue to question lawmakers about their intended vote right up to the vote itself.

Gerou has said that her commitment to oppose the gun control bills was well known. But Rees said lawmakers flip all the time.

“In the old days, a commitment was a commitment. If someone said ‘no’ or ‘yes’ that was it,” she said. “Nowadays, it’s more difficult to get a commitment. So, there are more lobbying efforts. We talk to people many more times than we used to.”

That said, Rees added, “I think everybody in the lobby knew how [Gerou] was going to vote on the gun bills.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com