Guest Columns

HUDSON: GESSLER SHOULD JUST ANTE UP THE BUCKS

Great Scott! A political tempest in a teapot

Contributing Columnist

Colorado’s good government brigades placed Amendment 41 on the ballot in 2006, creating an Independent Ethics Commission where complaints can be lodged against state employees and elected officials for alleged breaches of propriety. The proposal was adopted with 62 percent of the vote despite the fact that there is virtually no evidence of misbehavior in Colorado’s governance. By comparison with many of its peers, both state and local governments in Colorado have been remarkably clean over the years. But, in the hyper-partisan political environment that has taken root during the past decade, the Commission has provided an inviting venue for besmirching an opponent’s reputation.

There is nothing that aggravates a partisan Democrat or Republican as much as a smart, aggressive and effective elected official from the opposing party. Rather than taking advantage of the fact that this incumbent brings energy and intelligence to his or her office, a desire often prevails to squelch these persuasive voices. What better forum for this than the Ethics Commission? Every public statement, every expense voucher, every hiring decision is scrutinized for the slightest misstep, which then can be placed under a penumbra of suspicion — and that brings us to the case of Scott Gessler.

A dozen years ago, when I was shepherding the high speed monorail study of the I-70 Mountain Corridor, we placed a question on the 2001 ballot diverting $50 million of that year’s projected billion dollar TABOR surplus for the construction of a magnetic levitation demonstration project at the USDOT rail test facility in Pueblo, Colorado. We collected all but 20,000 of our signatures using volunteers, who generally prove more reliable than paid solicitors. Nonetheless, we were certified for the November ballot, based on a random sampling for accuracy, by a slim margin of just a few thousand signatures. Jon Caldara and the Independence Institute swiftly challenged the Secretary of State’s certification.

At the time Scott Gessler was practicing election law with Democrat Rick Daily and we hired their firm to protect our place on the ballot. As we analyzed the pattern of petition disqualifications we discovered that 70 percent had occurred in Denver, although just 30 percent of our signatures had been collected there. This finding uncovered the fact that the Elections Division had failed to properly update its file of Denver voters. Based on this sampling evidence, the court ruled in our favor. Scott argued our case effectively before the court and upon appeal. Unfortunately, only a week remained until Election Day, when we learned our votes would be counted. Caldara lost this battle but he had won the war.

Moneys that would have been used to convince voters to support the test project were lost in court, and then, on September 11, airliners flew into the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon. However large a problem voters thought I-70 congestion might be, it seemed a minor inconvenience up against an existential threat of unknown dimensions. A year later, the dot.com “bust” would evaporate the state’s TABOR surpluses. Nonetheless, I came away from this experience with the opinion that Scott Gessler was a sharp young man and a damned fine attorney. Since his election as Secretary of State, he has evidenced flashes of that same savvy, but they have been obscured by repeated errors in political judgment.

As our President likes to point out, elections have consequences. If Scott Gessler believes he can improve his performance as a Republican election officer by attending a conference of Republican lawyers, and he subsequently uses his authorized travel allowance to pay for the trip, this appears to lie within his prerogatives. Presumably, no direct partisan advocacy against Democrats occurred at the meeting. Republican legislators routinely attend similar gatherings like the American Legislative Exchange Council, while Democrats huddle together in various progressive forums. The professionally aggrieved filed a complaint against Gessler with Colorado’s Independent Ethics Commission, alleging a misuse of taxpayer dollars. At the last accounting, the Secretary of State had spent more than $60,000 from the Department’s legal services budget mounting a defense.

Recently he requested permission to raise a separate legal defense fund against potential criminal charges. His request was approved by the Commission on a 3-2 vote. Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey has announced he is investigating the charges, but this is hardly felony territory. The fifteen hundred dollars at dispute is a small claims court beef, barely rising to a misdemeanor. It would be a flagrant waste of taxpayer dollars to pursue a prosecution. Gessler, who has announced his intention to run again for re-election next year, is reportedly contemplating a lawsuit to remove two of the Commissioners for bias, as individuals (and Democrats), all of which will consume yet more tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of taxpayer dollars while focusing and extending attention on the public ridicule and abuse meted out by his opponents — not to mention, likely exhausting the financial resources of his supporters.

Why not raise the contentious couple of thousand dollars instead, reimbursing the Colorado treasury with a declaration that this payment does not constitute an admission of guilt, and simply be done with it? There must be a few of those Republican attorneys he’s been so chummy with who have offered this advice. A few years ago, I can’t help thinking Scott Gessler would have been among them. I’m one Democrat willing to put up the first $25 towards that resolution!

Miller Hudson, an acknowledged Democrat and a former elected official, can be reached at: mnhwriter@msn.com