RMGO lobbyist Neville off the hook on alleged ethics violation — for now

But Legislative Council admonishes Neville for not participating in investigative process
The Colorado Statesman

A strategy by Rocky Mountain Gun Owners lobbyist Joe Neville to not fully participate in an ethics investigation against him could be viewed for the time being as a brilliant legal and political chess move.

Neville, who is accused of threatening political retribution on Republican Rep. Cheri Gerou of Evergreen during the last session, will not immediately face punishment because the executive committee of the Legislative Council did not have enough evidence to prove that he actually violated an ethics rule.

At a meeting on Tuesday, the executive committee decided unanimously that there was not enough evidence to prove that Neville violated “Rule 36,” which states that lobbyists can’t influence legislators “by means of deceit or threat… or political reprisal.”

The committee, however, offered a symbolic slap on the wrist by authorizing Legislative Council to issue Neville a “strongly worded” letter criticizing him mostly for not participating in the investigative process.

Rep. Cheri Gerou

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 emails from constituents who were concerned that she might support the gun control bills, despite her commitment to vote against the four measures.

Standing outside the House chamber, Gerou told Neville to stop disseminating the misinformation. The conversation turned ugly, during 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 from the Capitol. A sergeant and state patrol escorted him out.

Gerou later filed an ethics complaint, and the special Committee to Investigate a Complaint under Joint Rule 36 took up the investigation, including Reps. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, and Sens. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, and Mark Scheffel, R-Parker.

But at one of the meetings in early April, Neville suddenly decided not to continue participating in the process and literally walked out on the hearing.

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

The special ethics investigatory committee was charged with presenting facts to the executive committee, which is comprised of legislative leadership. But without evidence, they were hard-pressed to come up with much.

The fact-finding committee reminded the executive committee that as legislative leadership it could file a motion to seek subpoena powers from the legislature. But the executive committee on Tuesday seemed wary of rushing down that path.

The greater issue facing legislative leaders was the fact that Neville simply disregarded the process, which could set a troubling precedent of disrespecting the institution that is the legislature. If other lobbyists violate ethics rules and refuse to participate in future investigations, then that could open the door to ethics violations without repercussions.

“Why would we have these rules if someone would just say I’m not going to partake, and I’m not going to answer your questions…” asked House Speaker Mark Ferrandino during the executive committee meeting. “If we don’t enforce them, then we’re gutting them.”

Senate President Pro Tempore Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, agreed, adding, “I’m concerned about protecting the institutional process that we have…”

Ferrandino, along with Senate Majority Leader Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, appeared to be leaning in the direction of punishing Neville, going as far as to suggest stripping him of his lobbying privileges.

“There is a clear indication that Rule 36 was violated…” Ferrandino opined, pointing out that testimony indicated that Neville told Gerou, “You’re not helping yourself, you just earned yourself another round of mailers.”

“That to me seems the most egregious of the statements…” Ferrandino continued. “If I was the representative who received that, I would be taking that as a political reprisal.”

But attorneys with Legislative Council seemed to believe that without evidence and further testimony from Neville, there wasn’t enough to find that he violated the ethics rule.

In addition to removing Neville’s lobbying powers, the committee could have also issued a letter of admonishment, sought a formal apology, ordered a formal admonishment with leadership, issued a letter of reprimand, or introduced a resolution of censure. The committee could have also chosen to do nothing at all.

The committee itself does not have the authority to issue a subpoena, but it can seek subpoena power from the General Assembly, explained staff.

But that comes with its own serious implications. A subpoena would cross over into the world of the judicial, and if Neville refused to honor the subpoena, the legislature would have to ask the Denver District Court to enforce it.

If Neville still chose not to comply, then he could be found guilty of a misdemeanor, with a penalty of $500, one year in jail, or both.

The criminal implication raises its own legal conundrum. Neville could exercise his right to the Fifth Amendment and legally remain silent.

Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, believes Neville did comply with the investigation. Neville initially responded in writing and also at first participated in the committee meetings.

“We did get a response initially from Mr. Neville. To subpoena somebody doesn’t guarantee that we’re going to get more. It’s not like he completely ignored the committee,” explained Cadman.

House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland, believes Neville had a right to decide for himself whether he wanted to participate in the process. But he also said there are consequences for choices made.

“Every choice we make also has consequences…” remarked DelGrosso. “If the committee chooses to take further action beyond a subpoena… then the person can say, ‘I chose not to be a part of the process, so it’s tough for me to argue with what the consequences are.’”

But the two Republicans also stressed the importance of maintaining a respect for the institution, especially as a registered lobbyist.

“What is not debatable is the failure to honor the request of a committee within a body where you claim to be a part of the professional lobbyists that work here,” said Cadman.

DelGrosso added, “We’re going down a dangerous path. We’re not going after just Joe Citizen… This is a person that is actually a registered lobbyist, and when you sign up to be a registered lobbyist, you say you agree to follow certain standards.”

House Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder, called Neville’s actions “deplorable.”

“We should find a way to address this issue, and I’m very confident that we can in the future,” she said.

Ferrandino said he’s not done looking into options. He believes a more serious form of punishment could be coming down the line.

“I have some serious concerns about what happened here, and I do think Mr. Neville did come to or crossed the line…” said the House speaker. “This is not the end of this conversation.”

Neville responds; Gerou calls RMGO dirty

Neville is relieved that the committee has for the time being not decided to take any actions against him, aside from the letter that is being drafted.

“This is a free speech issue,” insisted Neville. “This is obviously where Cheri Gerou was trying to stifle the free speech of the grassroots and gun owners in Colorado. We feel like this is a victory, a small victory, but it is the first victory of many on this issue.”

The lobbyist for the controversial conservative Rocky Mountain Gun Owners placed the blame on Gerou, pointing out that she initiated the conversation.

“If you look back at when it first started, Cheri Gerou instigated this whole matter,” he said. “She’s the one that filed the complaint, she’s the one that actually called me to the chambers that day. She’s the one that cursed at me. She’s the one that put her hands on me. And then somehow she turns around and filed an ethics complaint.”

Neville is not overly concerned that he may face more serious punishment down the line. Attorneys on his behalf filed a federal lawsuit recently suggesting that he was participating in a “constitutionally protected activity,” which is political speech.

His attorneys include former Republican legislators Barry Arrington and Shawn Mitchell.

“Neville makes his living as a lobbyist,” states the complaint. “[The] defendant’s conduct is placing him under a reasonable fear that his ability to lobby will be taken away causing him to lose his livelihood.”

The lawsuit names the six legislative leaders who make up the executive committee.

The ties between Neville and Gerou go beyond just the ethics complaint. 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. She supported the bill again this year when it was signed into law.

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.

There’s also the possibility that Gerou may face off against Tim Neville in a Republican primary to represent Senate District 16. RMGO has already stated its support for Tim Neville to challenge Democratic Sen. Jeanne Nicholson of Blackhawk.

Gerou is also considering challenging Nicholson, which would pit her against Tim Neville in a primary. She has not made any decisions. She could also run for re-election in the House, or not run at all.

Gerou has maintained that her interaction with Joe Neville has been part of a much bigger political picture.

“This has nothing to do with gun bills, this has everything to do with civil unions,” Gerou said in a candid interview with The Colorado Statesman.

She went on to attack Brown, saying the outspoken conservative gun rights rabble-rouser will stop at nothing to oust Republicans who he does not believe fit in with his conservative message.

Brown did not return a request left by The Statesman for comment.

“Look at the amount of damage he does to the conservative cause…” said Gerou. “If you’re not the right kind of Republican, you’re not a Republican. That seems to be his view, that’s part of the reason we lost so many seats. He’s been so effective in knocking out so many Republicans who are representing the district.”

Gerou calls RMGO and all its stakeholders “bullies.”

“It’s a basic issue of honesty, and they are not being honest…” she said. “Really, these are the guys [bullies] in recess that you just couldn’t wait when someone took them around the corner and took care of them.

“When you’re dealing with people like this, my first reaction is I just want to take a shower,” Gerou added, suggesting that RMGO is a dirty organization. “That’s the way Dudley Brown impacts me. I just want to take a shower when I think about all that stuff.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com