May files complaint against Balmer; Acree files against lobbyist

Some Republicans accuse May of playing politics

By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Rep.-elect Cindy Acree — a freshman Republican legislator who won’t be sworn-in until Jan. 7 — inadvertently created a tempest that resulted in canceling the imminent retirement of House Minority Leader Mike May, compromising a lobbyist and crushing the reputation of Assistant Minority Leader David Balmer.

Ironically, Balmer had endorsed Acree’s candidacy and helped raise money for her campaign.

“We need Cindy… I already have sent Cindy a check for her campaign, and I hope you will consider doing the same,” Balmer pitched in an email to donors more than a year before the election, telling email recipients that her campaign needed “EARLY money.”

The storm erupted about 96 hours after May announced Dec. 12 that he was resigning in order to devote full time to his hotel business because of the faltering economy. Balmer of Centennial and Rep. Frank McNulty, R- Highlands Ranch, immediately began campaigning for May’s leadership post.

On Dec. 15, freezing winds whipped Denver, but the political climate couldn’t have been sunnier for Balmer. He was banking on 17 votes — and guessing McNulty had 10 — a comfortable margin to win May’s seat in the scheduled Dec. 19 election.

Some McNulty supporters said they were praying for an election delay. Others claimed McNulty had the majority vote. A few mentioned that Balmer had counted four undecided legislators — Rep. Ken Summers of Lakewood, and Reps.-elect Scott Tipton of Cortez, Cheri Gerou of Evergreen, and Acree.

The following day all hell broke loose.

Individual complaints of ethics violations were being lodged against Balmer and Erik Groves, lobbyist for Colorado Chiropractors Association. Their PAC had fueled $3,250 into Balmer’s re-election campaign this past year — and zip to McNulty’s campaign.

There were also hints of criminal charges against citizens — but those are outside the jurisdiction of the House and are unlikely to materialize without shatterproof evidence.

The basis of the complaints is outside influence in an internal election — and charges that campaign funds and favors were allegedly dangled to entice Acree’s vote for Balmer.

Complaints against Balmer and Groves stemmed from May’s phone conversation with Acree of Aurora. She was one of several freshman Republican legislators, May said, that he’d contacted to probe rumors of improper influence in the election of his successor.

“There seemed to be some merit to the accusations,” recalled May, adding that he had Acree “come in and fill out a statement.”

He then called House Speaker Andrew Romanoff and said, “Hey, we’ve got a little more work to do” before the end of the session. Romanoff is term limited.

“I’m new and I don’t even know how long it takes for the complaint process,” Acree told The Colorado Statesman the day after meeting with May. ”I’m new at this. I can’t say anything until this process is complete.”

“Oh! My God! I’m really surprised that you got my name,” gasped Acree, who had assumed her name would remain confidential — at least then.

Two days later, Dec. 19, Acree’s complaint was made public by Legislative Legal Services.

“December 15, 2008, I was contacted by several members of the Chiropractors Association in regards to House leadership elections this week,” wrote Acree. “Messages were left on my cell phone… by Chiropractors asking for meetings with me prior to the Friday vote.

“Some of the messages stated that they had checks for me as they had promised before the election. One stated he was calling to get my support for David Balmer for House Minority Leader and another said he was calling about House Leadership and another referenced a potential chairmanship on committee next term. The calls were from (name redacted), Eric (sic) Groves, and (name redacted). One asked for a meeting this week before the elections. One message said they knew I was on the fence regarding my vote — something I had expressed to Representative Balmer that morning. I did not return any of these calls.

“I am concerned about the involvement of outside groups in what should be a private state leadership matter and the ethical implications thereof. I bring this to your attention and await your advice on how I should respond. I discussed this situation with Representative Laura Bradford to see if she received similar calls. She had not.”

Acree also stated that she’d discussed the complaint with Brent Jones, her “chief of staff,” and Tory Brown, an Arapahoe County Republican. She also said that Jones had received a call from Erik Groves, Colorado Chiropractors Association PAC lobbyist.

“I filed the second complaint against my friend,” said May of Balmer. “I didn’t want the thing to drag on forever, so I simply wrote up the complaint.”

Based on Acree’s account, May said, “There’s enough there to say ‘Was there involvement or was there not? …Did a member encourage, involve or coordinate the violation of the rules by a lobbyist?’ That’s the question.”

Both Balmer and Groves told The Colorado Statesman that they had not violated ethics rules — but they also did not deny having contact with Acree prior to the complaints.

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” declared Groves, who at the time did not know if he was named in Acree’s complaint. “If I was, it was a horrible misunderstanding.”

Did Groves ask Acree or anyone to vote for Balmer in exchange for a campaign contribution?

“I know better than to do that. It didn’t happen,” said Groves.

Groves received notice of Acree’s complaint on Dec. 17 from Senate President-elect Peter Groff and Romanoff.

The lobbyist retained attorney Richard C. Kaufman of McKenna, Long and Aldridge law firm in Denver. Kaufman is a former Assistant U.S. Attorney, Colorado Deputy Attorney General and Hank Brown’s congressional campaign manager in 1980.

In response to the complaint, Groves issued the following statement:

“There has been speculation that another member, Representative David Balmer, requested that I lobby members to support him for the House Minority Leader vacancy. Before initiating the process to address any complaints against my professional activities as a registered lobbyist, I feel compelled to clarify the fact that Representative Balmer had no involvement whatsoever in this situation.

“…Representative Balmer never caused me, directly or indirectly, to become involved in the leadership election in any way. I spoke to Representative-elected Acree without the prior knowledge or involvement of Representative Balmer.”

The complaint against Groves will be heard by a three-member committee that includes Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs; Majority Whip Andy Kerr of Lakewood; and a Republican legislator.

The hearing is open to the public. If the panel determines that ethics violations occurred, penalties could include a letter of admonition, a recommendation of censure by the General Assembly, or suspension of lobbying privileges.

Balmer heard about the ethics complaints on Dec. 16 from reporters.

“You are asking me about something that I know nothing about. I’m certain that I’ve done nothing wrong and I’m certain that Frank McNulty also has done nothing wrong,” Balmer told The Colorado Statesman.

Balmer hired attorneys Jon Anderson and William Taylor of Holland & Hart to represent him. Anderson served as Chief Counsel to former Gov. Bill Owens, and Taylor is a former Denver Deputy District Attorney.

After receiving the complaint, Balmer has 10 days to respond. After that, House leadership will determine whether to appoint a committee to investigate.

If it’s determined that no violation occurred, the complaint against Balmer will be dismissed. If the committee finds probable cause, Balmer may request a public hearing. Penalties include censure, reprimand or expulsion, the latter requires a 2/3 vote of the House members.

May said he felt a duty to file a complaint against Balmer and assist Acree in her complaints.

“I felt that we need to get to the bottom of this,” May said. “Our government needs to be transparent and the citizens of Colorado need to know that we do business properly and we can police ourselves.”

“There’s some indication that it goes beyond the lobbyist,” he said of Acree’s complaint. “We don’t know yet, but we need to find out.”

Citizens are not prohibited from calling legislators to ask them to support an issue, bill or candidate in an election.

“We don’t have jurisdiction over that,” he said, adding that Legislative Legal Services will determine whether or not the complaint against citizens would be turned over to the Attorney General or a District Attorney for possible criminal charges.

The names of citizens were redacted in the complaint.

However, Jeremy Pelzer, a blog reporter formerly with the now defunct Colorado Politicker.com, wrote an article asserting that one citizen was John Zakhem, a prominent Republican attorney and partner in the Zakhem Atherton law firm.

The law firm employs Groves and Ryan Call, legal counsel and former political director of the state GOP as well as the registered agent for Colorado Chiropractics Association PAC.

Pelzer alluded to a “quid pro quo” deal offered to Acree.

“This is preposterous! This is libelous!” declared Zakhem, adding that the writer never spoke with him. “There is no quid pro quo!”

Another Republican attorney and legislator, Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, defended Zakhem and said the blog might be grounds for “slander.”

A close friend of Zakhem said that even if the attorney had spoken with Acree, he wouldn’t sacrifice his career, his family, his reputation for something as “stupid” as the alleged money exchange to sway an election.

“He’s smarter than that,” he said.

Some Republicans, who asked to remain anonymous, said they think the complaints were motivated by internal politics to elect McNulty as May’s successor. Several said that May preferred McNulty over Balmer.

The Colorado Chiropractors Association PAC, they noted, is not a mega-buck committee — but it irked some Republican legislative leaders when it gave money to Democratic candidates in the past election.

“The reason the PAC and people associated it were targets is because May was mad that it gave money to Bernie Buescher,” said a source.

Buescher, who was expected to be the next House Speaker, lost the House District 55 in Grand Junction to Republican Bradford by a 1.5 percent vote margin.

Bob Gardner scoffed at the concern over ethics, and wondered why May didn’t initiate an investigation into the Colorado Springs legislator’s accusations of unethical influence in his bid to unseat House Whip Cory Gardner of Yuma last month.

Of the political motivation charges, May said, “These are the same people who believe there was more than one person — (Lee Harvey) Oswald — involved in” President Kennedy’s assassination.

“I had no dog in this fight,” declared May of the leadership election.

May has postponed his retirement — possibly until the end of the 120-day legislative session — to steer the minority legislators through the storm of unethical charges and the economic slide that’s resulted in an estimated $600 million state budget shortfall.

“I don’t think it’s a good time for the captain to jump ship,” said May of his decision.

Just in case the Republican legislators lose their navigation in this storm, Chantell Taylor, director of Colorado Ethics Watch, offered a map drawn from the Blago-styled Illinois politics.

“While an investigation by the House Ethics Committee might be an important step to take, this type of inquiry does not match the severity of the potential crimes involved,” said Taylor.

Instead, she called for “immediate state and federal criminal investigations to flesh out the facts and identify all people potentially involved in this intolerable Blagojevich-style conduct.”

Several legislators did not return calls for comment including McNulty, Summers, Tipton and Gerou.