Balmer & Groves ethics probe problem: missing evidence, conflicting witness accounts

By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

The ethics complaints against Assistant House Minority Leader David Balmer and lobbyist Erik Groves might boil down to “he said, she said” debatable memories of phone messages and conversations.

Recorded phone messages — the basis of both complaints — apparently don’t exist.

Rep. Cindy Acree, R-Aurora, filed a complaint alleging that Groves and individuals attempted to improperly influence her vote in the House minority leadership election. Lobbyists are prohibited from influencing internal elections.

Acree’s complaint cited phone messages — but, she reportedly deleted them.

“Messages were left on my cell phone… by Chiropractors asking for meetings with me prior to the Friday (Dec. 19) 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 referenced a potential chairmanship on committee next term. The calls were from (name redacted), Eric (sic) Groves, and (name redacted),” wrote Acree.

“…One message said they knew I was on the fence regarding my vote — something I had expressed to Representative Balmer that morning.”

Acree stated that she did not return the calls, but discussed the messages with Rep. Laura Bradford and Republicans Brent Jones and Tory Brown.

Based on Acree’s account, House Minority Leader Mike May filed a separate complaint to investigate whether Balmer, R-Centennial, might have encouraged Groves or others to improperly influence Acree’s vote.

Her complaint against Groves will be heard at 7 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 16, by ethics committee members John Morse, D-Colorado Springs; Majority Whip Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood; and Sen. Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs.

The committee will hear testimony from Acree, Jones, Brown, Bradford and Groves — and in that order unless other witnesses are summoned.

Two days before the hearing, Groves will provide a statement — detailing his conversations with Acree — through his attorney Richard C. Kaufman of McKenna, Long and Aldridge firm.

“Unfortunately, there aren’t any recordings of the phone messages,” said Kaufman, “She deleted them.”

If the evidence hadn’t been destroyed, he said, it would show that Groves is innocent of the ethics charges.

Acree’s material evidence will likely be a scrap of paper on which she wrote Groves’ name, his phone number and a notation — leadership race, Kaufman said.

Groves asked if he could talk with Acree about the race; however, she declined because he’s a lobbyist. Kaufman said the exchange ended.

“I did not do anything wrong,” declared Groves in a previous interview. He said Acree’s perception of an ethics violation is “a horrible misunderstanding.”

The complaint against Balmer will be considered by a separate five-member ethics panel at noon, Tuesday, Jan. 20.

“I am confident that I will be exonerated,” Balmer told The Colorado Statesman.

Balmer’s attorney, Jon Anderson of Holland & Hart, filed a written response on Jan. 8, urging that the complaint be dismissed because it’s based on mere “speculation and supposition.”

“Rep. Balmer has not violated any statute, legislative rule, or ethical precept,” said Anderson.

The ethics committee, chaired by Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, will weigh allegations and evidence to determine if there is probable cause to make an ethics violation charge — not to determine whether or not a violation occurred — and if a formal hearing is warranted.

In addition to Levy, committee members are Reps. Kathleen Curry, D-Gunnison; Joel Judd, D-Denver; Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs; and Ken Summers, R-Lakewood.

“I’m fine with the people serving on the ethics committee, and I have confidence in their fairness,” said Balmer.

So far, May’s allegations against Balmer hinge on Acree’s credibility.

In addition to Groves, two chiropractors — mentioned as “callers” in Acree’s complaint — submitted sworn affidavits stating that Balmer was not involved.

Nelson Vetanze and Steve Schuster stated that Balmer was neither informed of nor involved in their communications with Acree during the Dec. 12 – 16 campaign. As citizens, they are not prohibited from influencing legislators to support bills, positions, and candidates.

The ethics storm erupted on Dec. 12 when May announced that the economic meltdown forced him to retire his leadership post and HD 44 seat in order to concentrate on his hotel business.

Balmer and Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, immediately became embroiled in a heated contest to fill May’s leadership position.

May scrapped his retirement plan after talking with Acree — one of several legislators that he’d contacted to validate rumors of unethical interference in the minority leadership race.

Republican legislators in the House and Senate as well as others tried to assess the vote count for both Balmer and McNulty — some asked for votes. According to several legislators, even Cadman caught the campaign fever – he solicited votes for McNulty and against Balmer.

Cadman, a member of the ethics committee that will consider the complaint against Groves, did not return calls for comment.

Legislators are free to stump for or against a candidate in a leadership race. The question is whether or not a lobbyist crossed the line from curiosity into improper influence. And if so, did a House member push the unethical act?

Leslie@coloradostatesman.com