Ethics panel recommends lobbyist reprimand

By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

A three-member legislative ethics committee has recommended that Erik Groves, who lobbied for the Colorado Chiropractic Association, receive a letter of admonition for having discussed an internal leadership race with Rep. Cindy Acree, R-Aurora, in violation of a rule that governs lobbyists.

The bipartisan committee — House Majority Leader Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, and Senators John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, and Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs — issued a 13-page report that listed undisputed and disputed facts.

The committee voted unanimously March 4 to approve the report and the recommendation that the Executive Committee, which encompasses members of the House and Senate leadership, issue an oral and written reprimand to Groves.

The motion was made by Kerr, who read the committee’s recommendation that “the Executive Committee formally admonish Mr. Groves in a private meeting and by issuance of a letter of admonition regarding his conduct that was in violation of Joint Rule 36 (b)(4), and directing that he refrain from such conduct in the future.”

The action concluded within two minutes of the start of the Wednesday morning meeting, which drew reporters as well as Groves, his attorney, Richard Kaufman, of McKenna, Long & Aldridge Law firm in Denver; and Thomas Russell, legal counsel for the Colorado Chiropractic Association. Acree was not present.

Cadman, who voted for and signed the recommendation, then asked aloud if the Legislative Executive Committee might take more punitive actions against Groves — a comment that astounded some onlookers, who said that was unlikely.

“I am pleased that by cooperating with the committee I was able to help them understand an honest mistake,” said Groves, adding that he had cooperated with the committee’s investigation and had attempted to handle the infraction in an honorable way.

“I’m good with it. It’s fair,” said Acree of the recommendation.

Acree filed a complaint against Groves on Dec. 16, accusing the lobbyist of attempting to influence her vote in a House leadership race that was scheduled for Dec. 19. A lobbyist is prohibited from becoming “an active participant in the internal organization or leadership races in the General Assembly.”

The leadership race had begun to shape up within minutes of a Dec. 12 announcement by House Minority Leader Mike May, R-Parker, that he planned to resign from the Legislature.

Assistant Minority Leader David Balmer, R-Centennial, and Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, immediately began a vigorous competition for May’s post.

May — who helped Acree write her complaint against Groves — later scrapped his retirement plan, eliminating the need for a minority leadership election.

Based on Acree’s allegations, May filed a separate ethics complaint against Balmer, accusing him of being instrumental in the lobbyist’s violation. That complaint was dismissed for lack of cause last month.

Acree’s complaint against Groves was based primarily on her memory of cell phone messages that she had erased. Her testimony regarding Groves’ phone message and a brief conversation in her office in the state Capitol exceeded the content of her complaint — and was disputed by Groves in an earlier hearing.

“I learned a lesson from this. Save my phone messages,” said Acree. “I’m a litigator, and should have known better — even though I haven’t practiced civil litigation in 25 years.”

Acree said she hopes the complaint and outcome will serve as a warning to other lobbyists who also might have teetered on the ethics line in discussing the internal leadership race.

“Let’s require lobbyists to attend a briefing of the rules,” said Acree. “That would be a positive outcome for everyone.”

Groves concurred with enthusiasm.

“I agree with Acree! That is a great idea!” he said. “I’ve learned a lot from this experience.”

Luis Toro, senior counsel of Ethics Watch, echoed those comments.

“Groves demonstrated a lapse of judgment that caused a diversion from vital legislative work and a drain of scarce taxpayer resources,” said Toro in a prepared statement. “It is apparent from all of this that lobbyists must be required to undergo ethics training before they are allowed to engage in lobbying activities.”

Toro also commended Acree and May for filing complaints.

Groves found it inconceivable that his career could be derailed by accusations of unethical behavior.

He had sailed through Mesa State College in Grand Junction with a 4.0 grade point average and delivered the valedictory speech in 2005. He whizzed through the Sturm College of Law at University of Denver, graduating in 2008, and was considered an up-and-coming star — a potential Republican candidate for elective office.

Now, the father of three children, ages 2, 6 and 8, faces an uphill battle to regain his once stellar reputation and provide for his family.

For Groves, the price of not knowing the rules is prohibitive. He faces more than $30,000 in legal fees and the loss of more than $20,000 of lobbying income.

Other lawyers speculated that the state spent about $50,000 in legal fees and on compiling documents related to the complaints filed against Groves and Balmer.

Groves will not be able to lobby until the final outcome of the legislative leadership hearing. Even then, some believe, it’s unlikely that he’ll go back to work for the Colorado Chiropractic Association.

“We’re using Jeff Crank as the lobbyist, and we’re very happy with job he has been doing,” said Terry Snyder, who is also a lobbyist for the Colorado chiropractors.

“The Colorado Chiropractic Association is out of this matter — which is now concluded,” said Russell, who refused to comment on whether Groves might be reinstated as the association’s lobbyist.

A source close to the association said that the doctors are upset that the investigation into Groves drove their professional association “into the mud.”

“The defense that Groves ran — that he was technically not in violation of the rules because we didn’t discuss the leadership race — was inept,” said Acree.

The contentious complaint led some legislators and lobbyists to criticize Acree for leaping to conclusions — and acting irrationally.

“Most of the lobbyists appreciate the fact that I filed the complaint,” said Acree. “They said it set a high level of integrity.”

Others said that the complaint was costly and could have been resolved — as similar complaints have been — in a meeting to assess the gravity of the violation, if any, among Acree, Groves and members of the leadership.

Sources said former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff had suggested a meeting with Groves and Acree prior to processing a formal complaint to assess its merits and possibly to resolve the issue.

Such a meeting would have saved taxpayers the cost of legal services and time invested by the ethics committee. That idea, they said, was denounced by members of the minority leadership, who reportedly said the complaint either would be filed or would wind up as a headline on the front pages of Colorado newspapers.

The recommendation of sanctions against Groves now moves to the executive committee, which is composed of Senate President Peter Groff, of Denver; House Speaker Terrance Carroll, of Denver; Senate Majority Leader Brandon Shaffer, of Longmont; House Majority Leader Paul Weissmann, of Louisville; Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, of Grand Junction; and House Minority Leader May, of Parker.

No one disputes May’s leadership role in assisting Acree with her complaint. Some, however, argue that the House minority leader should recuse himself in considering the Groves complaint. They argue that May stepped into the mire, using Acree’s complaint to file ethics charges against Balmer that eventually were dropped.

May’s complaint harks back to the political motivations behind the scenes in the minority party’s leadership race that pitted Balmer against McNulty.

May, sources said, championed McNulty, and Groves was the lure that would snag Balmer.

If so, that political fishing expedition came up empty.

Leslie@coloradostatesman.com