State Integrity Investigation: CO’s Ethics Commission

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Six years ago, Colorado voters created a place where you can go if you think you’ve spotted a public official behaving badly: the Independent Ethics Commission. Colorado Public Radio’s Megan Verlee looks at how well it's working.

This report is part of CPR's collaboration with the State Integrity Investigation. Find more of the project's reporting here.

Sources from our Public Insight Network contributed to this story. Go here to sign up.

[The following is a transcript of Megan Verlee's report]

Reporter Megan Verlee: In the four years since the Independent Ethics Commission started holding hearings, only two regular citizens have actually made it all the way through the IEC’s complaint process. Meet one of them:

James Fry: "My name is James Fry. I’m retired, I’m a retired university professor and administrator. And I live in Larimer County, north of Fort Collins."

Reporter: A while back, Fry spotted what he believed to be double-dealing by a county employee, an engineer, who helped win the area a federal flood grant, and was then hired to administer it.

Fry: "I found that very offensive, as somebody who’d been involved, all my professional career, in doing hirings in a public institution."

Reporter: So Fry visited the Ethics Commission’s website, filled out a complaint, filed his evidence, and figured the Commission would take it from there. Instead, the commission's director called back, telling Fry that if he wanted the complaint pursued, he’d actually have to investigate and argue it himself.

Fry: "These are the exhibits that I had to prepare for the Ethics Commission.”

Reporter: “That’s about a inch-thick stack of paper there?”

Fry: “Yes, but that’s not the whole thing."

Reporter: Fry says he only made it through the process by leaning heavily on his son, who’s a lawyer. They were up against Larimer County’s attorney, representing the engineer. In the end, the Commission ruled against Fry’s complaint. But it was the process, not the outcome, he finds most disappointing.

Fry: "It is an extremely challenging and onerous thing to proceed through this. I can imagine that most people would simply throw up their hands and say, I give up!"

Reporter: In fact, that’s exactly what happens, according to the Independent Ethics Commission’s executive director, and only employee, Jane Feldman. She says lots of people who call her decide they don’t have the time or legal expertise to go through the process.

Jane Feldman: "I think we are one of the only, if not the only, state where, if you file an ethics complaint, you are required to prosecute it."

Reporter: Feldman doesn’t think this is what voters intended when they created the Commission. Instead, she blames the situation on poor timing; the IEC was just getting up and running when the recession hit in 2008. With the state budget shrivelling and the governor calling for a hiring freeze, it wasn’t exactly a good time to be asking for a lot of new staffers. But it means that compared to the rest of the country, there’s a lot Colorado’s Ethics Commission doesn’t do.

Feldman: "I would say most states have at least a dozen people. They have clerical staff, they’ll have two or three lawyers, they have two or three trainers..."

Reporter: Feldman says Colorado’s IEC is hoping for a larger staff in coming years so it can take a more active role in investigations. But it could be a hard sell with lawmakers like Republican Representative BJ Nikkel, who sits on the committee that oversees the Ethics Commission.

BJ Nikkel (R-Loveland): "I don’t believe the commission should be involved with helping anyone file complaints.”

Reporter: “And why is that?”

Nikkel: “I just don’t think it’s their job. I just don’t see that as what is in the amendment to the constitution."

Reporter: In its four years of existence, The IEC has only ruled on eight complaints, and only two of those resulted in fines. Instead, it's taken on a more educational role. Feldman teaches ethics workshops for state employees, lobbyists,and local officials, like the ones who gathered recently at the Colorado Municipal League.

Feldman: "Now, the heart of it, for most public employees, is the gift ban. And it says, very seemingly simply, no gift from a person to any covered official or public employee with a fair market value over $53 in any calendar year."

Elena Nunez: "You know, part of the goal is to create culture where these sorts of ethical conversations happen."

Reporter: Elena Nunez heads Colorado Common Cause, one of the groups behind the initiative that created the Ethics Commission. She says the IEC’s real impact shouldn’t be measured in complaints, but in how good it is at heading off unethical behavior before it happens. Every year the Commission issues dozens of opinions, helping state employees sort out whether it’s okay to accept this trip or that gift.

Nunez: "And they’re certainly not intended to, you know, sit and judge the activities of everyone who works for the state. But they are there to make decisions about what sort of activities help promote confidence in government, and which ones don’t."

Reporter: But Nunez too would like to see the state spend more to beef up the Commission’s reach. Until that happens, though, Colorado’s Independent Ethics Commission will be less of an attack dog, that seeks out wrongdoers, and more of a guard dog, trying to keep officials from straying off the straight and narrow.