A Colorado panel responsible for investigating ethics complaints against government workers and elected officials is asking lawmakers for more money to help its only employee deal with a growing caseload.
Since the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission first convened in 2007, the commission has mostly operated with just one employee, an executive director responsible for everything from answering the phone and taking minutes at commission meetings, to interviewing witnesses for investigations and drafting legal advice on important ethics questions.
The workload has always been feast or famine, said Dino Ioannides, executive director since 2016.
But now work seems to be quickly growing. In 2020, the commission received 80 complaints, more than triple the annual average of 26. High-profile investigations, like a 2018 probe into private jet trips taken by former Gov. John Hickenlooper, brought new public attention to the agency. Political polarization also seems to be fueling increased requests, said Ioannides, who declined to provide specifics.
One recent example: a Republican group filed an ethics complaint over a contract that Gov. Jared Polis gave to Rick Palacio, a Democratic strategist and his former chief of staff, according to the Gazette.
Now the commission is asking lawmakers for $64,000 to hire a part-time employee to keep up with the work.
“Having some ability to take leave from the office from time to time without having to worry things are going to fall apart would be really nice,” Ioannides said.
The commission was founded after the passage of Amendment 41 in November 2006, a constitutional amendment backed by Polis, then a member of the state Board of Education. The appointed five-member panel is responsible for interpreting ethics rules for state employees, including the executive branch, legislature and state agencies, public colleges and universities, elected officials and local government employees.
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While some states have ethics watchdogs that prosecute violations and oversee everything from campaign finance laws to conflicts of interest and gift rules, the purview of Colorado’s panel is more limited.
The Colorado Secretary of State oversees campaign finance laws, rules for lobbyist registration and financial disclosures, while the ethics commission largely oversees conflicts of interest, gift rules and ethics laws, like restrictions on jobs after government employment.
The ethics commission is also very limited in the sanctions it can impose. Its opinions make official legal findings about whether a violation of law occurred and the panel can issue fines, but it has no power to order a remedy to a violation and can’t pursue civil actions.
For example, the panel fined Hickenlooper $2,750 when it determined that the former governor improperly accepted private jet and limousine trips paid for by corporations. The fine was an estimate of the cost of the one-way jet and limousine rides.
The agency’s budget has been a point of contention from the start, said Jane Feldman, the commission’s first executive director. Feldman said she asked for more money within months of her hiring in June 2008, but was turned down because of the stock market crash that devolved into a global recession. Feldman briefly had a second employee before that position was eliminated.
“I think this state has woefully underfunded the whole ethics commission and there’s so much more that they could be doing,” said Feldman, who now serves on the Denver Board of Ethics.
Budget and staffing problems have been cited in the past as a reason not to live-stream commission meetings and post the video online, as many state agencies have done.
“It just became unworkable to try and be the executive director running the meeting, taking the minutes, interacting with commissioners and people in the room, and doing all of that while trying to run a livestream and making sure the technology works with no glitches,” Ioannides said.
The coronavirus pandemic has since forced meetings to be conducted and streamed entirely online, although recordings are not posted to the ethics commission website.
Colorado’s commission has a smaller staff and budget compared to agencies in most other states, including those with similar populations, according to the commission’s budget request. Maryland, which has a population of 6.1 million compared to Colorado’s population of more than 5.7 million, has a dozen people staffing its State Ethics Commission. In Minnesota, which has a population of 5.7 million, the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board has nine employees.
The Vermont State Ethics Commission and Washington State Legislative Ethics Board each have one employee, according to the budget request, while the Michigan State Board of Ethics has no employees to support it.
Ioannides’ current salary is $125,054, which after benefits adds up to $171,594. Including a new part-time employee, the commission is proposing a total budget of $263,934 for the 2022-2023 fiscal year.
Between juggling administrative tasks like responding to open records requests or preparing meeting packets for commissioners, Ioannides is also doing legal research, tracking down witnesses for investigations and answering questions from state employees or local government officials.
Most of the complaints the commission receives, at least three-quarters, if not more, are deemed “frivolous,” said Ioannides, and are kept confidential. But even those complaints require preliminary investigation to determine whether the merit a full probe, while high-profile complaints, and ones where the involved parties are putting up a big fight, are even more time-consuming.
When then-Secretary of State Scott Gessler was under investigation in 2012 for using his office’s discretionary fund to pay for a trip to a Republican lawyers’ conference in Florida, Feldman, director at the time, said the agency received so many records requests that said she was forced to cancel a commission meeting.
“I didn’t have time to do anything in preparation for the meeting because their requests were so broad and intensive,” Feldman said.
The trade-offs in time can impact investigations, said Ioannides, who also conducts research for advisory opinions and letter rulings issued by the commission. Those involve official requests for guidance from state employees and government officials, or a request from members of the public, who volunteer the background information that commissioners use to decide whether a person has violated an ethics law.
Ioannides also does research that he provides to commissioners about those requests.
“The requestor has an incentive to … either scrub the information they’re giving to us or just outright give us partial information,” Ioannides said. “So when we have a situation where our resources are low, being unable to dig up information in an independent way is compromised.”
The agency could also be doing more to educate the public and government employees and officials of the state’s laws to prevent violations before they happen, Ioannides said. A new part-time staffer would not only help with investigative work, but also do outreach to government agencies to set-up training events, which have been held sporadically over the years depending on demand.
Trainings were put on hold for most of the last two years because of the coronavirus pandemic, Ioannides said.
While there are periods where the workload is slow, there’s also a lot of work to be done to improve the agency’s profile among the public and government workers, said Selina Baschiera, the commission’s vice chair. Baschiera said she learned about the commission after hearing Ioannides speak at an event, and decided to apply.
“I had been a state employee for five years prior and had never heard of it,” said Baschiera, who is now deputy director for motor vehicle for Arapahoe County.
The request is under consideration by the Joint Budget Committee, a bipartisan panel of lawmakers who write the state’s budget.