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Ethics complaint against Colorado state Rep. Ransom dismissed

Author: Marianne Goodland - November 29, 2017 - Updated: November 30, 2017

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Rep. Kim Ransom, a Lone Tree Republican, awaits her opportunity to testify at Wednesday’s Independent Ethics Commission. Her attorney, Mark Grueskin, is to her left; complainant Charles Bucknam is on the right. The commission ruled unanimously to dismiss the complaint. (Marianne Goodland, Colorado Politics)

After a more than five-hour hearing, the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission Wednesday unanimously dismissed an ethics complaint filed against Republican Rep. Kim Ransom of Lone Tree. The ethics complaint alleged Ransom accepted a “Gold Pass,” valued at $600, to attend the 2016 Western Conservative Summit.

In their ruling, the commission said Ransom had met the requirements for an exception to the gift limit, that she was there as a representative of state government. The commission also decided that the non-profit organization that gave Ransom the pass, the Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University, satisfied a rule that dictates when a lawmaker can accept a gift from a not-for-profit organization. 

But today’s hearing also provided an interesting look into the operations of the summit, including that it has never made a profit and over the last seven years has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars and possibly more for the Centennial Institute and Colorado Christian University.

The Centennial Institute, a think tank operated by Colorado Christian University, has run the Western Conservative Summit since its inaugural event in 2010. The event brings in conservative speakers from around the country; in 2016, it brought in then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, who spoke to a half-full ballroom, one of his poorest-attended events in Colorado.

Ransom’s attendance at the 2016 summit was to receive an award from Principles of Liberty, which rates lawmakers on their votes on legislation. Ransom was one of 10 lawmakers to receive the award and the $600 Gold Pass. According to the ethics complaint filed by Charles Bucknam, who resides in Ransom’s district, the pass exceeded the $59 limit on gifts to lawmakers that was established under Amendment 41, the ethics law approved by voters in 2006. Ransom did list the Gold Pass and its stated value of $600 on her 2016 gift disclosure report filed with the Secretary of State.

But it’s the exceptions to the gift limit that decided how the commission would rule.

Amendment 41, which set up the gifts limit, allows a number of exceptions, such as if the elected official is representing state government or is a speaker at an event. Another exception also dictates the type of organizations that can give gifts valued at more than $59: that a not-for-profit organization that gives a gift to a lawmaker can accept no more than 5 percent of its revenues from for-profit sources.

Last month, the ethics commission hinted that they would view the most substantial portion of the university’s funding — tuition — as something other than private contributions, which might make the for-profit funding sources for the university a bigger issue.

The commission also raised a concern that the Gold Pass itself was little more than “excessive fundraising” to cover the cost of the event, rather than holding an actual value of $600. That was born out by testimony given Wednesday by Jeff Hunt, the Institute’s director, who admitted that the main value of the pass was that it allowed its bearers to receive a dinner, valued at $59.48, and a closer seat to the front of the room for featured speakers.

The rest of the $600 cost goes to cover the cost of the event, which he said lost $400,000 in 2016. Hunt also stated that the summit has never cleared a profit, although he could not say just how much money the event has lost since its inception in 2010. The university’s chief financial officer, Dan Cohrs, also said he did not know how much money the summit had lost over its lifetime.

Cohrs also told the commission in his testimony that the university has never received more than 5 percent of its funding from for-profit sources, and later told Colorado Politics that it was probably closer to a half-percent.

About 4,000 people attended the 2016 summit; 700 went to the dinner, available only to Gold Pass holders, and at least 100 were given the Gold Pass free of charge, such as university employees and lawmakers, according to Hunt.

Attorney Mark Grueskin, representing Ransom, centered his his closing arguments around a claim that the Gold Pass has no value other than the cost of the dinner, at $59.48, and that since it has so little value it wouldn’t violate the gift limit. That was an argument the commission rejected, stating that the pass was in fact a gift and valued at $600, since that’s the cost that was paid by many who attended the event.

Ransom addressed the exception around whether she represented the General Assembly at the summit during her testimony Wednesday, pointing out that she wore her lawmaker badge and that she attended the summit to learn from its speakers and from other attendees on issues of interest to state lawmakers, such as the Affordable Care Act.

The exception, however, also requires the elected official to be a speaker at an event, which would exclude Ransom since she never spoke at the award ceremony nor was she listed as a speaker in the summit’s official program. She did point out that she was allowed to come on stage to introduce herself as an elected official during the summit.

Grueskin’s stronger argument was in reminding the commission that in previous rulings they have decided just when a lawmaker is representing the state. “It is a function of role” rather than designation by others, Grueskin said, which he explained means what a person is elected to do rather than what the leadership tells a lawmaker to do. “By virtue of her role in the General Assembly, she was representing the state,” Grueskin said.

The complaint also put in the commission briefly into an uncomfortable position of deciding when an event is educational and when it might be purely partisan. Commissioner Gary Reiff said the commission doesn’t want to have to make those decisions, and indicated that the summit’s purpose is part of the problem for Ransom since she wasn’t a presenter.

“It’s really about networking for your next (election) run, not education,” Reiff said.

Commissioner Bill Leone, acting as the hearing officer, raised a concern about the summit’s partisan nature, although Hunt had testified that all 100 lawmakers from both parties are every year. Hunt outlined for the commission the type of speakers who come to the summit, pointing out that in 2016 they had invited then-presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, not just conservative candidates, officials and other speakers.

Under questioning from Grueskin, Ransom also addressed about one of Bucknam’s claims, that she accepted the pass and then ran legislation that would benefit Colorado Christian University. Ransom denied receiving any financial consideration from the university. She also spoke about her relationship with the founders of Principles of Liberty, noting that she has known them for years. She did not disclose that Rich Bratten, who runs the organization, and his wife Laurie, a well-known Republican operative, both made contributions to her election campaign in 2016.  

During their deliberations, commissioners pointed out that Ransom had done the right thing, seeking advice from legislative staff about whether she could accept the pass. That staffer reached out to the General Assembly’s legal counsel, who in turn contacted former Senate President John Andrews, who founded the Institute, to determine if the University and the Institute would meet the 5 percent exception. Commissioner Matt Smith said he was persuaded that the University did in fact meet the 5 percent exception, and he struggled only with whether Ransom was officially representing state government.

In announcing his decision to dismiss, Leone noted the summit’s invitation is extended to everyone, regardless of party, and that the legislative office views the event as bona fide. “In this case, we have a group of people who view this event in a certain way and I’m reluctant to tell them ‘you’re all wrong’ and that it’s unethical.”

How the summit’s content relates to job duties is another matter, Leone said, but added that the summit clearly included policy issues important to Ransom.

Despite its dismissal, the complaint did affect lawmakers’ behavior, according to Ransom. In 2017, lawmakers attending the summit paid for their passes.

After the hearing, Ransom and Bucknam talked briefly.

“I view you as my boss,” Ransom told Bucknam, and invited him to contact her anytime.

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland is the chief legislative reporter for Colorado Politics. She's covered the Colorado General Assembly for 20 years, starting off in 1998 with the Silver & Gold Record, the editorially-independent newspaper at CU that was shuttered in 2009. She also writes for six rural newspapers in northeastern Colorado. Marianne specializes in rural issues, agriculture, water and, during election season, campaign finance. In her free time (ha!) she lives in Lakewood with her husband, Jeff; a cantankerous Shih-Tzu named Sophie; and Gunther the cat. She is also an award-winning professional harpist.