Colorado Ethics Watch, the left-leaning ethics advocacy group that has spent the last decade making sure Colorado’s campaign finance and ethics laws are followed, announced Thursday it will cease operations at the end of 2017.
The shutdown is a financial matter, said Colorado Ethics Watch Executive Director Luis Toro. “It’s harder for us to justify our existence now that citizens can file their own complaints,” he told Colorado Politics. He also cited the national political atmosphere over ethics, stating the attention being paid to President Trump and his ethics issues leaves little room for ethics concerns at the state level.
Attorney Chantell Taylor started Ethics Watch in August 2006, just three months before Colorado voters adopted Amendment 41, the constitutional amendment that dictates ethics rules for elected officials. In 2008, Toro joined Ethics Watch; he became its executive director in 2010.
At the time Ethics Watch was started, Toro said, “if we didn’t file the [campaign finance] complaint, no one would.” That’s a model that Toro said has worked well until the last few years, when citizens started filing their own complaints, both on campaign finance and on ethics.
Toro said he’s most proud of the work Ethics Watch did in forcing then-Secretary of State Scott Gessler to adhere to the state constitution on campaign finance. Ethics Watch filed two lawsuits against Gessler, whom Toro said wanted to rewrite campaign finance laws. Such actions have also led to complaints from Republicans that Ethics Watch only files complaints against Republicans.
In 2011, Gessler attempted to change the rules about when an issue committee, which advocates for or against ballot issues, had to report its contributions and expenditures. The threshold established under a voter-approved campaign finance amendment in 2002 set that minimum at $200; Gessler wanted to raise it to $5,000. Gessler claimed that a previous court decision form 2010 had created ambiguity about the threshold that only the Secretary of State could fix through rulemaking.
Ethics Watch and Colorado Common Cause sued, and the Colorado Court of Appeals decided in 2012 that Gessler’s rule on the threshold violated the state campaign finance amendment, which set a clear $200 minimum. The Court was not persuaded by Gessler’s argument that the 2010 decision had created a “gap” in campaign finance law.
The second case, decided in 2013, also dealt with campaign finance, this time with “electioneering communications,” defined as information put out by issue and political committees in the 60 days before an election.
Also in 2011, Gessler created another set of rules dealing with electioneering communcations. Ethics Watch, Common Cause and other plaintiffs claimed the rules narrowed the definition of electioneering communications and that would allow groups to make those communications without full disclosure. Another rule, also dealing with issue committee contributions, would allow those committees to avoid disclosure if the campaign expenditures were 30% or less of the organization’s total spending.
A Denver District Court opinion called the latter “further mischief in that it appears not to be income neutral. In other words, issue committees with very little income, which presumably spend most of that income on election-related matters, will be required to report. But large corporations or wealthy individuals could spend substantial sums of money on issues and yet not have to report because they are spending less than 30% of their revenue on these activities. Certainly this is contrary to the intent of the electorate, which has expressed an interest in compelling more disclosure, not less.”
In 2013, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled substantially in favor of Ethics Watch and several other plaintiffs on the lawsuit.
Ethics Watch staff have also been a regular presence at hearings of the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission since its early days. Ethics Watch sued the commission two years ago, after filing an ethics complaint against an Elbert County Commissioner who had persuaded fellow commissioners to rule on an issue in which he had a financial interest.
In that case, Elbert County commissioners were found in violation of the state’s campaign finance law over a town hall they hosted. A consultant hired by the county advocated for a ballot measure to increase the county’s property taxes, revenue needed to shore up the county’s flailing budget. An administrative law judge ruled the commission, in paying for the town hall, had taken a position on the ballot question, a violation of the state’s campaign finance laws. The judge ordered the commission chair, Robert Rowland, to personally pay a $1,000 fine because he had authorized the illegal expenditure. Rowland was ordered to pay the fine himself because the judge said he did not want the cash-strapped county to pay the fine.
The commissioners decided to appeal the decision on a 2-1 vote that if not for Rowland’s support would have failed. Rowland paid the fine, but on the same day filed a voucher with the county to be reimbursed. He signed off on the voucher as chair of the commission; he also signed his own reimbursement check, also in his position as chair. Rowland finally paid the fine after his actions to recoup his money were reported by The Colorado Independent. The county wound up paying $21,000 in attorney fees to a private citizen who filed the original campaign finance complaint.
Colorado Ethics Watch filed an ethics complaint against Rowland, claiming he had voted on a matter in which he had a financial interest, an alleged violation of Amendment 41. The ethics commission dismissed the complaint on a 3-2 vote as frivolous. Ethics Watch then sued the commission, asking whether the public has the right to a judge’s review of ethics commission decisions. The Colorado Supreme Court ruled in favor of the ethics commission, making the commission’s decisions unappealable.