Colorado Springs' most outspoken City Council member, Tim Leigh, is under investigation for allegations he violated the city's Ethics Code, according to the city's Independent Ethics Commission.
The four-member panel decided Jan. 4 that three allegations made by David Neumann, a physicist whose scrubber technology is being installed on the city's coal-fired Martin Drake Power Plant, lie within its jurisdiction and are "non-frivolous."
In a Jan. 15 letter to Neumann obtained by the Independent, the commission said "it is appropriate to investigate" the following allegations:
• Leigh sought personal gain through a city vendor — Neumann's company, Neumann Systems Group;
• Leigh, a commercial real estate broker, has a "conflict of interest based on direct or indirect financial interests in downtown properties affected by Drake closure";
• and Leigh engaged in "activities that may create or does create [sic] the appearance of impropriety."
In addition, the commission referred to City Council additional claims by Neumann that Leigh violated the Code of Conduct contained in Council's rules, and the Council could hire a third party to investigate. Council rules require "unconflicted loyalty" to Springs citizens and bar a Council member from leading the public or media to have the impression that Council appointees are acting improperly.
President Pro Tem Jan Martin says Council has received the Ethics Commission's letter but hasn't yet discussed the alleged Code of Conduct violations.
Leigh wrote on his blog Dec. 14 that he welcomes the investigation, which he described as a "politically motivated bullying-tactic" to quell his questions about a "horrible contract" that his colleagues "blindly approved." In a brief phone interview Monday, Leigh surprisingly claimed he's been cleared by the commission: "There's a letter that exonerated me of all the allegations," he said. Apprised of the Independent's deadline, he failed to produce the letter by press time.
The city's ethics code, adopted in 2007, bars elected officials, city employees and appointees to city boards and commissions from engaging in conflicts of interest, which are defined as "any personal or financial relationship that could influence or be perceived to influence the representation or conduct of business for, or on behalf of, the City." The code also defines a conflict as being "an appearance of impropriety."
City Attorney Chris Melcher says the city requires employees and elected officials to complete an online test after reading the ethics code. City appointees also are trained, and vendors' contracts require their compliance with the ethics code.
The code is enforced only if complaints are filed with Melcher's office, which forwards them to the Ethics Commission.
Jurisdiction of the commission, whose business is conducted largely in secret in the City Attorney's Office, is limited to complaints of activities that took place within the past year. If not frivolous, complaints are investigated by the commission, which can issue subpoenas for witnesses and documents, if need be. Commission findings are conveyed to Council in confidence.
As for sanctions, the code requires a person found to have breached the public trust for private gain to pay the city double the amount of financial value of whatever benefit was derived from the breach. Council also can impose a reprimand or written censure, or even require forfeiture of office, Melcher notes.
Of the four complaints cited in Ethics Commission meeting minutes since 2007, the most high-profile is clearly one from 2009, concerning whether former Mayor Lionel Rivera had a conflict of interest in his relationship with local businessman Ray Marshall. Marshall was chosen to develop a U.S. Olympic Committee headquarters building even as Rivera, a stockbroker, was accepting commissions on Marshall's investments. The commission's nine-page report recommended no action, saying Rivera didn't violate the ethics code because the USOC, not the mayor, chose the developer.
The commission consists of retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Malham Wakin, who teaches at the Air Force Academy; former assistant city attorney Stephen Hook; Colorado Technical University admissions advisor Eileen Docherty-Katz, and business consultant Thomas Conter.
Leigh in the spotlight
It took three tries for Neumann to get the ball rolling on Leigh, who was elected to a two-year at-large term in 2011 and now is running for the District 1 seat (with an endorsement from the Housing and Building Association of Colorado Springs). Neumann's first two complaints, dated Nov. 27 and Dec. 10, asked that Melcher, the Utilities Board and City Council investigate. Melcher didn't forward those to the Ethics Commission because the letters didn't ask for a commission investigation. He did send them to the Council, which doubles as the Utilities Board.
Finally, on Dec. 13, Neumann wrote to Melcher a third time asking the Ethics Commission to investigate, and the Jan. 4 meeting was then scheduled.
• Personal gain: This claim stems from Leigh's alleged effort to "monetize" the Neumann company.
In an affidavit written by Neumann obtained by the Indy, Neumann says Jim Johnson, owner of GE Johnson Construction Co., called him on or about Aug. 22 urging him to call Leigh about a potential customer for his technology, which removes sulfur dioxide from coal-fired power plants. In an interview, Johnson says Leigh asked him to call Neumann because Leigh didn't think Neumann would return his own phone call. That was the extent of his involvement, Johnson says.
Neumann told his vice president of business development, Rob Fredell, to contact Leigh, which he did. Leigh returned the call on or about Aug. 24. Fredell soon sensed that Leigh wanted to be the go-between for a venture capital deal.
"He implied he would set up the deal for a percentage of the deal," Fredell says in an interview. "I immediately saw the potential conflict of interest, and I was very uncomfortable going forward. I terminated the call as politely as I could and had no further contact."
• Conflict of interest: This claim is tied to Leigh's business, Hoff & Leigh, and what, if anything, it stands to gain if the Drake plant is closed. As of press time, Hoff & Leigh's website showed listings for seven properties with a total value of $2.3 million within 1.5 miles of Drake. Neumann's affidavit adds that he met with Leigh at least three times, during which Leigh talked of closing Drake and "building a sports stadium in its place as a way of rejuvenating the downtown area."
• The Ethics Commission also will determine whether any of Leigh's behavior and statements comprise an appearance of impropriety.
A secretive process
Luis Toro, director of Colorado Ethics Watch, a nonpartisan watchdog group, reviewed Neumann's affidavit and letters of complaint.
"I hope this Ethics Commission doesn't sweep this under the rug," he says, "because there's enough here that gets to real ethics violations," namely the personal gain and conflict-of-interest contentions.
The Ethics Commission, which is under no mandatory schedule, has given Neumann and Leigh until Jan. 30 to submit a list of witnesses and documents for its review, according to its Jan. 15 letter. Neumann says he'll cooperate with the commission members "to the maximum extent possible." But how much of his material, or Leigh's, will be made available publicly is unclear.
As Melcher explains, "The Independent Ethics Commission will conduct the investigation confidentially, will deliver their decisions confidentially to the complainant and the accused and then to City Council. Then Council determines whether they will release that publicly."
Toro takes issue with such secrecy, but notes that's allowed under the state's ethics laws, which served as a model for the city's.