Colorado Springs City Council entered uncharted territory last week when eight of the nine members voted to file three ethics charges against one of their own.
Helen Collins is accused by the City Attorney's Office of "waste, fraud, abuse and corruption in government," creating the appearance she violated the law or ethical standards, and creating the appearance of impropriety.
The charges stem from Collins' agreeing in December to accept temporary ownership of a condominium owned by Douglas Bruce, helping him dodge a $7,600 city lien, though the lien had not yet been filed when the transfer occurred. Collins then sold the property to a third-party buyer and gave Bruce the proceeds.
Although five other city elected officials have been accused of ethics breaches since an ethics code and procedures were enacted in 2007, Collins is the first to be charged.
As Council President Merv Bennett said last week, "We've never been through this before."
Moreover, the Independent Ethics Commission concluded that actions taken by Bruce and Collins in the land deal comprised a felony, prompting District Attorney Dan May to refer the matter to the Colorado Attorney General's Office, says DA spokeswoman Lee Richards.
The ethics matter could give rise to other problems for Collins. The commission's report noted that Bruce's attempt to sidestep the lien and Collins' complicity in his effort appear to be a form of fraud under Colorado law, which the AG's office will check out. "If there are criminal charges, they would be the ones to prosecute," says Richards.
City Council adopted ethics rules eight years ago to sidestep a statewide, voter-approved ethics measure proposed by Common Cause.
At the time, city officials said the law went too far with language that could be interpreted as prohibiting a government employee's child from accepting a college scholarship. The law allowed local governments to adopt their own rules, which Colorado Springs did.
The city's code outlaws conflicts of interest, 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 appearance of a conflict also is banned.
Those subject to the law include elected officials, city workers and those appointed to city boards. The five-member Independent Ethics Commission, appointed by Council, investigates complaints of wrongdoing that date back a year but doesn't seek out violations, and can issue subpoenas for witnesses and documents if needed. Commission findings are conveyed to Council in confidence.
Possible sanctions, imposed by Council, include levying a fine double the amount of financial value derived from the ethics breach, censure or removal from office, though elected officials cannot be removed by Council for an ethics violation.
Since its formation, the commission hasn't made a significant finding until now. To recap:
• In 2009, former Mayor Lionel Rivera was accused of having a conflict of interest due to his relationship with local businessman Ray Marshall, who developed the U.S. Olympic Committee headquarters building as Rivera, a stockbroker, was accepting commissions on Marshall's investments. The Ethics Commission's nine-page report ruled that Rivera committed no violation because the USOC, not the mayor, chose the developer. It's worth noting that Marshall faces pending criminal charges regarding the USOC deal.
• In 2012, former City Councilor Tim Leigh was accused by David Neumann, inventor of pollution control equipment being installed on the city's Drake Power Plant, of smearing his company but also trying to gain personally from soliciting investors for the company. The ethics panel ruled Leigh's derogatory comments were protected by the First Amendment. The commission found insufficient evidence to sustain the other complaint, while noting it "does create an unfortunate appearance."
• In April 2013, then-District 2 Councilor Angela Dougan was accused by William "Bill" Murray, who now holds that seat, of a conflict of interest by receiving a $1,000 campaign donation from a city cable franchisee and a year later voting to award it the franchise without disclosing the contribution. The ethics panel said the complaint didn't allege a violation of the ethics code.
• In October 2013, Councilor Andy Pico was cleared in a split decision that said his contract employment with Serco didn't pose a conflict but that he should recuse himself from the city's dealings with Serco, which manages the city's fleet under a five-year, $35-million contract. Ethics commissioner Craig Valentine, though, said Pico's mere approval of the city budget would create the appearance of impropriety. (The ethics code bars officials from "directly or indirectly" participating in matters in which they have a direct or indirect substantial financial interest.)
• In January 2014, Mayor Steve Bach dodged an investigation when the commission deemed as frivolous a complaint accusing him of committing city money to the $250 million City for Champions venture without obtaining authority from boards overseeing those revenues, including City Council.
Collins says she's innocent, noting City Attorney Wynetta Massey filed the complaint on Jan. 21 in a "brazen attempt" to influence the recall election for which petitions had been deemed sufficient Jan. 14.
Even the Ethics Commission notes in its findings the timing was suspicious. "The [City Attorney's Office] had all relevant information on December 8, 2014, [but] did not file the Complaint until forty-five days later — after the recall election had been announced..."
Collins also alleges Massey's complaint was "patent political retaliation" for Collins' opposition to her pay raise, among other things, and that the Ethics Commission had a "financial incentive" to recommend charges because Collins could be forced to pay all of the city's legal expenses in the case.
Those expenses are mounting.
Jane Feldman of Denver — hired to represent the Ethics Commission that normally relies on Massey's office — has been paid about $6,300. Feldman says she logged an additional $6,000 or so in fees and expenses in May when the commission met five times. Her contract was initially capped at $6,000 but since has been boosted to $12,000.
Council hired Suzanne Dugan of New York at $300 per hour, authorizing a total of $10,000, though that could be increased. Council rules allow Collins $10,000 for legal services, though that cap also could be raised.
Collins sent a letter Sunday to Council saying, "I insist all proceedings in this case be conducted before the full council in open, recorded public sessions." She again asserted her innocence, calling the matter a "politically-motivated witch hunt."
Under procedures, Council can preside at the hearing or appoint a hearing officer, likely a retired judge, Feldman says.
What happens after that is fuzzy, because, as Feldman notes, "The [ethics] code is silent on that." It's presumed, she says, the hearing officer would submit findings to Council, which would either accept or reject them. If rejected, the action could be appealed to District Court.