Sherrie Peif, Top News, Weld County

Weld County Commissioner under Independent Ethics Commission investigation

GREELEY – The Colorado Independent Ethics Commission (IEC) is looking into allegations Weld County Commissioner Julie Cozad violated Article XXIX of the Colorado Constitution pertaining to receiving gifts.

According to an email obtained by Complete Colorado, sent by the IEC to Ellen DeLorenzo, a Johnstown resident who filed the complaint, Cozad has 30 days to respond. The IEC will investigate the charges and hold a public hearing before making a final determination.

The issue stems from a Jan. 27, 2017 fundraiser for North Colorado Medical Center in which Cozad, chairwoman for the Board of Weld County Commissioners, and her husband attended as guests of Noble Energy.

According to the complaint: “Noble Energy was the presenting sponsor, with its table costing $2,500 per seat,” DeLorenzo wrote. “Members of the general public could attend and be seated at other tables at a minimum cost of ($550 per couple).”

DeLorenzo says in the complaint that she was told by both Cozad and Weld County Attorney Bruce Barker that Cozad paid $150 for the two meals and made a $220 donation to the foundation. The complaint alleges the $370 total cost is $180 short of the minimum ticket, and at maximum $4,630 short of the cost of the seats at the Noble table.

Article XXIX limits gifts to $59, and gift bans extend to spouses and children.

Three weeks after the event, Noble Energy came before the board for a quasi-judicial hearing in a land-use case.

In minutes from that hearing, Cozad who did not recuse herself, put on record that she had “no outside contact” with anyone testifying at the hearing. However, according to the complaint, Greg Pickerel, one of the Noble presenters at the hearing, was seated at the same table and photographed with Cozad that night.

DeLorenzo originally brought her concerns to a County Commissioners meeting. At the meeting Cozad explained that she had intended on purchasing her own tickets, but at the last minute was invited by Noble to sit at its sponsor table. She said she had discussed the situation before attending with Barker and was advised to pay for the meal. Barker determined the meal for both Cozad and her husband to be valued at $150. Cozad also said she donated to the foundation.

Cozad in an email to DeLorenzo stipulated it was not a conflict of interest because she had no financial interest in Noble. She also reiterated that there was no business discussed.

The IEC is charged with investigating and handing down penalties against state and local officials. It is a five-member, non-partisan board, with one member appointed by each the governor, the State House of Representatives, the State Senate, and the Chief Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court. The fifth member is appointed by the other four.

It was created after Colorado voters passed an amendment to the state constitution calling for its creation.

In the 10 years since, 187 complaints have been filed, 27 – including Cozad – have been deemed non-frivolous, or 14.4 percent.

A case is confidential unless the commission deems it non-frivolous, at which time it becomes public. Cozad’s file was deemed non-frivolous on Sept. 29.

The IEC has its share of critics and has come under heavy scrutiny over the past couple of years.

According to the Denver Post, the State Auditor’s office “faulted the commission for poorly communicating which public officials it can hear complaints about and the narrow punishment it can hand out.”

Kelly Maher Executive Director of Compass Colorado, which is a conservative 501 (c)(4) organization that aims to educate people about smaller government, less taxes, smart regulation and holding elected officials accountable, said there are issues with the IEC.

Maher, who four years ago filed an IEC complaint against Govenor John Hickenlooper that was deemed non-frivolous, but eventually lost, said finding guilt is not cut and dry.

“The standard of non-frivolousness is much lower than finding someone did something wrong,” she said. “They are two really different things.”

Maher also said Colorado has some of the most Draconian ethic laws in the country.

“A lot of people don’t know (the IEC) even exists, but it holds a lot of power,” she said. “All of the rules written around it are so poorly written, the IEC has a lot of power in precedent setting. If there is some kind of precedent they are looking to set, they may have taken this case to set it.”

Because Weld County is a Home Rule Charter county, some question whether the IEC even has jurisdiction. In Dec. 2016, the IEC ruled that unless a Home Rule charter, or county/municipal codes match or exceed those set forth by the state, the IEC has oversight.

Under Weld’s Charter, the Weld County Council has jurisdiction over conflict of interest issues in which an employee or an elected official has financial interest in a company doing business with the county.

In this case, however, the allegations are not one of a conflict of interest, but instead that Cozad accepted a gift valued at more than $59. It does not appear that either Weld’s charter or its code specifically address the gift ban issue in according to state requirements.

By ruling the complaint non-frivolous, the IEC has determined that neither Weld’s Charter or its code meet that criteria. It is yet to be seen if Weld County will challenge that determination.

Additionally, the IEC handbook stipulates that the commission can rule based on an appearance of impropriety: “Occasionally a situation will arise which, although legally and/or technically appropriate, may nevertheless raise concern regarding the potential for an appearance of impropriety,” the handbook reads. “For instance, if a gift is given to an official or employee with decision making authority by someone with business before the entity or agency for whom that individual works, it may appear that the gift was given to influence the person in the performance of his or her official duties, even if less than $59 and otherwise permissible under state statutes. This would give rise to the appearance of impropriety.”

Maher did agree the meeting with Noble three weeks later makes the situation look bad.

“Sometimes it’s not,” Maher said. “But if the optics look that way, maybe you shouldn’t do it. If you want run for public office, you need to understand there are some things you can and can’t do. Rules are different for elected people. However, if someone is mis-managing their office, go after them in that manner, rather than through the IEC.”

“Make a straight run at that,” she said. “Rather than this kind of stuff.”

If Cozad is found to be in violation, the IEC can order a monetary fine up to two times the amount they determine Cozad accepted over the $59 limit.

Cozad, who recently announced her intent to run for a second term, would only say she planned respond to the commission within the 30 days granted.

DeLorenzo said she filed the complaint with the state because she believes the people of Weld County deserve to have elected officials who are ethical.

“There is a problem in Weld County and it needs to be addressed,” DeLorenzo said. “I was raised to trust the process, and I appreciate the IEC reaffirming that belief.”

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