DENVER – The Independent Ethic Commission (IEC) agreed on Monday not to dismiss an ethics complaint against a Weld County Commissioner.
The group wants to take a closer look at whether they have jurisdiction over the complaint, if they determine they do at their next meeting, the next step would be to assign an investigator.
Commissioner William Leone recused himself from the proceedings as his law firm represents Noble Energy, one of the key parties of the case.
In July, Johnstown resident Ellen DeLorenzo filed a complaint with the IEC alleging Weld County Commission Chairwoman Julie Cozad violated Article XXIX of the Colorado Constitution by accepting a gift of more than $59 when she accepted an invitation from Noble Energy to attend a fundraiser on Jan. 27 in Greeley for North Colorado Medical Center.
In the complaint, DeLorenzo contends that Cozad and her husband sat at a table with seats valued at $2,500 each, yet paid just $370 for the seats. DeLorenzo also argued that even if the lowest value ticket was considered, Cozad still received the benefit of the event for $180 less than the public paid. The event was open to the public for a minimum $550 per couple.
Article XXIX prohibits elected officials from accepting gifts for themselves or their spouses or children valued at more than $59. If found in violation, Cozad faces up to a $9,941 fine.
DeLorenzo also alleges Cozad voted in favor of a use by special review request requested by Noble three weeks later. It was the presenter in that case, Greg Pickerel, who invited Cozad to sit at his table.
The IEC handbook does take into consideration what it calls “other standards” including appearance of impropriety, which states: “Occasionally a situation will arise which, although legally and/or technically appropriate, may nevertheless raise concern regarding the potential for an appearance of impropriety. 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.”
Whether the IEC has the ability to hear the case, however, is being challenged.
Section 7 of the law gives Home Rule municipalities and counties the option to create their own regulations so long as they are equal to or more stringent than state laws.
In her response Cozad argued Weld County’s Home Rule Charter and county code have addressed the issue. She asked that the complaint be dismissed.
She also said she had handled the complaint in the most transparent way possible.
“I followed the rules and acted in an ethical manner,” Cozad wrote in her response. “It is important to me that I do things with integrity. I understand, that as an elected official, that we need to make sure that we do things in an open and transparent way.”
Cozad maintained she did not discuss any quasi-judicial land use cases with any possible land use applicants at the event, but did not directly address that she shared a table with Pickerel. She also said commissioners are not advised of land use cases until a recommendation is made by the planning commission.
It is not known when that happened in this case. However, on the day of the land use case, Cozad addressed DeLorenzo’s concerns but disagreed and did not recuse herself.
On Monday, the IEC gave both DeLorenzo and Cozad 30 days to respond why they believe the ethics board does or does not have jurisdiction in the matter. They also invited amicus briefs during the same time period.
DeLorenzo and Cozad will then have 15 days to respond.
Briefs must be filed by Nov. 29. Reply briefs must be filed by Dec. 14. Briefs will be posted to the IEC’s website. Briefs and reply briefs may be emailed to email@example.com.
Amicus briefs are briefs of information about the situation from anyone not a party to the case. Weld County Attorney Bruce Barker cannot represent Cozad individually, but he said he would wait to see what the IEC posted in writing before responding as to whether he will file a brief on behalf of Weld County.
The IEC has scheduled a jurisdictional hearing for Dec. 21.
Cozad and three other Weld County Commissioners – Barbara Kirkmeyer, Mike Freeman and Steve Moreno, have been the center of controversy in Weld for the past 18 months. They have been scrutinized for flagrant spending, ex parte communications, and fringe benefit violations that have led to the county being placed under an IRS audit, to name a few.
After fellow commissioner Sean Conway blew the whistle on ex parte communications with Xcel Energy, they disenfranchised more than 70,000 voters by taking away all Conway’s duties as commissioner.
They also ordered an investigation into whether Conway caused a hostile work environment after four employees claimed he yelled at them in the course of their employment. A Weld County Judge determined the investigation did not find Conway created such an environment.
Conway has put the County on notice he intends to sue over the issues.
Recently the Commission was subject to a performance audit that led to several recommendations for better transparency, need for whistleblower programs, better spending practices, among other things. That led to the four commissioners voting to refer a measure to the November ballot to disband the oversight board that ordered the audit, drawing the ire of other elected officials around the state.
It could be several months before the IEC makes a final determination. Cozad is up for re-election in 2018 and is being challenged by Johnstown Mayor Scott James for the Republican ticket.