DENVER — Unanswered questions concerning recent events with the Secretary of the Colorado Senate still linger just weeks before the 72nd Colorado General Assembly is due to begin.
The session, which takes up on Jan. 4, started off wrong the day before Thanksgiving when incoming Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo abruptly fired then Senate Secretary Effie Ameen. He immediately hired former secretary, Cindy Markwell, who held the position from 2010-2015.
Both moves were deemed illegal and against Senate protocol by Legislative Legal Services. The Senate secretary can only be hired or fired by a full vote of the Senate and only when the legislature is in session. Ameen’s privileges were restored, and Markwell was never recognized as secretary, nor was she paid through the nonpartisan staff budget.
Just last week, however, Ameen resigned, Markwell was named acting secretary, and the hint of a possible lawsuit possibly led to a six-month severance package for Ameen, which included health benefits among other things.
Current Senate President Kevin Grantham said in a news release that the decision to terminate Secretary Ameen and hire a new secretary was without legal grounds and led to unfounded anonymous attacks on Ameen in the media.
“The growing potential for litigation and subsequent senseless loss of taxpayer funds necessitated a speedy resolution,” Grantham said in the release.
The anonymous attacks referred to published reports by other media outlets citing unnamed legislators that the decision to fire Ameen was in possible retaliation for how she handled sexual harassment allegations in the 2018 session. At the time, several Democrat legislators made public their frustration over her handling of such claims against Republican State Senator Randy Baumgardner.
Grantham was not available for comment, but Senate Republican Communication Director Sage Naumann said the news release did not intend to imply that the possibility of a wrongful termination lawsuit originated with Ameen.
“It was purely that litigation could be possible,” Naumann said. “It was clear we needed to come to a resolution quickly, and one that was agreeable to everyone.”
Ameen’s resignation created a vacancy, and Markwell was hired as “acting secretary.” She is expected to be hired permanently through a full vote of the senate once the session takes up.
She was officially on the payroll of the nonpartisan budget as early as Monday, the release said.
Naumann said he couldn’t speak for the senators as to whether they believe the firing was in retaliation or if there’s any belief female members of the caucus or Democratic party put pressure on Garcia. However, he said many of the senators are disgruntled by the process and the anonymous comments made to the media about Ameen.
“We can’t assign motive,” Naumann said. “President Garcia has declined to give an exact reason, and it’s a choice he seems to be sticking to.”
Naumann said they are hopeful the choice for the secretary position was not a partisan move and stressed the senators have complete confidence and faith in Markwell.
“This position is extremely important because of the service the secretary provides to all the senators, not just the one party,” Naumann said. “She obviously knows what she’s doing. Obviously, it’s the prerogative of the majority party to pick the secretary, we certainly hope they are not trying to make the position more partisan, and we have no reason to believe they are doing that.”
Naumann said Republican senators simply want to move forward and do the jobs they were elected to do.
“Our senators are looking forward to discussion on policy and principal,” Naumann said, “not how we want to spend our session. We want to get good things done for the people of Colorado. We hope this is not just the tip of the iceberg, but a misunderstanding that we can all put behind us.”