Denver grand jury finds no criminal conduct in official’s use of taxpayer money

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Greg Campbell Contributor
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A Denver grand jury found that embattled Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler did not break the law in spending about $1,400 of taxpayer money to attend a Republican lawyers’ convention in Florida in 2012.

A spokesman for Gessler contrasted the jury’s decision favorably to an earlier ruling by a state ethics commission.

But the jurors called Gessler’s actions “not prudent” and “expressed displeasure” that he didn’t properly document expenses for which he was reimbursed.

Last week, the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission weighed in on the same matter, finding that Gessler inappropriately used the funds and violated state ethics rules. Gessler claimed the bipartisan commission was politically motivated and he may appeal. He was fined $2,800.

The dual investigations are a messy beginning to what so far has been a hesitant, not-quite-official campaign for governor. Last month, Gessler suspended his re-election campaign to form a fundraising committee for the governor’s race, but he hasn’t officially announced his intention to run.

The criminal and ethical inquiries stem from a trip to the Republican National Lawyers’ Association election seminar at which Gessler was speaking. He also received continuing education credits for his law license and an ethics credit. The trip also included his attending the Republican National Convention later in the week.

According to the grand jury report, Gessler later asked for reimbursement of $1,278 from his office’s discretionary fund for expenses related to the lawyers’ conference, but “provided no receipts, credit card statements or other documentation to support the expenses.”

The report notes that shoddy record keeping — “from meticulous to nearly nonexistent” — is not unusual, either for Gessler or for previous secretaries of state. In fact, Gessler had made blanket requests for the remaining end-of-fiscal-year balances in the discretionary fund on two occasions without providing any reason for the requests, one amounting to $1,400 and another for about $117.

Gessler has been raising hackles over money since practically the moment he was sworn into office in 2011. Not sure that he would be able to get by on the office’s fixed-by-law salary of $68,500, he floated a plan to moonlight part time as a lawyer for his old law firm, an idea that watchdogs saw as a conflict of interest. Gessler is an election lawyer and as secretary of state is in charge of running the state’s elections.

Colorado Ethics Watch, a left-leaning watchdog group, filed a complaint against Gessler for spending tax dollars on the Florida trip, which the group characterized as “manifestly personal and political” and “not in pursuit of state business.”

Gessler has always maintained he did nothing wrong, even though he paid back the $1,278 in what the grand jury report called an attempt to “minimize the distraction of the ethics complaint and grand jury investigation.”

The grand jury concluded that there was no criminal conduct, but that it “believes that the Secretary of State’s decision regarding the use of Discretionary Funds in order to attend a partisan and political conference like the RNLA was not prudent, especially when it was followed by a trip the Republican National Convention.”

Gessler spokesman Rich Coolidge welcomed the news.

“We fully expected this decision exonerating the secretary and appreciate the grand jury’s thorough and fair review of all the facts,” he said in an email. “We’ve already implemented changes to how our office manages the discretionary account and believe it will be a model for other state offices.”

“This is a refreshing contrast,” he added, “from the partisan and biased process used by the Independent Ethics Commission.”

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