Colorado Supreme Court weighs secrecy of state ethics commission

From The Colorado Independent: The Colorado Supreme Court now has two cases before it that could either affirm or weaken the authority of the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission to keep much of it’s work reviewing ethics complaints against public officials out of the public eye.

The first case is an appeal from former Secretary of State Scott Gessler over an ethics commission ruling that Gessler improperly used taxpayer money to attend a Republican Party function. The second case, from the commission itself, is a lawsuit against Colorado Ethics Watch. The commission has asked the court to uphold the panel’s right to dismiss frivolous complaints without further judicial review.

The second case is one in a series of battles between the ethics commission and government watchdog Ethics Watch. The case began with a complaint lodged against Elbert County Commissioner Robert Rowland by Ethics Watch, which the commission dismissed as frivolous. Ethics Watch fought back, and that’s led the ethics body to take on the watchdog in the state’s highest court.

The issue of what happens to frivolous matters is not a small one. In a review of complaints filed in the past three years, more than 70 percent of the 48 have been tossed because the panel found them “frivolous” – a term loosely defined in the commission’s rules as lacking “a rational argument” for review based on facts or law.

And there’s a catch to these frivolous decisions: They’re confidential. Once the panel does its preliminary review on a complaint and decides that it’s frivolous, the matter goes under lock and key and the board doesn’t disclose even who the complaint is filed against, much less the substance. This is all allowed under the amendment to the state constitution that created the panel.

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