Media should provide perspective on how previous Colorado Secretaries of State have handled conflicts of interest

With the partisan glow emanating ever more brightly from Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler, it’s worth taking a moment to think back on another SOS conflict-of-interest brouhaha that spilled out of the Secretary of State’s office in Colorado in recent years.

The local media hasn’t done much of this, so I’ll fill in the journalistic gap a bit here.

You may recall that a few months after Mike Coffman became Secretary of State in 2007, it was revealed that one of his new hires, Dan Kopelman, was running a partisan consulting business on the side. Kopelman was accused of selling SOS voter lists to Republican candidates. 

Kopelman was promoting his business on his website by highlighting his day job at the Secretary of State’s office.

Coffman admitted at the time that hiring GOP election consultant Kopelman to help oversee elections was a mistake, because of the appearance of conflict of interest, but he said he did not know Kopelman continued running the side business, illegal under state law, after he was hired. Kopelman was demoted and re-assigned. (Later, Colorado Ethics Watch filed a complaint against Coffman before the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission, alleging that he knew about Kopelman’s moonlighting biz. This was dismissed.)

Against the backdrop of secretary-of-state fiascos in Florida and Ohio, Coffman was quoted at the time as saying the Kopelman incident represented a “failure of leadership” on his own part. This is an expression of contrition that we haven’t yet heard from Gessler, even though Gessler has been acting as if conflict of interest is to be expected from the SOS, and he articulated this categorically when he told the Greeley Tribune in March that he hopes to use the SOS office to “further the conservative viewpoint.”

A couple weeks after Kopelman was accused of selling voter data (an allegation that was never proven), Coffman instituted personnel rules banning SOS staffers who worked on election matters from engaging in partisan political activities, including attending caucuses or conventions.

Coffman also told The Denver Post that he, personally, would not endorse or contribute to candidates or initiatives.

A BigMedia review of Coffman’s subsequent political donations from June 2007 to November 2008 shows that he did not contribute to candidates during his SOS service, but his wife did, and he, his wife, and his political groups gave a total of $2,625 to GOP political entities, according to state and federal databases

This includes $300 that his wife, Cynthia Coffman, gave directly to “Bob Schaffer for US Senate,” about month after her husband promised to stop donating to partisan candidates.

It also includes $1,629 given to GOP groups by Coffman himself, including $420 Coffman gave to the Jefferson County Republican Central Committee, $350 to the Arapahoe County Republican Party, and $300 he gave to the Douglas County Republican Central Committee. 

Coffman had to have known that groups like these collect money and, in turn, give much of it directly to candidates.

The rest of the $2,625 was donated to Republican groups by Cynthia Coffman ($312 to GOP groups plus the $300 for Schaffer) or by Coffman for Congress ($384).

Coffman gave an additional $2,216 to his own congressional campaign in 2008, which you’d have to count as a violation of his promise not to give to partisan candidates, unless he doesn’t count himself as partisan.

Apparently Coffman kept his promise about not making partisan candidate endorsements, though his office would not return my calls to confirm this or, for that matter, to comment for this post at all.

Gessler, on the other hand, has yet to donate to GOP candidates or groups, but he has taken endorsements to a new height, the presidential level, having thrown his weight behind Mitt Romney

Colorado’s last Secretary of State, Bernie Buescher, endorsed Cary Kennedy for Treasurer, and some other Colorado candidates.

Gigi Dennis, CO Secretary of State before Coffman, endorsed Bob Beauprez in 2006 and possibly others, she told me, adding, “I was always very careful about any endorsements, and I did not put my name on fundraising letters and invitations, that sort of thing.”

I didn’t ask her what she thought of Gessler’s dunk tank fundraiser.

“Secretary Gessler has an important role as the state’s chief elections officer,”  Jenny Flanagan, Executive Director of Common Cause, emailed me. “For voters to have confidence in our elections, they need to believe that the Secretary’s decisions are in the best interest of the state and not for the benefit of a particular candidate or political party.  To hold the public’s trust, the Secretary should refrain from partisan activities, whether it is endorsing candidates or fundraising for political parties.”

Some people thought Coffman’s post-Kopelman reforms didn’t go far enough, or were developed for self-serving reasons and ignored as Coffman ran for Congress, but a Post editorial at the time called the reforms “sound policy and should be a permanent rule in the secretary of state ‘s office, even after Coffman is gone.”

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