New secretary of state plans to moonlight
The secretary of state’s job doesn’t pay enough, and the Republican recently elected to that post wants to do some moonlighting to earn more, Scott Gessler confirmed Friday.
Gessler, who defeated Grand Junction resident Bernie Buescher for the job last fall, plans to work about 20 hours a month doing legal work for a Denver law firm that once included his name, Hackstaff and Gessler LLC. The story was first reported by the Denver Business Journal in Friday’s edition.
The weekly newspaper said questions have arisen about whether Gessler legally can take outside work with a law firm, which has since renamed itself Hackstaff Law Group, that routinely does business with the Secretary of State’s Office.
Gessler defended the idea, but said he’s still waiting for word from the Attorney General’s Office to make sure he won’t be violating any state laws.
“What’s wrong with spending five hours on the weekend doing legal work?” Gessler told The Daily Sentinel. “I’d rather not have to do this. I’m not looking forward to having to spend 20 hours a month away from my family.”
The secretary of state said he needs the money because the job only pays $68,500 a year. Gessler said he expects to make an additional $20,000 a year from his outside legal work.
He said he knew how much the job paid when he ran for the office, “but does that mean I give up the right to get supplemental income?”
Gessler promised, though, that whatever work he does won’t have anything to do with the office he now oversees, saying much of it will center on contract work, research and writing.
The Republican said he had no plans to seek a ruling from the Colorado Ethics Commission on whether his idea fits under the provisions of Amendment 41, the 2006 ballot question that set standards of conduct for elected and appointed state and local officials.
Gessler said it isn’t unusual for state legislators who are attorneys to do legal work while they are in session, saying the law allows elected officials to earn outside money. He said he’s not sure, however, if the law bars elected officials from earning honoraria, but added the money he expects to earn is different.
“I’m working for a fair wage,” he said. “It’s not like I’m asking to work for $10,000 an hour.”
Luis Toro, executive director of the left-leaning Colorado Ethics Watch, said Gessler can’t compare himself to state legislators because, by definition, they are part-time workers. Statewide elected offices — governor, attorney general, treasurer and secretary of state — are more than just full-time jobs, they’re 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week jobs, he said.
Toro said it could be argued that any outside work Gessler does would violate state ethics laws because it would be no different than honoraria, which he said isn’t allowed. Still, Toro said the ethics commission has not ruled on anything like what Gessler plans to do, and it is considering asking that five-member panel to do so.
Toro said the real problem with the whole idea is the public will never know if Gessler’s outside work would conflict with his duties as secretary of state because attorney-client privilege would bar him from disclosing that.
“More generally, the problem is even if he’s not working in areas that are part of the secretary of state’s jurisdiction, his firm will be, and that’s an appearance of conflict,” Toro said. “People might be tempted to hire him on unrelated stuff as a way of making him happier, or they may think if they go to the firm, that gives them some kind of special access.”
Meanwhile, the Colorado Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the matter, as did Buescher. The former secretary of state was reached by cell phone Friday while he was driving in New Mexico, and he had not heard the news until contacted by The Daily Sentinel.
Attorney General John Suthers, a Republican, recently named Buescher, a Democrat, to lead the state services section of his office, a job the former Grand Junction legislator will start March 1. Part of Buescher’s new job will be to provide legal representation to numerous elected officials and state agencies, including Gessler.
During last year’s secretary of state’s race, a Republican group working on Gessler’s behalf criticized Buescher for campaigning during work hours, saying it was a full-time job and he wasn’t devoting all of his efforts toward serving the state.
Gessler said he agreed Buescher’s campaigning during work hours was a problem, but he had nothing to do with making that a campaign issue.