Public trustees group targeted in filing over trip
Mesa County Public Trustee Paul Brown and 31 other trustees in the state improperly stayed at a Black Hawk casino hotel this summer that was paid for by a Denver law firm and a software company that often do business with them, according to a government ethics watchdog group.
In its complaint filed Wednesday with the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission, Colorado Ethics Watch does not blame the trustees themselves. It does blame their nonprofit group, the Colorado Public Trustees Association.
Ethics Watch claims the nonprofit association accepted $13,500 in donations from the Denver-based law firm Castle & Meinhold and the Golden-based company Government Technology Systems in violation of Amendment 41, the state’s ethics-in-government law approved by Colorado voters in 2006. The law firm has an extensive foreclosure practice and works closely with the trustees, while GTS sells a computer software used by many of them.
“The ethics commission has already said that public officials and employees can’t use a nonprofit to get around Amendment 41,” said Luis Toro, executive director of the watchdog group.“Obviously, if this law firm had bought them a night at a hotel, that would be a violation. They didn’t do that, but it’s also a violation if you take that money into a nonprofit and then have the nonprofit pay for it.”
Logan County Trustee Patricia Barlett, president of the trustees association, couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday. Delta County Treasurer and Trustee Jim Ventrello, a member of that group and president of the Colorado Treasurers’ Association, said he couldn’t comment because of the pending complaint.
Mesa County Public Trustee Paul Brown, however, said he and the other trustees knew the money that covered their one-night hotel stay at the association’s summer conference was being paid by the group, but they didn’t know the association got the funds from the law firm and the software company.
“I did not know that the association was receiving money for those rooms,” he said. “I didn’t realize that, and I don’t think anybody realized it, at least anybody from the rank-and-file. I know I wouldn’t have accepted it had I known.”
Brown said the law firm is responsible for 40 to 45 percent of the foreclosures that go through his office, but he doesn’t use the software sold by GTS.
Each county has its own public trustee who, in most cases, also serves as that county’s treasurer, or a county treasurer appoints a trustee. The governor, however, appoints trustees in the 10 largest Colorado counties, including Mesa County. Brown and two other governor-appointed trustees attended the summer conference.
Eric Brown, spokesman for Gov. John Hickenlooper, said it would be inappropriate to comment on the ethics complaint while it is pending.
Paul Brown, however, said it is inappropriate for the association to accept donations from the law firm and the software company.
“I knew that they sponsored a dinner at every conference that we have,” he said. “But that is all I knew they were sponsoring. I did not know they were making the kind of contributions they were. We’ll be watching now.”
The complaint alleges the association violated state ethics laws in gifts it is allowed to accept from for-profit groups. As it was, the association accepted nearly 50 percent of its total annual budget from the two for-profit entities, far more than the 5 percent limit allowed by law, the complaint says.
The association put the money into an education account, then used that money to pay the hotel costs for each of the 32 trustees, which came at a rate of $99 apiece. The Colorado Constitution limits such gifts to $53 to public officials a year.
A ruling on the case isn’t expected until sometime early next year.