Dismissal right move in Coffman ethics case
Colorado’s Independent Ethics Commission, created by the notorious Amendment 41 of three years ago, completed its first full investigation of a state official this week. After more than a year of gathering information and soliciting public testimony, the commission found there was
“insufficient evidence” to conclude former Colorado Secretary of State Mike Coffman, now a U.S. congressman, violated state ethics rules.
Good for the commission, although a finding of “insufficient evidence” is hardly a ringing endorsement of Coffman’s operations.
We have had our differences with Coffman, particularly over his decision to decertify electronic voting machines last year. But we have always found him to be an honorable and ethical man.
The complaints lodged against him by a group called Ethics Watch always seemed far-fetched to us. They included the charges that Coffman was guilty of ethics violations because a staff member in the elections division of his office operated a partisan Web site on the side and that Coffman certified electronic voting machines for a company that used the same consulting firm that he used in his campaign.
But Coffman halted the operation of the Web site and transferred the employee responsible for it out of elections as soon as he found out about it.
And, as the ethics panel noted, the person handling Coffman’s account with the consulting firm and the one handling the account for the voting-machine company didn’t have any contact with each other regarding their accounts. And there was never any indication that
Coffman somehow personally benefited from the third-hand connection.
How many degrees of separation must a public official have before he is safe from ethics complaints?
Coffman’s case also illustrates an ongoing problem with Amendment 41 and the ethics panel it created: That it can be used by political opponents to target public officials, especially at election time. That’s exactly what happened in Coffman’s case, he maintained.
In a statement released after the ruling, Coffman described Ethics Watch as “a highly partisan political organization that disguises itself as a nonpartisan and nonprofit group.”
Coffman’s attorney said the group never really cared about building a solid case against the Republican politician. “They were more concerned about damaging his reputation publicly,” he said.
We’re glad the ethics panel ended its investigation of Coffman without finding evidence of improper behavior on his part. But he still spent more than a year fighting allegations that never would have found their way into any kind of criminal court case.
The ethics panel must take care that it doesn’t allow itself to be used as an instrument for political bludgeoning,