Advisory panel recommends changes in Colorado House ethics inquiries |

Advisory panel recommends changes in Colorado House ethics inquiries

DENVER – After a rash of ethics complaints against state lawmakers this year, an advisory panel will suggest changes in the way allegations are handled in the House but will not recommend forming an independent ethics commission, according to a draft of proposed rules obtained by The Associated Press.The panel’s report, to be delivered this month, will recommend increasing the number of legislative leaders required to approve before a full investigation can begin, and that a retired judge advise lawmakers if an investigation is launched.But the panel decided an independent commission “was too big a leap,” even though some members favored one, said Peggy Kerns, who served on the group.”We felt that (establishment of an independent commission) should go through the Legislature,” she said.House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver, asked lawmakers to create the advisory panel after complaints were filed against three lawmakers in this year’s session, the most in any single year and the first since 1998.The state Senate hasn’t asked for a similar review. Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald, D-Golden, said Senate rules are different because frivolous charges can be excluded.Sen. Deanna Hanna, D-Lakewood, resigned amid an ethics committee investigation after she asked a real-estate group for a $1,400 contribution as “reparations” after the group gave that amount to her opponent in the last election.Rep. Joe Stengel, R-Littleton, stepped down as minority leader after a complaint that he drew state pay while on vacation. He repaid the $891 in question but denied wrongdoing and retained his seat. The House Ethics Committee later dismissed the complaint.Lawmakers also dismissed a complaint that Rep. Angie Paccione, D-Fort Collins, violated rules by offering an introduction on the state House floor for contributors to her congressional campaign. Lawmakers said there was no evidence she took any contributions with that incentive.Under the current system, two leaders of the majority party and one from the minority party decide whether an ethics complaint should be referred to an ethics committee. The ethics committee can recommend discipline ranging from reprimand to expulsion. The full House would make the final decision.Romanoff said the process is flawed because it allows ethics complaints to be used as a political weapon. He said lawmakers will look at the advisory panel’s report and may recommend their own changes before it is put to a vote next year in the House.”I want to have the best ethics process in the country and the best ethics standards in the country. I don’t think we should settle for baby steps,” he said.House Minority Leader Mike May, R-Parker, said current House rules are too vague, forcing legislative leaders to forward almost all complaints to an ethics committee, even though many of the charges may lack merit.But he said he the system isn’t being manipulated for political ends and doesn’t need major changes.”We may tweak it some. We didn’t have a political problem last time,” said May, who voted to refer the complaint against Republican Stengel to the ethics committee and to dismiss the complaint against Democrat Paccione.May said lawmakers would refuse to give up their power to make the final decision on their own members.Pete Maysmith, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, a public policy lobbying organization, said the advisory panel’s proposals do not go far enough.”Given where public confidence is with elected officials, we need to go beyond tweaking,” Maysmith said.He said an initiative headed for the ballot in November will take care of some of the problems he sees with the recommended rules changes by establishing an independent ethics committee that can set and enforce tougher standards.The initiative, which is being circulated to gather the 67,829 signatures needed to get on the November ballot, would also bar lawmakers from accepting any gifts from lobbyists, limit gifts from others and require lawmakers to sit out two years before lobbying lawmakers.Other members of the advisory panel are Roy Wood of the Center for Civic Ethics at the University of Denver; Flodie Anderson, president of the League of Women Voters; Bill Kaufman, a former Republican state representative from Loveland; and Rebecca Love Kourlis, a former state Supreme Court justice.Draft ethics proposals for lawmakersA summary of proposals from an advisory panel to improve investigation of ethics complaints against state representatives:• Increase the number of legislative leaders needed to forward a complaint to the House Ethics Committee from three to four – two from each party – to ensure it is politically balanced.• If the complaint is forwarded to the committee, name six members to the panel, three from each party. Currently, a House ethics committee has five members, three from the majority party and two from the minority.• Appoint a retired judge to advise the committee on legal matters.• Require a two-thirds vote by the committee to dismiss a complaint and only three votes to recommend the full House impose a reprimand, censure or expulsion. Currently, a simple majority vote by the committee is needed to dismiss a complaint or forward it to the full House.• Keep the current requirement for a two-thirds vote in the House to expel a member and a simple majority for censure or reprimand.

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