Morse complaint turned over to ethics committee

The Colorado Statesman

A Senate ethics panel has been organized to look into allegations lodged against Senate Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs.

The request for an ethics investigation was filed with the Senate on March 10 by the Colorado Government Accountability Project (CoGAP), a conservative non-profit that investigates alleged Democratic wrong-doing. The founder of CoGAP, Stephanie Cegielski, is a former employee of the Secretary of State’s office who is tied to Republican activists, conservative blogs, and the current Secretary of State. To date, CoGAP, which claims it is non-partisan, has filed complaints only against Democrats or organizations linked to Democrats.

The CoGAP complaint, which alleges “misuse of taxpayer dollars and possible criminal violations,” says Morse billed the General Assembly for per diem reimbursement for 221 off-session days in 2009. The letter alleged Morse had three reasons cited per diem requests for off-session days: being present at the Capitol, attending a committee or interim committee meeting, or doing “constituent work.”

On March 20, CoGAP filed an amended complaint, noting that the original complaint erred in the number of days claimed, and said the actual number of days of per diem was 211. However, in a review of Morse’s per diem documents provided on CoGAP’s website, The Colorado Statesman found the actual number of off-session per diem days Morse billed was 206.

Morse has until Monday at 5 p.m. to file his response to the complaint. The ethics committee appointed to review the complaint then has 30 days to review and make recommendations, if any, for action. The committee is made up of Sens. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins; Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora; Pat Steadman, D-Denver; Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield; and Nancy Spence, R-Centennial.

According to the CoGAP complaint, Morse’s calendar for 2009 “raises a number of questions about the type of constituent work he conducted.” The complaint alleged the calendars had no entries for many of the days claimed.

The CoGAP complaint also said Morse traveled to conferences in San Diego, San Francisco and to China, travel that raises “ethical concerns about what type of leadership work was being conducted while traveling.” The complaint notes the conferences were hosted by the National Conference of State Legislatures, “so presumably there were other members of the legislature in attendance who were not able to claim a per diem reimbursement.” According to Legislative Council, while non-leadership legislators cannot claim per diem or travel reimbursements off-session except for committee attendance, legislative leaders can claim the per diem for attending conferences, such as NCSL, and can have travel expenses covered.

Colorado Revised Statute 2-2-307 (3)(a) says that members of leadership, including the Senate President, Speaker of the House, and the Senate and House Majority and Minority Leaders are “entitled” to $99 per day for necessary meetings or functions, or to attend to matters pertaining to the General Assembly, whether those matters are at the Capitol or elsewhere. The same section of statute also says that legislative leaders are entitled to reimbursement of travel and subsistence expenses off-session.

Cegielski said Thursday that if Morse unlawfully claimed per diem, he could be violating criminal statutes related to embezzlement of public property. “I believe the reimbursements for out-of-state travel could fall under either criminal or ethical violations,” she said. “If he wrongly claimed the money there could be a criminal argument; if he traveled and did not truly do leadership work it raises an ethical flag since the leadership per diem is designed for leadership activities.”

Morse told The Statesman that he has never had any contact of any kind with Cegielski, who filed the CORA request with the Legislative Council. He said Cegielski never asked him about his calendars or the type of information she was seeking.

In 2006, five people lodged a complaint against then-House Minority Leader Joe Stengel, R-Littleton, for billing the General Assembly for per diem compensation on days he did not work. The complaint was ultimately dismissed. According to the Denver Post, Stengel resigned his leadership post "after he was caught lying" to Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff about a Rocky Mountain News story in which Stengel claimed he had Romanoff’s permission to bill per diem for a trip to Hawaii.

The ethics committee report on the Stengel complaint, filed April 11, 2006, pointed out that “Leadership is allowed considerable discretion in deciding whether to claim per diem,” and that “legal justification for what constitutes a day’s work is not defined in statute,” although the committee was clear that a phone call per day, as was claimed by Stengel for some days, was not acceptable as a day’s work as a matter of common practice.

The committee recommended the General Assembly “reexamine the interim per diem provisions” of statute to determine if modifications should be made to avoid similar situations in the future. While the statute has been modified three times, in 2006, 2007 and 2010, none of those modifications deal with per diem for interim session work by legislative leaders.

CoGAP is a non-profit, registered with the Colorado Secretary of State as a 501(c)4 under IRS regulations; Cegielski told The Statesman last year that the organization was “self-funded” but she has since refused requests from the media to identify the organization’s current funding.

Cegielski has been linked in the past to Scott Gessler, prior to his election as Secretary of State. In a complaint filed last year against then-Secretary of State Bernie Buescher, Gessler admitted last year he may have had “input” into the complaint, filed by Robert McGuire, Cegielski’s attorney, although the complaint was actually filed on behalf of Nickelette Bigham-Gullette, an Adams County GOP activist. McGuire told The Statesman that Bigham-Gullette was “familiar” with the work of CoGAP on Buescher. In addition, Cegielski told The Statesman she had spoken to McGuire about the issue, although she claimed not to know Bigham-Gullette.

Cegielski’s ties to Gessler, the original letter of complaint, and the timing of the complaint also is raising eyebrows at the Capitol. The original press release, dated Feb. 23, was half about Morse’s per diem and the other half criticizing Morse for going after funds in the Secretary of State’s office. The press release pointed out that Morse had sponsored amendments to cut the budgets of Attorney General John Suthers and Gessler, and during debate on Senate Bill 11-164, said Morse “chastised Secretary of State Scott Gessler for his claims that he could not live on a salary of $68,500. Morse went on to say that Gessler ‘needed to tighten his belt the way ordinary Coloradans have.’ Sen. Morse has been quick to criticize others while collecting state money at a rate superior to his fellow members of leadership,” the press release said.

Cegielski said the timing of the complaint was “coincidental” with regard to the budget discussions. She said she spent five months gathering and analyzing information and talking to “former members of leadership to ensure that my findings were accurate and justified.”

Last September, CoGAP alleged Buescher spent as much as 14 weeks out of his first 20 months in office on personal business, but the conclusions was not supported by the documentation she provided. Cegielski obtained copies of Buescher’s calendar through an open records request, checking his activities only for the hours between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., and based her assumptions about his personal time on dozens of appointments marked as private, as well as time spent on out-of-state travel. As is the case with Morse, Cegielski never contacted Buescher to ask about his calendar, and more importantly, never asked what those private appointments were for or for the purposes of the travel. She later admitted the travel could have been related to state business. Buescher told The Statesman at the time of the allegations that the private appointments were for recurring meetings pertaining to his official duties, such as with county clerks, and that he often conducted the business of the Secretary of State on weekends and after 5 p.m., which he said was also reflected on his calendar. “It’s not an 8 to 5 job,” he said.

CoGAP has also filed campaign finance complaints against Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder; former Attorney General candidate Stan Garnett, and Accountability for Colorado (AfC), a Democrat-linked 527 campaign group. The complaint against Pommer was dismissed by an administrative law judge; it is currently under appeal. In the complaint against AfC, the administrative law judge ruled the group did not violate federal campaign finance laws but did commit “a minor infraction” of disclosure requirements, and did not levy any fines or sanctions for that infraction. An administrative law judge levied a $500 fine against Garnett for failing to terminate a 2008 District Attorney campaign committee, but the judge also wrote that he believed the violation was “inadvertent” and not intentional, “as indicated by the prompt correction” when the matter was brought to Garnett’s attention.

Marianne@coloradostatesman.com