Ethics committee unanimously dismisses complaint against state Senate leader

The Colorado Statesman

The Senate ethics committee Tuesday unanimously dismissed a complaint lodged last month against Senate Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs.

The committee, made up of three Democrats and two Republicans, voted to send a letter to Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, notifying him that the complaint had been dismissed for lack of probable cause.

The ethics complaint was filed March 10 by the Colorado Government Accountability Project, a right-leaning non-profit run by Stephanie Cegielski that to date has lodged several complaints against Democrats.

Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs

The complaint alleged Morse misused taxpayer dollars and may have committed criminal violations in claiming 229 days of per diem for legislative work off-session in 2009. The complaint was later amended to 211 days; Morse claims the actual number is 206.

However, the complaint, while citing the statute that covers leadership per diem, never actually said Morse violated either statutes or legislative rules regarding per diem, only that the number of per diem days raised unspecified ethical concerns or questions.

Last week, the committee asked Cegielski for hard proof that Morse wasn’t doing legislative work on the days for which he claimed per diem. She didn’t have any.

In her reply, Cegielski referred the committee back to the only documentation she had: a Google calendar that Morse has said was never intended to be a complete log of all activities. Morse told The Colorado Statesman that the Google calendar is used because it’s a good way for him to stay in touch with his staff about his schedule.

The committee also asked Morse to respond to questions about vacation or other work activities that might show he was otherwise occupied on the days for which he claimed per diem. In a letter, Morse replied that he considered the job of Senate Majority Leader to be a full-time job, and that he had taken only 3.5 days of vacation in 2009.

But Morse also went above and beyond in proving that he earned every day for which he claimed per diem, according to ethics committee Chair Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora. She told The Statesman Tuesday that the committee got 8 inches of material that documented every single day for which Morse claimed the per diem.

“He provided us with 100 percent more than what is required by law,” Carroll said. The committee’s unanimous vote was a reflection that Morse had “ample justification for every day” for which he claimed per diem, she said.

But the committee also thought there was room for improvement in general in the way per diem is claimed by legislative leaders.

The committee’s letter to Shaffer will ask him to recommend to the Executive Committee of the Legislative Council two changes to statute. The first deals with the lack of definition in the statute that deals with off-session leadership per diem. The statute says legislative leaders can claim per diem for activities “pertaining to the General Assembly,” and the committee said that if the per diem were intended for leadership activities, it should say so.

The second recommendation has to do with documentation of the activities, and here the committee struggled a bit between a vague requirement and one that could be burdensome to legislators. While Morse was able to document appropriate claims for per diem for every day claimed, Carroll noted, the investigation did expose weaknesses in the process for claiming per diem, in that legislators aren’t required to provide any proof of their legislative activities.

The statute currently doesn’t require any documentation to claim the per diem. In 2006, after an ethics complaint pointed out problems in the lack of documentation, the Legislative Council came up with a form that includes a place for the legislator to certify that the claim of per diem is in accordance with statute. However, that form is not required and some legislative leaders submit per diem through letters to the Legislative Council instead of using the form. The 2006 ethics committee recommended similar changes to statute after dismissing the complaint, but that never happened.

Morse was pleased with the outcome of the Tuesday hearing, but said it was no surprise.

“I knew there was no way they’d find probable cause,” he told The Statesman. The only question was what the vote would be: 4 to 1, or 3 to 2, or unanimous, he said.

As to the complaint, Morse said the only allegation was that he worked hard and that is now apparently an ethical violation. To that, he said he is “guilty as charged! It’s the American way!”

Morse also noted that CoGAP continues to file open records requests regarding his legislative activities; the latest has to do with trips he took in 2009, through the National Conference of State Legislatures and a trip to China through the State Legislative Leaders Foundation. Morse predicted there will be no issue with the travel either, and that it’s a waste of his time to continually defend himself against these allegations. “It’s a political witch hunt,” he said. “They’re going after the wrong scalp.”

In an e-mail to The Statesman, Cegielski said she was not surprised that the complaint was dismissed. “Probable cause is a difficult standard for an ethics complaint,” she wrote. And the reason for failing to cite a specific statute or rule was because of the “vagueness of the statute and rules… it was difficult to cite a specific statute other than the one that specifically address per diem reimbursements,” she said. 

“I agree with the committees (sic) recommendation that additional information needs to be provided,” Cegielski wrote. “I believe they said he complied because the current statutes and rules are so vague that compliance is simple with an explanation such as ‘constituent work.’ President Shaffer and Speaker Carroll provided detailed explanations on their reimbursement requests which is not currently required but is the transparent approach.”

In response to a question about the basis for the complaint, Cegielski said the number of days Morse claimed “in comparison to other members of leadership seemed high. The significant difference in number of days he took versus other members of leadership led me to look at his calendars.”

Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, another member of the committee, told The Statesman that he felt that the complainant should have been asked to identify a specific allegation before the complaint ever got to an ethics committee. That didn’t happen here, he said, because that filtering step is handled by leadership, including the Senate Majority Leader, and there was “some sensitivity” in that the complaint dealt with the Senate Majority Leader.

What made the whole process difficult, he said, was that the complaint never alleged a specific violation. The number of days claimed might have raised questions or concerns, Steadman said, but “would that rise to the level of a violation? I don’t think so.”

Marianne@colorodostatesman.com