LIVEBLOG: Coffman questioned at ethics hearing on conflict of interest charges
Friday, March 06, 2009 at 1:29 pm
The charges of misconduct according to Colorado Ethics Watch:
• “Secretary Coffman allowed at least one employee in his office to operate a partisan side business without proper authorization and disclosure – a business that was patently incompatible with the official duties of that employee.”
• “Secretary Coffman failed to disclose a conflict of interest between him and one of the voting system vendors seeking certification from the secretary of state’s office – the only vendor that Secretary Coffman agreed to certify.”
Read LIVEBLOG: Mike Coffman faces ethics commission to catch the morning session including opening remarks by counsel and witness testimony to the commission.
11:20 a.m. – Rep. Coffman takes the stand. His attorney, Doug Friednash, who was a Democratic state legislator, asks the commissioners whether they want to break for lunch now or interrupt Coffman’s testimony, because he’s got a lot more than 40 minutes’ worth coming. The commission agrees they’ll listen to testimony until noon and then take a brief, half-hour lunch break.
The introduction of Coffman takes a while — it’s meant to establish he’s a public servant with a lengthy record — and has never lost an election in more than two decades, though he doesn’t mention this distinction. Friednash walks Coffman through his political resumé — he’s held so many offices, stretching back to the late ’80s, that he says he can’t recall the number of the house district he first represented. Coffman then followed fellow Aurora Republican Bill Owens into a series of offices — each time Owens won election to a higher office, Coffman would take his place, either by appointment or election. When Owens gave up his state Senate seat to win the treasurer’s office, Coffman stepped in. When Owens moved from treasurer to governor, Coffman ran for and won the treasurer’s seat.
Friednash gets to make the point that Coffman and former Sen. Ken Gordon, a Democrat, many years ago shared “legislator of the year” honors from Common Cause, the good-government watchdog group. Coffman defeated Gordon in the race for secretary of state in 2006.
Now Friednash wants to establish how Coffman knew Dan Kopelman, a key employee at the secretary of state’s office who was discovered running a political Web site — PoliticalLiveWires.com — touting his position at the secretary of state’s office while, on another page, offering for sale targeted voter lists.
Kopelman had been a volunteer on various campaigns, and at some point told Coffman that if Rep. Tom Tancredo retired, he’d help Coffman run for the seat in the strongly Republican district.
Coffman says in 2006 Kopelman was working in the state treasurer’s office (run by Coffman, who had held the seat since 1998 with some time off to serve in Iraq) and had made an unsuccessful run for county treasurer, which left him with $1,500 debt from that campaign. Kopelman took two weeks unpaid leave from his state job to work on Coffman’s campaign for secretary of state. Coffman’s campaign paid Kopelman $1,500 for the two weeks — enough to retire the campaign debt from his failed primary bid for the county office — at the insistence of Kopelman’s wife, who wanted to make sure her husband didn’t go without pay while the debt sat out there, Coffman says.
Then we get into the nitty-gritty of modern campaigning. Coffman describes how most of his campaign workers — save a 16-year-old who was paid a salary for data entry — set up “contracting entities,” or businesses, so they could be paid as independent contractors. Coffman says this is how many campaigns operate, except vast operations like a Senate campaign, because it saves having to do complicated deductions. This will be important for both sides — Ethics Watch charges Coffman should have known Kopelman was running a political business, while Coffman’s attorney makes a case that it was customary for political workers to do this, and most of them let the entity go idle between campaign jobs.
Friednash elicits another point: During the two weeks when Kopelman worked for Coffman’s secretary of state campaign, he helped the candidate select a vender who sold targeted voter lists, a company called Tactical Data Solutions. Coffman says he was surprised later when he learned Kopelman supposedly had a company offering the same service, because he hadn’t mentioned it when he helped select the other company.
Coffman states that he’s “not a technical person,” and says his secretary of state campaign was the first time he had a Web site. Kopelman helped design and run Coffman’s campaign site.
Fast forward to early 2007, after Coffman won election — narrowly beating Democrat Ken Gordon in a year when Democrats swept Republicans out of office in the governor, lieutenant governor and state treasurer races. As describe din the morning’s testimony, Coffman’s deputy, Bill Hobbs, discovered Kopelman’s Web site and all hell broke loose.
Coffman said Kopelman called him, “emotional, apologetic,” at home that night. “He was literally crying on the phone,” Coffman said. Hobbs copied two pages from the site, including one that listed Kopelman’s position in Coffman’s office and another that listed his services, including an offer of targeted voter lists for sale. Coffman said he ordered his office to “immediately launch an investigation.” The big concern, he said, was the “perception of the office,” because allegations were already rocketing around on Web sites and in the news media.
After first calling the attorney general’s office — who declined to investigate the matter — Coffman said he talked with the state auditor, who agreed to “add those questions” to an audit of Coffman’s office already starting up. At the same time, Hobbs was conducting an investigation into rumors Kopelman had had access to state voter lists through his position in the office (he soon concluded he had not, though that rumor continued to bedevil Coffman for quite some time.)
Friednash asks: “Did you limit or interfere with (Hobbs’) investigation?” Coffman answers: “No, I did not.”
Hobbs, who had worked for previous secretaries of state and for years at the legislature, had never made a campaign contribution to Coffman, “nor was he a supporter,” Coffman says. Hobbs checked whether Kopelman had ever bought any voter data from the secretary of state’s office and reviewed his business records to see if he’d ever done business with the office. After discovering he hadn’t, Coffman says he concluded that Kopelman had violated two rules: 1) he didn’t see permission for outside work, as was required of all state employees, and 2) the linked claim made on Kopelman’s Web site, that he was an “election IT person” and “I can sell targeted voters lists, that was clearly incompatible” with his job.
The punishment for Kopelman, Coffman says, “was severe,” including a reduction in pay and a transfer to a job without supervisory duties.
Later, Kopelman protested that he was treated unfairly — especially in light of other employees in the same office who weren’t disciplined after they were found to have outside, unreported jobs, including a woman who walked dogs for money — but Coffman attributed Kopelman’s punishment to the fact “the allegations were so horrible.”
Friednash and Coffman move on to another part of their defense: that Ethics Watch and others who trumpeted the allegations were on a mission. The allegations, Coffman says, were “coming from partisan groups trying to exploit the issue. The allegations were wild.” At Friednash’s prompting, Coffman says: “The allegations were unfounded.”
1:30 p.m. – “Mr. Coffman,” his attorney asks, “how important is your reputation to you?” Unsurprisingly, Coffman replies: “Very important.”
Next, the accused fires back, looking angry and pounding the desk for emphasis. “I’ve absolutely been targeted,” Coffman says. “This isn’t about ethics. They targeted who they felt was the senior Republican in the state. I’m very flattered,” he adds to some laughter, before delivering what will surely be the money quote for the handful of reporters covering the hearing:
“It was essentially a two-year jihad,” Coffman says, glaring at Toro and Taylor. “It was all about how many press releases they could manufacture so they could go back to their donors and say they’re doing their jobs.”
He pours it on: His accusers were also trying “to discredit the election process in general,” Coffman says, hoping to claim foul if they lost in 2008. “They are a group that masqueraded as being concerned about ethics.” He steadies himself and continues. “No other department in state government is held to that standard, nor are they” — pointing to the Ethics Watch attorneys — “held to that standard.”
With that, Friednash is finished and turns his witness over to Toro for cross-examination.
1:45 p.m. – Toro circles. He asks about the arrangement Coffman made to hire Kopelman for his campaign, paying him the same amount Kopelman owed on his failed primary bid. “Is it legal for one campaign to retire the debt of another campaign?” Toro asks. “He was compensated for his time,” Coffman answers curtly.
Toro starts going through the voluminous exhibits to the case. He asks Coffman about payments to Political Live Wires (Kopelman’s business), including expense reimbursements. Coffman repeats a point that it’s SOP to set up consulting companies for political workers to get paid.
An outburst from Coffman, visibly frustrated: “It would be insane for anyone to think” that Ethics Watch’s allegations are founded. He says as soon as he found out about what Kopelman had done, he ordered an investigation and set about changing policy to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.
Toro sparks an exchange between lawyers when he asks the commission to “direct the witness to answer the question,” rather than giving a speech. Friednash rises to argue Coffman did answer the question, even if Toro didn’t like his answer. This “Law & Order” scuffle ends quickly and Toro resumes his questions.
Toro refers to exhibit after exhibit, quite painstakingly laying the groundwork for what appears to be an argument that Coffman couldn’t help but grasp that Kopelman was operating a partisan political business because he kept sending e-mails listing GOP events to Coffman from Political Live Wires. Coffman says his office got hundreds of requests to attend events, and anyway, his scheduler eventually stopped using the Political Live Wires event calendar because “they didn’t update it often enough” and it contained inaccuracies.
Coffman says he didn’t think that Kopelman’s e-mail blasts were a business — he thought it was volunteer work, and reminds Toro he was unaware of the Web site until Hobbs discovered it and Kopelman brought it to his attention.
Toro zeroes in — the Web site, which offered to sell targeted voter lists, was somehow incompatible with Kopelman’s official duties, but sending out a calendar wasn’t? Coffman says his employees operated under the same rules as all the other state employees — except for the Legislative Council, which forbids any partisan activity — and could politic on their own time so long as they didn’t use state resources. As soon as he learned what Kopelman had done, Coffman says, he “took fairly aggressive action” and changed the rules so Elections division employees and IT workers who support Elections had to refrain from partisan activity entirely.
2:50 p.m. – After a short break, Toro is back questioning Coffman. He points Coffman’s attention to more exhibits … but Coffman is having none of it. He stops and says, “This is really getting ridiculous,” and asks to talk to the commissioners directly. He talks about leadership, citing his military background and the responsibility commanders take for their troops. “You take responsibility for it, but is it an ethical violation?” he asks. “Do I wish things would have been different if I had eyes behind my head? Sure. Did I take immediate action? Yes I did.”
Coffman continues. “We’re really splitting hairs. The issues were so big,” he says, describing the early months when he first took office in 2007, when the secretary of state’s office was faced with voting machine certification and other problems he says he wanted to solve before the 2008 election was upon the state. “I turned my attention to policy and not the administrative aspects of the job,” he says. Again, he pounds the desk to emphasize his words, a steady drumbeat.
Toro quotes from the state auditor’s report, which lists improvements that could be made to avoid conflicts. Coffman fires back that his office made the improvements between the time the audit was conducted and the report issued. He says the crux of the problem with Kopelman was his Web site, touting his background in the secretary of state’s office and the separate section soliciting the sale of targeted vote lists. “That is the issue they (state auditors) found to be incompatible,” Coffman says. He’s pushing back against Toro’s claim that e-mails received by Coffman’s office should have been enough to alert Coffman that Kopelman was running a partisan business.
“If it were just the fact he had a business,” Coffman says, “it would have been treated the same as the others” — the woman who walked dogs, the IT worker who did some computer consulting on the side. Neither of those workers were disciplined, they simply had to fill out the required forms notifying the office of their outside work, but Kopelman was demoted and handed a pay cut for his transgression.
3:12 p.m. –