Colorado Ethics Watch group comes to an end after eleven years

NEXT WITH KYLE CLARK - Colorado Ethics Watch will close up shop after eleven years. The state's watchdog "identified breaches in ethic codes and campaign finance law, worked towards legislative fixes in accountability and transparency, and monitored the activities of the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission," according to their website

Luis Toro, executive director of Ethics Watch, sat down for an interview with Next with Kyle Clark to talk about who will now watch on behalf of Coloradans when the group closes its doors at the end of the year. 

Q: Who’s watching the ethics at that point?

A: We’re hoping that we’ve already paved the way to have citizens help enforce ethics law because what’s unique about Colorado is that ordinary citizens and private groups are expected to enforce campaign finance and ethics laws at their own expense so when we started in 2006, we can really say if ethics watch didn’t do it no one would, and that’s really not true anymore. We’ve seen a record number of ethics complaints filed this year with the state ethics commission and we didn’t file any of them.

Other people are also filing campaign finance complaints, we’ve kind of shown that it could be done and as far as that work goes, we haven’t been filing much and other people have so that’s really our core area that we have to worry about being taking care of and other than that, the work we’ve done in transparency can be done by the Freedom of Information Coalition, a lot of the legislative work we’ve done, we could look to the Common Cause  to continue to carry that torch, so I feel confident that the work we’ve done is not going to fall by the wayside.

Q: I imagine though, this do-it-yourself ethics policing system means that there’s a lot of people out there with a lot of different axes to grind that are filing these ethical complaints. Is there anything wrong with that?

A: It’s not an ideal system. If it were up to me, it would be a system more like the (…) state systems where there’s a filter and a government agency accepts the complaints and then does its own investigation and decides which ones to pursue using prosecutorial discretion. I mean here, there is no prosecutorial discretion. If you file a complaint and you’re in, at least as far as money and politics go, so there are people with axes to grind. I think the philosophy is by outsourcing the prosecution of the private sector, frankly it saves the state money. We don’t have the budget for a new ethics enforcement agency or a new campaign finance enforcement agency, so the ethics commission and the campaign finance enforcement system, outsource that to the private sector.

Q: Let’s talk about your budget. You said that one of the reasons why Colorado Ethics Watch is closing down is because the funding just wasn’t there. So people are not interested in funding cleaning government anymore or what?

A: Couple of things. One, it’s hard to make the case for the, like I was saying, it’s necessary that we be around or else no one’s going to file complaints, but the other part is in the age of Trump, there’s so much going on in the federal level, people look to Colorado and say, “Where’s the big problem? What are we trying to address?" when there’s so much going on federally, so the federal D.C. days ethics groups are doing really well and those of us out in the states not so much.

Q: You contrast local versus federal. I’d love for you to contrast government ethics in Colorado versus other states.

A: We’re not perfect, a lot of things have come up through the systems we have that show that everything is not on the up and up, but I think in general, we’re probably in the top half of the states for good ethical behavior.

Q: What do you consider to be Colorado Ethics Watch’s biggest wins over the years? Biggest impacts?

A: I think the longest lasting impacts are going to be in the area of money and politics where there were attempts by the then Secretary of State Scott Gessler who rewrites campaign finance rules to make it easier for groups not to have to disclose money and those were done through formal rule making and we took those to court and two lawsuits working with Colorado Common Cause and all those rules that we challenged were thrown out.

So for example, ads that run in the last 60 days before an election or 30 days before a primary are called electioneering communications and spending on that has to be disclosed whether or not the ads actually say “vote for a candidate” instead of saying call them and tell them something, so because of our win, those ads have to be disclosed regardless of whether they say vote for or not and if they’re just the so called call and tell ads, they have to be disclosed anyway and that’s a permanent win- it can’t be changed by a later secretary of state. That’s why I think it’s a long-lasting victory.

WATCH our full interview with Luis Toro: 

Q: So you guys mix it up very prominently with Scott Gessler, Republican Secretary of State and you know that there are Republicans who looked at Colorado Ethics Watch and said, “You guys existed to be a problem for Republicans to make them spend money” and you let them slide.

A: Well I’d say that that as far as money and politics go, there is a difference and there is definitely philosophical debate between those who think money and politics are generally bad and those who think that it’s a kind of free expression and as far as, is it progressive to want to have more disclosure in politics and less of the corrupting influence of money then yes. We are going to naturally clash with those who believe the other way and that’s exactly what happens. But if you look at some of the other work we’ve done with the CFOIC and working for transparency, we’ve worked hand-in-hand with the independents institute on open records laws and those issues don’t break down along liberal and conservative lines and so I think that when it’s been on transparency, we’ve been part of the kind of watchdog side versus government’s officials who might prefer to keep things quiet.

Q: As an easier case I think for conservatives to make years back when you guys were getting a lot of your funding from CREW which is a group in D.C. that also does good government stuff but is headed by a bunch of pretty prominent liberals. They for years, CREW did, put out a list of the most corrupt politicians in Washington. You guys used to do this way back in Colorado, why’d you stop?

A: Mostly because we didn’t have the same degree of corruption that they have in Washington. We’re talking about 435 members of Congress, all of whom have to raise a ton of money plus another hundred senators. That’s really happy hunting grounds for corruptions with all that money sloshing around in D.C. and here in Colorado, we only have 100 legislators and they’re relatively well-behaved.

So to try to gin up something that resembled the most corrupt list of D.C. started to have to look at county commissioners and town council members who were doing things that just didn’t seem quite so horrible. So, that project didn’t last very long.

Q: If you had to come up with a mini most corrupt list in Colorado, could you come up with the names if you had to?

A: Probably not. We don’t have those very high-profile money in the freezer type of politicians that you see in other states.

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