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Cost of living and conflict of interest in Colorado

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January 24, 2011

A new Secretary of State says he can't live on the office's salary, but some activists are challenging his plans for part time legal work

By Eileen McGuire-Mahony

DENVER, Colorado: Scott Gessler is looking for a part time job. With the flat economy, that would hardly bear mentioning, if he weren't the newly inaugurated Secretary of State. One of Colorado's most prominent political attorneys and a central figure in the state's Republican circles for years, Gessler now says he will continue working part time for his former lawfirm. That it is a firm specializing in election law has caused a stir.[1]

The Hackstaff Law Group was Hackstaff Gessler, LLC until Gessler was bought out and left to take office. Secretary Gessler has now announced that he will spend 20 hours a week working for his old company, something he says was always planned and that he would have disclosed on the campaign trail...if anyone had asked.[2] As head of the office that oversees campaign finance and election law in Colorado, any work Gessler does for a private law firm could lead to conflicts of interest and allegations on improper influence, a problem that remains regardless of how few hours Gessler works.[3]

At $68,500 a year, Colorado's Secretary of State makes less than many of his counterparts across the nation. However, Colorado overall tends to be on the lower end of compensating its elected officials and Gessler's long professional involvement in Centennial politicking means he certainly knew the salary going in. Numerous other elected officials hold down multiple jobs. However, members of the General Assembly are expected to work part time and paid as such. The new Lieutenant Governor, Joseph Garcia, is doubling up jobs, serving as head of Colorado's Department of Higher Education. Under Colorado law, the Lieutenant Governor must be paid the $68,500 salary; Garcia receives another $77,500 a year for his post with the Department of Higher Education, bring him up the $146,000 salary of the latter office without actually paying two full salaries.[4] The lieutenant governor and the numerous lawmakers who have second jobs have largely escaped criticism.

Because Gessler is overseeing, as the Secretary of State, the work his private law firm handles becomes an issue, and he has already said he won't be recusing himself from any cases. Hackstaff Law has declined to release Gessler's part time salary and will not name any clients who the Secretary may or may not be working with. Gessler says he has asked the Attorney General, fellow Reublican John Suthers, to review his plan. Suthers, who moonlights himself teaching lawschool courses, declined to comment.[5]

Low pay aside, Colorado's Secretary of State has had its share of upheaval and problems in recent years. The aftermath of the 2000 Presidential election led to HAVA, Federal legislation aimed at guiding voters through the ballot. One of many HAVA creations was the Election Assistance Commission, and among its first members was Colorado's then-Secretary of State, Donetta Davidson. Though serving an elected term when she left the Secretary's office for the EAC, Davidson had been herself a gubernatorial appointee after Victoria Buckley died only weeks into her second term.[6]

Davidson's departure left Republican Governor Bill Owen making the second Secretarial appointment of his career. In choosing former state Senator Gigi Dennis, Owens still managed to draw controversy. The Governor's choice was clouded in the public mind by his longtime friendship with Dennis going back to shared time in the state legislature. Dennis completed Davidson's elected term, though she declined to run for a full term herself. In the 2006 elections, largely a bloodletting for the GOP in Colorado, Republicans held the Secretary's office in the form of one-time legislator Mike Coffman.

Colorado once again had an elected Secretary of State, but it did not last. Republican Mike Coffman served less than half his term before engaging in a serious bid for Congress. When he won a place in the House, the Secretary of State was a vacant seat yet again. While Colorado law allows the Governor to name the replacement in such a situation without regard to the party of the elected official who vacated the office, Colorado Republicans fully expected Governor Ritter to select a Dem. Coffman's history of serving portions of terms before giving up one office to seek a high ranked position and the instability of the Secretary's office over the course of a decade combined to make the latest vacancy a minor crisis.

Interest in being Governor Ritter's appointee was widespread; Gessler himself let it be known he was interested.[7] In the end, Ritter named state Representative Bernie Buescher. Gessler defeated Democrat Bernie Buescher, who sought a full term, in November 2010.

Gessler's inauguration could end a streak of unusual tenures in the Secretary's office. Of Gessler's five predecessors, there are two who left for other positions, two appointees, and one death in office. Additionally, both Coffman and Buescher fought allegations that they used the resources of the Secretary's office and time when they were supposedly working to plan partisan campaigns.[8][9] Should Secretary Gessler break that spell, it will be the first time in a decade and a half that Colorado has seen one elected Secretary complete a term.

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