Looking back: Colorado Ethics Watch shuts down

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Luis Toro of Colorado Ethics Watch

The end of 2017 also brought the end of Colorado Ethics Watch, a nonprofit watchdog group.

Ethics Watch was founded in 2006, the year that Colorado voters approved a constitutional amendment limiting gifts to public officials and creating an Independent Ethics Commission.

The group filed complaints with the ethics commission and Secretary of State in connection with issues of ethics, campaign finance and lobbying. The group also conducted research into those issues.

We sat down last month with  Luis Toro, who joined the organization in 2008 and became executive director in 2010. The conversation has been edited for brevity.

Tell us about the origins of Ethics Watch and why it’s going away?

When I joined it was already late in its second year of existence. It’s always been a struggle to keep the doors open. It’s always been hanging by a thread. This stuff is not as compelling as, say, hurricane relief.

Over the last few years, the number of complaints has gone up without us driving it. We’ve been spreading the word about how to file these complaints and prosecute them yourself. It’s no longer true that if Ethics Watch doesn’t do it, nobody will. The climate in Colorado has evolved and there’s a lot more citizen and group involvement in the ethics and campaign finance world.

How has the landscape changed in terms of ethics in the last 11 years?

The big change was Amendment 41. The biggest change was the legislature had to comply with the gift limits, and they by and large have.

On the one hand, people stopped taking Broncos tickets that cost more than $59. On the other hand, people also figured out you can hold a pretty nice reception for legislators and not spend $59 per legislator. A lobbyist can’t give a gift, but the company that employs a lobbyist can.

The biggest change with the ethics commission is at the local level. People are really passionate about their local governments and there have been a lot of cases filed. The level of awareness of the restrictions of Amendment 41 is much lower at the municipal level than it is at the legislature.

What was the biggest impact Ethics Watch had?

When Scott Gessler was Secretary of State, he tried to weaken the campaign finance rules under the guise of recodifying them. We sued to block a number of those rules in Denver District Court and we won on all but one. It went to the Court of Appeals and they reversed on the one we lost on and affirmed everything else. Every challenge we made to those rules succeeded.

For instance, ads that run in the last 60 days before an election are subject to disclosure. The rules that we challenged would have narrowed that to ads that specifically said “vote for or vote against” a candidate instead of the ones that say “call them and tell them something.”

With the ethics commission, when they first started, they weren’t taking seriously at all their responsibility to investigate complaints. We raised a lot of fuss with them, and in 2011 they did a major overhaul of their procedural rules. They’re not all the way where we’d like them to be on that, but it was a huge improvement. It really opens the door more to ordinary citizens.

Is there anything you would have liked to accomplished that you haven’t?

I would have liked to have evolved beyond our mandate of ethics and campaign finance, and kind have become a counterweight to groups like the Independence Institute or now the Goldwater Institute from Arizona has come into Colorado to file lawsuits to challenge our campaign finance laws.

While Ethics Watch was kind of the group, along with Colorado Common Cause, that would weigh in on those cases defensively, there was no kind of offensive, affirmative strategy, and there still isn’t to counteract the attempts to weaken our disclosure laws.

Who’s going to be watchdogging ethics in Colorado now?

I don’t really know. But I do know we’ve succeeded in getting out the word on how to do this. It’s probably harder on the campaign finance side, because you really have to be your own lawyer and try a case in court on a short schedule.

At least with the ethics commission, the number of complaints are piling up without us having to do anything.

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