Despite attempts to clarify, Amendment 41 still puzzling

By April M. Washington, Rocky Mountain News

January 6, 2007

Some 400 government officials, public employees, lobbyists and others gathered Friday in an attempt to decipher the dos and don’ts of Amendment 41, the sweeping new ethics law.

Many left the seminar uncertain as ever about the law’s impact on their professional and personal lives. “There still remains the issue of some groups being hurt by this,” said lobbyist Donnah Moody.

Such as:

The children of elected officials and public employees who may not be able to accept scholarships and other offerings that they rightfully earn;

And those who win awards and prizes, such as the University of Colorado’s Nobel Prize winners. Under Amendment 41, the laureates might not be able to take their cash stipends.

In the end, the consensus seemed to be that only the legislature can refine Amendment 41 to answer all the questions.

“The sixty-four-dollar question is, what will the legislature say?” said Mark Grueskin, an attorney hired by proponents to help draft clarifying legislation. “This isn’t one issue that legislators are anxious to take on.”

The legislature can’t say much, the Democratic leadership responded emphatically on Friday.

“Even if nobody intended for the children of public employees to be denied scholarships, I don’t know how you write it to say it doesn’t include them,” said House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver.

Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald said it’s not a matter of political will.

“Whether you like it or not, that’s what you’ve got. I don’t see how we can carve out the absurd results,” said Fitz-Gerald, D- Coal Creek Canyon.

There was no shortage of questions and concerns about the new law’s far-reaching implications at the seminar Friday at the downtown Hyatt Regency.

“There’s a huge problem of understanding the implications of this new law because we all are absolutely in a huge vacuum,” said David Broadwell, an assistant city attorney for Denver.

Amendment 41 bans elected officials and most state and local government employees from accepting gifts worth more than $50 in a calendar year. It does allow gifts from relatives or friends on a “special occasion,” but doesn’t define special occasions.

Last month, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers stated in a legal opinion that the ethics law bars CU professors from accepting Nobel Prize money and public employees’ children from accepting certain scholarships.

Proponents called Suthers’ interpretation absurd, saying the clear intent of the ethics measure is to curb lobbyists’ influence at the state Capitol and to ensure public officials do not trade favors for private gain.

Grueskin acknowledged the language in Amendment 41 is broad and some provisions are unclear. He said the amendment gives the legislature room to interpret the law in a reasonable way that would allow for scholarships and monetary awards.

Inside Amendment 41

Bans lobbyists, public officials and government workers and their immediate family members from accepting gifts worth more than $50 in a calendar year.

Bans state lawmakers from accepting freebies such as meals, sporting tickets, theater tickets and golfing trips if valued over $50.

States that any public official who breaches “the public trust for private gain” shall be assessed a penalty valued at double the amount of the gift given.

Allows nonprofit organizations to cover travel expenses of state and local government officials to attend a convention or fact-finding trip if the official is scheduled to speak at such events.

Allows government employees and elected officials to accept gifts from friends and relatives on a special occasion, but doesn’t define a special occasion.

Allows the legislature to set parameters for implementing legislation that:

Sets the criteria for what comprises a frivolous ethics complaint.

Defines activities that do not violate the public trust for private gain.

Clarifies limits on gifts and items of value when meant to influence a public official in a decision-making position.

Defines what constitutes a special-gift-giving occasion.Source: Attorney Mark Grueskin or 303-954-5086

Copyright 2007, Rocky Mountain News. All Rights Reserved.