After being compelled by the court to testify Friday night, Secretary of State Scott Gessler will have to wait until next Thursday to learn the outcome of his ethics hearing.
The Colorado Independent Ethics Commission chose to postpone deliberations after nearly 11 hours of testimony and debate by lawyers on whether he misused taxpayer money by attending a Republican lawyer’s convention in Florida last August.
He used his office discretionary fund to cover about $1,300 of the cost.
Gessler testified Friday night that he asked his staff about the purposes for which he could use the discretionary fund before he attended the conference last August.
"The answer was just about anything," he told the five-member panel of two Democrats, two Republicans and one unaffiliated commissioner.
Colorado Ethics Watch filed the ethics complaint. Executive director Luis Toro asked whether any of the attendees at the Republican event were Democrats or unaffiliated officeholders. Gessler said he did not know.
"Is there a Democratic lawyer’s association conference?" Toro asked the secretary of state.
"I don't know," Gessler replied. "I can tell you I've never been invited to one."
Gessler said he wasn't a member of the Republican National Lawyers Association and said he attended because he was invited to speak and wanted to learn about election law practices in other states.
He said Colorado benefited from the substance of the conference election law.
"When you're able to understand the legal framework, you're able to do a better job for the people of Colorado," he said.
Perspective from other states, such as that provided at the convention, is especially helpful, he said.
After the lawyers meeting, Gessler used campaign money to attend the Republican National Convention in Tampa, but then used state money to come home early after his family received anonymous threats.
Gessler testified after his lawyers sought to have the deputy secretary of state, Suzanne Staiert, testify on behalf of his office. The Independent Ethics Commission ruled Gessler himself was the subject of the subpoena, not his deputy.
Earlier in the day, lawyers for Gessler challenged allegations that he misused state money during morning testimony.
Gessler paid the money May 23. He could face the state panel's rebuke and fines. Meanwhile, Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey continues a separate criminal investigation into the use of the money.
"That money was paid back to avoid even the appearance of wrongdoing," Gessler attorney David Lane said in opening remarks to the five-member bipartisan panel.
Lane argued that the state of Colorado benefited from Gessler's attending the legal conference on elections, where he was a speaker and not required to pay conference registration fees.
He said Gessler's decision to attend the Republican National Convention in nearby Tampa cost taxpayers nothing.
"Doing two things on one ticket is efficient, it isn't unethical," Lane said.
Gessler's predecessor as secretary of state, Bernie Buescher, testified that he once used part of the discretionary fund to pay for train tickets and gifts to attend a trade mission meeting in Taiwan. Like Gessler in Florida, Buescher was in Taiwan on personal business.
Toro asked Buescher if he ever used state money to attend any Democrat-affiliated events. Buescher is a Democrat; Gessler, a Republican.
"I did not," Buescher said.
Toro asked why he used his money or campaign money to attend partisan events.
"I thought it was the right thing to do," Buescher said.
Toro attacked Gessler's case when he questioned a private investigator hired by the ethics commission. H. Ellis Armistead reported in April that other secretaries of state had used the discretionary fund as they saw fit, including a cocktail party, travel and claiming the money as income.
Armistead said Friday he had not confirmed those expenses but relied on interviews with long-time employees of the secretary of state's office.
Asked by Toro why he did not talk to the secretaries of state involved or otherwise confirm the expenditures, Armistead replied, "I didn't feel it was in the scope of what I was doing."
Lane asked state controller Robert Jaros whether his office had asked Gessler to repay the money, as would be protocol for the controller's office.
Jaros said he had not.
Jaros said claiming the fund for any personal use or as income would not be permitted and he could not confirm that it had happened before.
"Nobody ever asked Scott Gessler to repay this money, as misuse, even though these allegations have been put out in the public domain for quite a while," Lane said.