With those words, former Weld County Commissioner Julie Cozad sought to excuse her vote to pay herself over $12,000 as reimbursement of her legal fees. She incurred these fees while fighting the ethical violation complaint that was brought against her in 2017 because she allegedly violated the gift ban in Article XXIX of the Colorado Constitution.
While a bit reminiscent of Nancy Pelosi’s comment that the Congress had to pass the Obamacare legislation to “find out what’s in it”, in this case, decided by the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission on Monday, 4/22/19, the stakes were different. (Learn the complaint details here:
According C.R.S. 24-18-109.3a,
“A member of the governing body of a local government who has a personal or private interest in any matter proposed or pending before the governing body shall disclose such interest to the governing body and shall not vote thereon and shall refrain from attempting to influence the decisions of the other members of the governing body in voting on the matter.”
As a brief background for this case, Ms. Cozad and her hustband attended a fundraiser for the Northern Colorado Medical Center Foundation in early 2017, as a guest of Nobel Energy. Although Cozad claimed to have reimbursed Nobel for the cost of the two meals ($150) and then made an additional contribution directly to the Foundation, her total cost was substantially less than the cost of admission for anyone else–the lowest seat charge was $275 each, or $550 for a couple. Apparently, Cozad therefore paid significantly less than any other attendee, and a complaint was filed with the IEC alleging that this was essentially a gift, the amount of which was sufficient to be in violation of Article XXIX of the Colorado constitution–the “gift ban”. (Details of this complaint are here:
Cozad and the County argued that the IEC did not have jurisdiction because Weld County is a Home Rule County and had its own ethics rules. In response, the IEC requested legal briefs from interested parties regarding this jurisdiction issue. Cozad retained outside Counsel for the purpose of formulating and presenting her response, allegedly to address specifically the jurisdiction issue. After reviewing the briefs, both from the parties to the case and other amicus briefs, the IEC ruled that it does have jurisdiction, stating that “Weld County Code’s purported gift ban component is woefully inadequate and tantamount to no gift ban at all.” In a brief review, the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed this decision. (However, the case is currently on hold pending the outcome of another, unrelated appeal regarding the IEC’s jurisdiction over Home Rule entities.)
In an “informal” work session October 31, 2017, Cozad attempted to convince Commissioners Conway, Freeman and Moreno that the County should pay for her outside Counsel since he would be retained specifically to address the Home Rule jurisdiction issue. No consensus was reached in that discussion, and she withdrew her request, saying she would just pay the costs herself. And, in fact, in a public Board of County Commissioners meeting in early 2018, Ms. Cozad explicitly stated in response to a citizen question that she was paying the costs herself.
After the IEC decision that was entered on February 12, 2018, the BOCC held a brief work session on February 26, 2018 to consider the matter of paying Cozad’s legal fees for her private attorney. In an email to the Plaintiff in the case, Mr. Chuck Parks, County Attorney Barker explicitly stated that all five Commissioners agreed that the fees should be paid. The direct implication of Barker’s statement is that Cozad was present at the work session and participated in the discussion.
Then, less than two weeks later, the payment to Cozad was approved by the BOCC during it’s Board meeting on March 7, 2018. As is the usual process, the payment of warrants (bills to the County) was approved as part of the “Consent Agenda”, which is the process that government entities use for handling the routine approval of items such as bills that have been reviewed and approved by members of staff such as Department Heads.
Although such approvals are a routine part of the BOCC business, the Commissioners are still expected to affirm that the money being spent is appropriate, prior to voting at the meeting. In fact, although each warrant list includes several pages, an appropriate review takes less than five minutes. Furthermore, since the agenda for each BOCC meeting is supposed to be available in advance, typically at least two days, the Commissioners have adequate time to conduct a thorough review.
At the IEC meeting, Cozad made several efforts to avoid culpability. First, she claimed that she had never pressed the Commissioners to pay for her private attorney, although she did acknowledge that at the October 31, 2017 “unofficial” work session, there has been a conversation about it prior to her hiring the attorney.
Second, she claimed that after approaching County Attorney Barker regarding having the fee paid, she recused herself from the discussion and left the work session on February 26, 2018. Of course, this is in direct conflict with the statement by Barker that “all five” of the Commissioners had approved the payment. Additionally, the attendance record shows that Cozad was present for at least a portion of that work session.
Finally, Cozad claimed that she had not reviewed that warrant list, and therefore had not been aware that the payment to her was on the warrant list that was part of the Consent Agenda on March 7, 2018. Indeed, she stated that although she knew that the payment had been approved, she did not know when the payment would come, and that she was therefore voting for her own reimbursement, in direct conflict with C.R.S. 24-18-109.3a that required that she NOT vote on the matter or, attempt to influence the other members of the Commission.
The discussion by the IEC was pretty clear cut. All three sitting Commissioners agreed immediately that Ms. Cozad had indeed violated this section of Colorado law. And, Commissioner Smith stated that the claim that Cozad did not know that she was voting for her own financial benefit could not be accepted as an excuse, because if it were, then every time this sort of issue arose, there would be a similar claim made. Commissioner Smith also referred to an earlier case, 11-03, which had a similar set of facts in that a Commissioner voted on a matter in which he had an undisclosed financial interest.
Finally, a finding was proposed and unanimously approved that Commissioner Julie Cozad had violated C.R.S. 24-18-109.3a, and was therefore guilty of a breach of ethics. Unlike Article XXIX, C.R.S. 24-18-109 does not appear to prescribe any specific penalty for this type of breach, so the IEC did not assess any penalty, similar to the decision reached in case number 11-03.
Hopefully, the lesson will be taken to heart by the Weld County Commissioners. They have certain duties to the citizens who put them in office, with honesty and ethics being very high on the list. The very idea that Commissioner Cozad would try to escape her obvious culpability for her actions by simply saying she “didn’t know” she was acting against the interests of the people is frankly insulting. One of the most important responsibilities of a Commissioner is to protect the public interest, and by explicitly denying that they do this, they raise a valid question of why they should be in office in the first place.
And, “business as usual” is no excuse.