DENVER (AP) — Republican Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler testified Friday to defend himself against an ethics complaint alleging misuse of state funds for political events, insisting he used his discretionary office funds appropriately.
At issue is Gessler’s travel last summer to a Republican conference on elections law in Florida and then the GOP national convention there. Gessler said it was his understanding, based on advice from his office and previous practice by his predecessors, that his discretionary fund could be used for “pretty much just about anything” provided that the expenses “had some nexus to your job as secretary of state.”
Speaking under subpoena, Gessler said he used discretionary funds for the Republican National Lawyers Association conference on elections law because he believes it provided an educational benefit to his job overseeing elections. He used campaign fund for the Republican National Convention, he said.
The left-leaning Colorado Ethics Watch filed the complaint against Gessler, arguing discretionary funds aren’t meant for state business, not partisan events. They described the elections conference as hyper partisan and unrelated to state business.
The state’s Independent Ethics Commission heard final testimony on the complaint Friday and is expected to make a ruling Thursday. If Gessler loses, he faces fines up to twice the amount he was reimbursed for from the state.
Last month, Gessler repaid the state $1,278 for travel expenses to Florida — a move some political observers see as an attempt to rectify a potentially politically damaging case as he considers a gubernatorial run. He said he wanted to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
“I was just getting tired of it and I wanted to put this behind me,” he said.
But Colorado Ethics Watch attorney Luis Toro said he saw the repayment as an admission of guilt.
“We do view it as an admission, but I think that we may be hearing a different take on that from Mr. Gessler himself,” he said before Gessler testified.
Denver prosecutors are also investigating Gessler’s expenditures to determine whether there was criminal wrongdoing, but a charging decision has not been made.
One of Gessler’s attorneys, David Lane, said discretionary spending from Gessler’s predecessors “never raised an eyebrow on any level,” including one secretary of state who used the $5,000 annual sum as income.
Former secretary of state Bernie Buescher also testified about a family trip he took to Taiwan that included state business. He said he used state money to pay for the trip during which he met with dignitaries to promote Colorado. However, Buescher said he never used his discretionary fund to pay for political events.
State controller Robert Jaros also testified that attending the elections law panel did fit under Gessler’s job description.
Gessler, a controversial figure in state politics by his own admission, cut his Florida trip short after he was notified of death threats against him and his family. His early return increased his travel expenses because of the change in flights and a hotel cancellation. The state paid for the additional expense, which Gessler and his attorneys said was legitimate given the threats.
– By Ivan Moreno, AP Writer
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