State Sen. Bob Gardner, a Republican from Colorado Springs, speaks on the Senate floor March 1, 2021. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)
Five state legislators serving on a bipartisan committee voted unanimously Monday to exonerate a fellow lawmaker, dismissing an ethics complaint against him on all counts. The complaint was filed against Colorado Springs Republican Sen. Bob Gardner, who told Newsline he would like his reputation back.
A complaint dated April 21 had accused Gardner of exercising undue influence over a previous state court administrator — a person whom the Colorado Supreme Court appoints to provide administrative and technical support to trial and appellate courts across the state. The complaint quoted from Gardner’s remarks during a legislative committee hearing in January 2019.
In those remarks, Gardner described making a call to a former state court administrator to raise concerns about the conduct of a senior judge. Retired judges who participate in the Senior Judge Program help cover unexpected absences and vacancies in trial and appellate courts.
“About 5 or 6 years ago a colleague with whom I shared an office (came) to me and (said), ‘I’m appearing in front of this senior judge and the senior judge said this’ and then she showed me the transcript and she said ‘and I don’t know what to do but I understand you’re in the legislature,'” Gardner said during the hearing, according to the legislative record. “Well, I was able to make a phone call to the state court administrator. But had my colleague not shared office space with a member of the House Judiciary Committee she would have been faced with a recusal motion.”
The complainant, Wheat Ridge attorney Chris Forsyth, claimed that by calling the state court administrator on behalf of his colleague — which resulted in a different judge being assigned to Gardner’s colleague’s case — Gardner had violated Senate rules by exerting “undue influence” on the state court administrator, which means using his elected office for “economic or private gain.”
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Forsyth also alleged that Gardner’s co-prime sponsorship this year of House Bill 21-1136, which made changes to the Senior Judge Program, and Gardner’s recent appointment to a committee tasked with hiring someone to investigate the Colorado Judicial Branch, constituted a conflict of interest, given his influence on the court administrator. Gardner had failed to promote public confidence “in the integrity and independence” of the Legislature, Forsyth wrote.
Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat, convened a five-member ethics committee in June to hold hearings on the complaint and make recommendations around potential action.
Lawmakers on the ethics panel — three Democrats and two Republicans — ultimately rejected Forsyth’s argument and sided with Gardner.
“As a senator, I have worked diligently to try to expand the public’s access to (government) institutions,” Sen. Julie Gonzales, the Denver Democrat appointed to chair the committee, said before voting Monday. “The assertion that making those entities more accessible is somehow undermining public confidence just seems inconceivable to me.”
Sen. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat who served as vice chair, pointed out that the General Assembly is only in session for part of the year.
“In Colorado we have decided to have a citizen legislature, which means that our legislators have jobs outside of lawmaking … We have legislators that are lawyers or organizers or farmers or ranchers,” Winter said. “All that Sen. Gardner did was work outside of session in a responsible manner.”
Republican Sens. John Cooke of Weld County and Paul Lundeen of Monument, along with Democratic Sen. Chris Hansen of Denver, joined Gonzales and Winter in voting to dismiss the complaint — bringing the hearing to an end after less than half an hour.
Gardner told Newsline he was “gratified” by the committee’s vote and that he considered it a “complete vindication” of his actions.
“I am disappointed that the Senate majority leadership was not able to dismiss this case before it became public and before I got essentially drug through the mud for about a month and a half,” Gardner added. “The complaint on its face was without merit and unsubstantiated.”
Judicial Integrity Project, Forsyth’s Denver-based advocacy organization, advocates for “nonpartisan laws that increase transparency, enhance accountability and remove conflicts of interest,” according to its website.
Forsyth called the committee’s action to dismiss the ethics complaint — which he made in his personal capacity — “unconscionable.”
“Judicial integrity is the real loser today,” Forsyth told Newsline on Monday in an interview. “Our judicial branch is supposed to be independent, above reproach. … What the legislative committee has told us today is that it’s a legislator’s job to help a constituent gain an advantage in a court case.”
In his formal answer to the complaint on June 24, Gardner provided more context about the phone call to the state court administrator.
Gardner said he hadn’t asked the court administrator to remove a judge from his colleague’s case or take any specific action. Rather, he claims to have called to let the administrator know about sexist remarks the senior judge had made regarding an aspect of his colleague’s divorce case.
“I had no power, authority, or ability to exercise any undue influence over the State Court Administrator to take any action and did not request he did so,” Gardner wrote in his answer to the ethics complaint. “Neither did I benefit personally or economically from any action the State Court Administrator may have taken.”
But Forsyth worried that the complaint hearing process illustrated a larger issue around elected officials’ potential influence on court proceedings. Responding to lawmakers’ questions in regards to the ethics complaint, the state court administrator wrote July 6 that legislators and the public contacted his office so frequently, there was no record of the number of times this happened.
While lawmakers on the ethics panel saw that response as evidence Gardner committed no violation, Forsyth said it showed a need for “better laws ensuring judicial integrity.”
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