Arapahoe County's ethics committee unanimously dismissed a complaint alleging Clerk and Recorder Joan Lopez and her staff overbilled taxpayers for travel expenses, but planned to tell Lopez and the board of county commissioners they had concerns about what appeared to be sloppy adherence to the county's travel policy.
Lopez chose not to appear before the committee's hearing on Dec. 13, leaving the complainant and a committee member frustrated that they were unable to question her about her intent in traveling to a Florida conference several days before any events she planned to attend.
In lieu of an appearance before the committee, Lopez submitted a letter, calling the hearing “a frivolous waste of taxpayer dollars and a giant waste of time for my office.”
Arapahoe County's ethics committee does not have the power to compel people to appear, subpoena evidence or swear in witnesses under oath. Had the committee found Lopez in violation of the county ethics policy, their only recourse could have been to report their finding to the board of county commissioners, according to deputy county attorney John Christofferson. The commissioners, in turn, have little control over a fellow elected official like Lopez except to restrict her budget, though they can refer the violation to the state ethics board, which has stricter rules and greater powers.
The complaint was filed by Suzanne Staiert, the director of the Public Trust Institute, a nonprofit government transparency group, and a Republican candidate for state Senate District 27.
Earlier cases dismissed
The complaint is the third against Lopez — a Democrat who was elected to the office in November 2018 — sent to the ethics committee this year, according to public records. Two prior complaints, one alleging that Lopez informed the county Democratic party when ballots would be sent out several days before Republicans, and another alleging that Lopez hung up one of her campaign banners in a county booth at a festival, were dismissed earlier this year because ethics committee chair Candy Figa found they did not violate the county's ethics policy.
The county's ethics policy narrowly defines ethical breaches as those resulting in a monetary windfall for an individual, and does not count conflicts of interest as violations.
Staiert's complaint alleged there was no proof Lopez attended any classes or sessions at a conference held by the Election Center, a nonprofit group that offers training seminars for elections officials, in Orlando, Florida, in August 2019. Lopez billed the county $2,778 for the trip, including a hotel room, meals and a rental car. Several other high-ranking county staffers attended the conference and billed the county for similar amounts.
Jennifer Roylance, Lopez's executive assistant, told the committee she registered Lopez and three others for the conference in June 2019, including a session Lopez planned to attend on Saturday, Aug. 17 and Sunday, Aug. 18.
However, Roylance told the group, Lopez decided to attend a similar session in Denver in the interim, thus satisfying a requirement toward attaining a Certified Elections Registration Administrator certificate through the Election Center.
To obtain the certificate, Roylance said, elections officials are also required to attend a national Election Center conference such as the one in Orlando.
In her letter, Lopez said she asked her assistant if she could cancel the Florida trip, “but she said that if I canceled the trip, it would actually be more expensive in the long run than if I attended.”
Roylance, however, told the committee that Lopez didn't ask her whether she should attend the conference. Karl Hermann, Lopez's chief deputy director, said Lopez “probably had questions about attending all conferences.”
In the letter, Lopez says she made the most of her time at the conference.
“I networked, I recruited, I learned about new products and technology … I also handled business back home with over one hundred e-mails and dozens of phone calls during the conference.”
Lopez also took her family, who joined her on the trip, to the Universal Studios theme park on that Sunday afternoon, the letter says, during meetings of committees Lopez is not a member of.
Lopez said her family's presence didn't incur any additional costs to taxpayers.
Panelist not satisfied
Lopez's explanation didn't sit right with committee member Myron Spanier.
“She knew a month in advance that she wasn't going to attend any classes on Saturday or Sunday, and the plane tickets and hotel were refundable,” Spanier said. “The letter doesn't change the fact that the certification ceremony wasn't until Tuesday. And she's not here to answer for why she did it.”
On Staiert's urging, the committee also questioned staff about Lopez's rental car during the Orlando conference.
Juan Guzman, the county's deputy director of records, told the committee that Lopez was initially scheduled to rent a car for $236, but wound up billing the county more than $800 for a larger vehicle that would accommodate her family and staff. When Guzman brought the discrepancy to Lopez's attention, she paid back $600.
The committee also questioned staff about an International Association of Government Officials conference attended by several high-ranking staffers in Houston in July, another instance in which staff arrived on a Friday but did not attend any classes until the following Monday.
Guzman told the committee that the staffers tried to attend sessions on Saturday morning, but were turned away when it turned out they weren't registered for those particular classes.
The group instead spent the day “networking,” Guzman said, and spent that Sunday working on the county's 2020 budget documents.
“We tried to make the best of a bad situation,” Guzman said.
Committee member Pamela Eller wasn't impressed.
“The office needs to tighten up on some of this,” Eller said. “I've seen the forms for that conference, and they very clearly state there's a fee for each class. We all make mistakes, but there needs to be more clarity and communication here.”
Staiert said she was disappointed in the limited scope of the ethics committee.
“If this was before the state's ethics committee, a person accused couldn't just take a pass on appearing,” Staiert told the committee. “I wouldn't file another complaint with this committee.”
“It's frustrating for us too,” committee chair Figa told Staiert.
After an executive session to receive legal advice, the committee decided unanimously to draft a letter to Lopez and the board of county commissioners expressing concern over Lopez's use of travel reimbursements.
“There were some pretty serious mistakes made,” Eller said.
Lopez's letter reads in full:
Dear Chair Figa and Members of the Ethics Committee,
In lieu of a personal appearance on Friday, December 13, 2019, I submit the following statement.
The Election Center is a non-profit organization that helps to promote, preserve and improve democracy. The Election Center is known as the National Association of Election Officials. The Election Center has the largest number of state and local elections, voter registration administrators and election vendors as members of any elections-related organization in America. The Certified Elections Registration Administrator (“CERA”) certification granted by the Election Center is a sign of expertise and skill that reflects well on Arapahoe County and can take as many as five or six years to gain. I will receive mine in just two years.
The true value of an Election Center conference is more than just classes and certifications. These conferences are about the elections process, networking and people. They are about discovering the nationwide differences in election laws, meeting vendors and gaining knowledge about new products in the election marketplace, and learning about how other states and counties attempt to refine their election processes. At these conferences we have the rare opportunity to talk with other election experts. We exchange experiences, stories, and best practices. Networking at an Election Center conference allows Arapahoe County to expand our resources at home, develop valuable relationships, and avoid some of the pitfalls experienced by our peers.
The allegations against me suggest that my attendance at the Election Center conference did not hold any value for Arapahoe County, or worse, was a misuse of county funds. This is false. I had previously taken the two courses offered in Orlando when I was in Denver. The Election Center didn’t have me on the registration list for the Denver courses but the log showed that I was instead registered for the Orlando, Florida conference. I asked the person taking attendance in Denver if I could just take the classes at that time instead of waiting for the Florida Conference and he said that would be okay and he would just give me credit now. So I took the classes and got credit. I later asked my assistant if I could cancel the Florida trip, but she said that if I canceled the trip, it would actually be more expensive in the long run than if I attended. I also learned that I needed a national conference credit from the Election Center in order to graduate with my CERA certificate in the upcoming Denver 2020 Conference. Based on those factors, I attended the Orlando Election Center conference with my staff.
I’m being asked “what I did” at conference? Well, I networked, I recruited, I learned about new products and technology, I represented the Arapahoe County Elections office, I attended dinners, receptions, and graduation, and I supported my staff. I received credit for attending the conference as is required for my CERA certification. Attendance at a national Election Center conference is a required component for CERA certification. I also handled business back home with over one hundred e-mails and dozens of phone calls during the conference. I met with my staff regularly during the conference for County business, and I attended the graduation ceremony for two of Arapahoe County’s newest CERA certificate holders. The Election Center conference began on Saturday and extended through Tuesday. On Sunday afternoon only, I went with my family to enjoy an afternoon at Universal theme park. There were no courses and only Election Center committee meetings (and I am not on any Election Center committees) at that time. I spent all of the remainder of the days and nights at the conference with other conference attendees and my staff.
At no point did Arapahoe County incur any expenses because my family accompanied me to Orlando. I personally reimbursed the county for the difference in the cost of the car rental for the extra passengers (larger car). I have submitted (and you have before you) all documentation showing the cost to the county of my attendance at the Orlando Election Center conference. There were no additional costs based on my family’s presence for the hotel or any meals or any other part of this trip. The county paid nothing for my family to accompany me. Nothing.
I believe this to be political attack. My office and myself will endure. But I have concerns that these accusations are intended to attack me and my team based on specious allegations. I have and I will continue to cooperate with every demand for information. I have nothing to hide. I believe this has been a frivolous waste of taxpayer dollars and a giant waste of time for my office. I am concerned about the damage these types of intimidating attacks do to my hard-working staff. Nonetheless, should you seek additional information, I would be pleased to answer written questions and I am always available by phone or e-mail for clarification on any matter. Thank you,
Joan Lopez Arapahoe County Clerk & Recorder
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