Commission: Former PUC chair broke own ethics law—but warrants no penalty

/ Colorado News Agency commentary
Dec 15th, 2011

pete mugRon Binz, former chairman of the Public Utilities Commission, was hoisted by his own roadside bomb last week but landed without a bruise, except to his ego.

Colorado’s Independent Ethics Commission ruled that Binz had violated Amendment 41, the “ethics in government” initiative, when he accepted a free trip to Houston sponsored by a natural-gas company in 2010.

Binz, as it happens, was chairman of Colorado Common Cause and treasurer of  “Coloradans for Clean Government,” the two prime movers behind the successful campaign for Amendment 41back in 2006.

The ethics commission found that Binz had accepted travel, lodging and incidental expenses totaling $1,073 from Bentek Energy, the company that had invited him to speak at a conference.  The trip served no “legitimate state or local purpose” and the gift limit imposed by Amendment 41 (now Article XXIX in your state constitution) is $50.

Binz violated the constitution, concluded the commission, but because he “did not personally benefit” from the trip, “no penalty is warranted.”

Will PUC Commissioner Matt Baker, who faces a similar charge, be as lucky?

The ruling in the Binz case annoyed former state Sen. Andy McElhany,  R-Colorado Springs, who had filed the original complaint with the commission.

Whether or not Binz benefited personally is beside the point, he said.

“We already had laws on the books addressing public officials who use their position for personal gain. . . The whole point of Amendment 41 was to reduce or prohibit undue access and influence by special interests.”

The amendment provides for fines of up to twice the amount unlawfully accepted.

Binz was named to the PUC in January 2007 and served four years. During his term he actively promoted natural gas to replace coal as Xcel Energy’s fuel of choice.  He took more than 50 trips out of state, including two abroad, but McElhany filed only against the Houston one. Binz was not reappointed last January.

It’s worth noting that Binz’s attorney before the ethics commission was Martha Tierney, who helped draft Amendment 41. She too was with Common Cause and Coloradans for Clean Government in 2006.  If you’re going to beat a law you promoted, it can’t hurt to hire the person who wrote it.

Though the ethics commission has five members, only three voted in the Binz case. Former legislators Dan Grossman and Matt Smith recused themselves because they were acquainted with Binz and/or his attorney.

They are also opting out of the case against Baker. This is a continuing problem for the commission, which has former lawmakers and officials judging current ones. Indeed the complaint against Baker is being delayed indefinitely because a third commissioner, Sally Hopper, has also recused herself, leaving the group without a quorum.

Hopper said she took herself out because she knows Bernie Buescher, the lawyer who will be representing Baker before the commission.  They served in the legislature together “and he sits next to me at Nuggets games,” she said.

The complaint against Baker, also filed by McElhany, alleges that he took a five-day trip to Seville, Spain, in November 2010 to address Spanish businessmen about Colorado’s regulatory environment and development incentives.  The cost of the trip, $2,845, was borne by Extenda, a company owned by the Spanish government.

Baker got permission for the trip from his superiors, but didn’t heed an advisory opinion issued by the ethics commission earlier.  It ruled that a state legislator couldn’t accept a free trip offered by a Polish city even though it was a trade mission.  Foreign travel benefits the traveler, not the state of Colorado, said the commission, and “foreign governments do not fall under the exception to the gift ban” in Amendment 41.

McElhany maintains the Baker case is “even more egregious” than the one against Binz and it will be “easier to point out the obvious impropriety of it.”

The ethics case is especially interesting because Baker’s term expires next month and he’s up for reappointment by Gov. John Hickenlooper.  A slap by the ethics commission won’t help his chances even though a second term is being heavily promoted by the environmental lobby. Baker is lucky; it’s unlikely the complaint will be resolved by the time Hickenlooper has to decide.

Another weird twist: Buescher isn’t in private practice; he’s a deputy attorney general who is presumably representing Baker for free.  But the AG’s office also represents the commission and will decide how to handle the lack of a quorum.  It may appoint a single administrative law judge to handle the case.

If you see a conflict here, you’re not alone.

State government is quite clubby.  Everybody knows everybody.  Four of the five ethics commission members are ex-legislators. Said Hopper: “We need to appoint people to the commission who don’t know anybody.”

Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes Thursdays for the Colorado News Agency. Contact him at pblake0705@comcast.net You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and www.ColoradoNewsAgency.com

3 Responses for “Commission: Former PUC chair broke own ethics law—but warrants no penalty”

  1. [...] Matt Baker’s four-year term ends soon, pending reappointment by Colorado’s governor. As the Colorado News Agency’s Peter Blake writes in a column published today: The complaint against Baker … alleges that he took a five-day trip to Seville, Spain, in [...]

  2. [...] Binz. Matt Baker’s four-year term ends soon, pending reappointment by Colorado’s governor. As the Colorado News Agency’s Peter Blake writes in a column published today: The complaint against Baker … alleges that he took a five-day trip to Seville, Spain, in [...]

  3. Poot says:

    I have worked in the energy industry in Colorado with Ron Binz these past few years, and my impressions are as follows: In our industry, he is regarded as pompous, arrogant, a Philosopher-King, a self-regarded “Smartest man in the room”, and worse. Unfortunately he will work again in this industry. Because people like Bill Ritter continue to rise to power and need people like Ron. They really mess up our business, and ironically THEY are the impediment to increased renewables.

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