Rocky, Post omitted audit's finding that former Coffman campaign staffer apparently violated Colorado statute as elections division worker

››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

In reporting on the state auditor's November finding that a worker in the Colorado Secretary of State's elections division broke personnel rules by operating a partisan political business, December 4 articles in the Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post omitted mention of the audit's additional statement that the employee "does appear to have violated state statute." Additionally, neither article provided a comment from Secretary of State Mike Coffman (R) about why the apparent law violation did not constitute "wrongdoing."

In December 4 articles about the Colorado state auditor's November 2007 report on the Colorado Secretary of State's office, the Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post reported that an employee in the department's elections division was found to have broken personnel rules but omitted the audit's finding that the worker also "does appear to have violated state statute" in that he "owned and operated a partisan political business while employed with the Department of State." In contrast with the News and Post articles, The Pueblo Chieftain reported on December 4 that according to the audit, the employee, Dan Kopelman, "violated state statutes and personnel rules by not getting permission to operate an outside business while working [in the elections division]."

As Colorado Media Matters has noted, the independent audit followed a request from the watchdog group Colorado Ethics Watch, formerly Colorado Citizens for Ethics in Government, and Kopelman's employer, Republican Secretary of State Mike Coffman.

The Post reported that "[a]n audit of the Colorado secretary of state's office released today found no evidence that a state elections employee accessed voter data at work for sale through his side business":

That finding upholds an earlier investigation by Secretary of State Mike Coffman, who said the employee, Dan Kopelman, broke the rules by operating a partisan political business on the side but did not wrongfully access voter information as part of his state job.

"If the audit had found wrongdoing, then he would have been fired," Coffman said.

However, the Post neglected to report the audit's finding that in operating a partisan business while employed by the Secretary of State's office, Kopelman appeared to violate a Colorado statute. And while it noted that Kopelman is a "former Coffman campaign worker," it also uncritically reported Coffman's comment that, this apparent violation notwithstanding, the audit showed that Kopelman had not engaged in "wrongdoing":

Through his website, politicallivewires.com, Kopelman offered to sell targeted campaign data to Republican candidates.

When the allegations against Kopelman -- a former president of the Denver Metro Young Republicans and former Coffman campaign worker -- surfaced earlier this year, Coffman and a government watchdog group separately asked the state auditor to investigate as part of a broader look at the department's voting programs.

Overall, the audit found problems in the oversight of voter-registration drives and maintaining the accuracy of the voter database. Other problems were noted in complying with the federal Help America Vote Act and in ensuring the security of the department's computer network.

Chantell Taylor, the director of Colorado Ethics Watch and a critic of Coffman's handling of the Kopelman allegations, said the audit shows "gross mismanagement" within the office. She said Coffman was aware of Kopelman's partisan political business prior to the allegations, something Coffman denies.

"This is a very serious issue," Taylor said today. "It is not to be taken lightly."

Colorado Ethics Watch has asked Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey to investigate whether Kopelman broke state conflict of interest laws.

The audit determined that Kopelman did not access the state's master voter-registration database during the first five months of this year, when he was employed in the department's elections division. Kopelman has since been docked pay and has been reassigned within the secretary of state's office.

Similarly, rather than report the audit's finding that Kopelman appeared to have violated a Colorado statute, the News reported that Kopelman "violate[d] two state personnel rules when he continued to operate a side business by hosting a partisan political Web site while working in the elections division":

State auditors confirmed the findings of an internal investigation by Secretary of State Mike Coffman, a Republican. That probe concluded that Dan Kopelman, who worked in the elections division, did not take and sell voter information to enrich his outside business.

At Coffman's request, the state auditor conducted an independent investigation into whether Kopelman accessed state information for his political consulting firm, Political Live Wires, which served mostly Republican interests.

"We found no evidence that the business benefited financially from the individual's employment with the Colorado Department of State," the audit report says. A review of computer access logs from Jan. 1 to May, 2007 also found no evidence that Kopelman had access to the master voter database during that period.

But state auditors found that Kopelman, a political ally of Coffman, did violate two state personnel rules when he continued to operate a side business by hosting a partisan political Web site while working in the elections division.

"The employee's ownership and operation of this business appears to raise criticism and the appearance of conflict of interest particularly given the job responsibilities for which this individual was assigned within the elections division," the audit says.

[...]

Colorado Citizens for Ethics in Government, a watchdog group, is still calling on Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey to investigate Coffman, saying he knew of the outside business activity of Kopelman and at least one other employee and did little to stop it.

"Dan Kopelman was transferred, but he is still involved with voter data," said Chantell Taylor, the group's director. "The question is whether the disciplinary action was enough."

Coffman contends that Kopelman has been cleared of wrongdoing and his computer expertise is needed on the project.

The News report, which described Kopelman as "a political ally of Coffman," did not provide any comment from Coffman explaining how Kopelman had "been cleared of wrongdoing," in light of the audit's finding that the employee "does appear to have violated state statute." The audit's findings on Kopelman are contained in a section titled "Conflicts of Interest":

During the audit of Colorado's Help America Vote Act implementation, allegations were made concerning a conflict of interest related to the outside employment of an employee of the Department of State's Elections Division. The Secretary of State requested the Office of the State Auditor (OSA) review this issue to determine whether any state laws or personnel rules had been violated. The audit work conducted in response to this request was performed by the OSA, and the findings and recommendations resulting from that work are reported in this chapter.

Office of the State Auditor staff reviewed the personnel and business records, emails, and other documentation related to the employee's term of employment with the Department of State. We also conducted interviews with the employee and other management and staff of the Department. To provide greater assurance about the adequacy and comprehensiveness of the policies and practices of the Department of State relative to the outside employment of its staff, we expanded our review. Specifically, we evaluated whether other Department employees were engaged in outside business activities and whether these activities were being conducted in accordance with statutes and personnel rules. We found the following:

  • The conduct of the employee for whom the initial allegations were made does appear to have violated state statute [Section 24-50-117, C.R.S.] and State Personnel Board Rules [Rules 1-13 and 1-14]. Specifically, the employee owned and operated a partisan political business while employed with the Department of State. The employee's ownership and operation of this business appears to "raise criticism and the appearance of a conflict of interest" particularly given the job responsibilities for which this individual was assigned within the Elections Division. Furthermore, the employee engaged in outside employment/business ownership without advance written approval from the appointing authority. [emphasis in original]

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