Colorado Springs City Councilor Wayne Williams was paid $1,067 for “legal fees” by the Housing & Building Association of Colorado Springs’ Political Action Committee in January, the PAC’s April 30 report shows. But both Williams and the HBA now say the report was wrong.
Williams, a lawyer, says he can’t elaborate due to Colorado’s Rules of Professional Conduct for attorneys. Those rules prohibit a lawyer from revealing information relating to representation of a client unless the client gives consent or the disclosure is permitted by a special circumstance, such as being required by law or a court order.
“I performed no legal work for the HBA or its PAC,” Williams says in an email. “The funds went to a trust account, not to me. The funds were for outside legal work that was not for a candidate and was not coordinated with a candidate. The work was not related to the City. Funds used to pay for those legal services were deposited in my trust account and then forwarded to an outside law firm.”
At least one fellow councilor, Bill Murray, says the payment appears to pose a conflict of interest and notes that Williams didn’t disclose the payment prior to voting on matters affecting the HBA or developers who are members of the HBA, including the Park Land Dedication Ordinance that reduced the amount of land developers are required to deed to the city.
“The optics are terrible, anyway,” Murray says.
Experts say it appears the payment didn’t violate the city’s Code of Ethics.
Josh Dunn, professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, cites a portion of the city’s ethics code that declares it’s not an ethical breach for a councilor to accept certain gifts and payments as “a component of compensation paid in ... the normal course of employment, appointment or volunteer services or business.”
And Don Smeltzer, an educator, speaker, management consultant and author of A Matter of Choice: Ethical Municipal Governance, who lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, agrees. After reviewing the city’s Ethics Code, Smeltzer says via email that “a reasonable person would consider the $1,067 received to be a professional fee for legal advice that falls under ‘... normal course of employment or business.’”
The question would be, he adds, whether Williams’ vote to ease the developers’ parkland requirements came in exchange for “a benefit of any kind.”
The city’s Code of Ethics bars conflicts of interest, defined as “any personal or financial relationship that could influence or be perceived to influence the representation or conduct of business for, or on behalf of, the City.”
A conflict may exist, the code says, “when there is an appearance of impropriety.”
The code also requires the person who may have a “direct or indirect substantial financial interest” to disclose that interest and “refrain from participating in the matter as it is dealt with by the City.”
A councilor is entitled to seek a confidential or nonconfidential advisory opinion from the City Attorney’s Office on possible conflicts, the city’s code says. That person then can rely on that opinion to demonstrate compliance with the code.
Responding to the Indy’s question of whether Williams sought an opinion, city spokesperson Jamie Fabos said in an email, “... the City Attorney’s Office would be ethically prohibited from confirming or denying the existence of such an opinion, or comment on its contents.”
The payment surfaced in the HBA PAC’s annual filing that spanned April 9, 2020, to April 15, 2021. Besides itemizing more than $31,000 in contributions to Council candidates in the April 6 city election, it lists three expenses, including the $1,067 paid to Williams on Jan. 19, 2021, for “legal fees.”
The other two were a $2,500 payment made on Oct. 4, 2020, to the Senate Majority Fund for “political campaign” and $53.75 for “legal services” paid to Robert Gardner, a state senator, whom the PAC has routinely paid sums no larger than $75 for legal work each year dating to 2017.
Three weeks after the payment to Williams, on Feb. 9, he voted with the majority on a 5-4 vote to approve a change to the Park Land Dedication Ordinance that reduced the amount of acreage developers are required to deed to the city when they develop land. The meeting minutes don’t mention a disclosure by Williams.
During that meeting, HBA members Doug Stimple and Tim Seibert spoke in favor of the ordinance. Stimple and Seibert, as well as Kyle Campbell, an HBA member who filed the HBA PAC’s annual report, served on the PLDO Task Force made up of stakeholders.
Campbell was not available for comment, but HBA CEO Renee Zentz agrees the initial report was wrong. She says via email the payment to Williams had nothing to do with city elections or city issues, and the PAC planned to file an amended report. The amended filing now reads “trust account” instead of “legal fees” next to Williams’ name.
That leaves the public to wonder why Williams served as a conduit for the HBA’s payment and whether he’s received other payments that could raise ethics questions that haven’t come to light in official filings.
Williams focuses his law practice on employment law and election consulting. After holding elective offices in El Paso County for 12 years, he was elected Colorado Secretary of State in 2014 but lost his reelection bid and left office in early 2019. He then ran for a City Council at-large seat in April 2019, which pays $6,250 a year. The HBA PAC gave his campaign $5,000.
While circumstances surrounding the $1,067 payment remains a mystery to the public, other Council members, too, have encountered potential conflicts. A few years ago, former Councilor Jill Gaebler, who had worked for Greccio Housing, disclosed that the city legal department ruled she could vote on a matter involving her former employer, and she disclosed that at the public meeting.
In March, former Council President Scott Hente, a Planning Commission member, disclosed that he sought a city attorney ruling on whether he could vote on a proposed apartment complex planned for a tract adjacent to Mountain Shadows, where he lives. Hente says city legal told him, “If people had to recuse themselves because they live close to things, we’d have a hard time getting anything before Council and Planning Commission.’”
Aside from debate over a possible conflict, UCCS’ Dunn notes the issue underscores a critical problem. Council pay is so low that anyone who’s not retired must hold down a job, he says.
“I think unless you pay them more,” he says, “almost everyone is going to have something where you could say something looks a little shady.”