5/4/23 Cover

Cover design by ZK Bradley with assets from Shutterstock.com

Did you know that four of five El Paso County commissioners have business or nonprofit interests outside their commissioner roles?

If you didn’t, that’s understandable, considering commissioners and other county elected officials don’t have to file annual disclosure statements listing financial or other types of holdings or interests, unlike state, federal and city of Colorado Springs officials.

In other words, there’s no clear window into commissioners’ personal interests and whether those might conflict with their public roles.

That fact came to light during the Indy’s recent investigation into Commission Chair Cami Bremer’s phone call to District 5 City Councilor Nancy Henjum asking Henjum to vote a certain way on a water rule that impacted property Bremer and her husband Eli Bremer have invested in.

Unlike officials at other levels of government, commissioners are under no obligation to disclose their holdings on an annual basis, which would allow citizens to more easily discover any potential conflicts of interest.

Both an ethics expert and an advocate for open government say all elected officials should disclose on a periodic and regular basis what they own and their financial interests.

“The trust in government can actually be enhanced when there’s more access to information about the private interests of public officials so that it’s more readily apparent when there might be a conflict of interest at work at a time when a public decision is about to be made,” says Dr. John Pelissero, a senior scholar at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, who’s written extensively on local government.

When asked whether they would support adopting disclosure requirements, commissioners gave mixed responses.

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Cami Bremer

One said he was open to the idea, while another called such disclosure “a pain in the neck” and an “intrusion.”

But a county spokesperson notes state laws already require commissioners to disclose potential conflicts of interest prior to taking action on specific matters and that requiring annual disclosure would be up to state lawmakers, not commissioners.

“Unlike the City, we don’t have the ability to adopt code sections with the force of law imposing a more stringent disclosure standard,” says Vernon Stewart, county executive director of communications.

With no filing requirement for commissioners and other county officials to report financial assets and interests, the Indy conducted a cursory records check using public records of businesses and property.

Four of five commissioners have side interests in nonprofits or for-profit enterprises, and all own homes (see sidebar), though the residential property of one, Cami Bremer, was obscured, as we’ll explain later.

Pelissero, who’s also professor emeritus of political science at Loyola University Chicago where he served on the faculty for 35 years, says a lack of disclosure makes it difficult, if not impossible, to determine whether elected officials might have conflicts of interest on a public matter.

In one of his books on ethical behavior in government, he wrote that every public servant “enters into a covenant with the people” to not use their office for personal gain.

He tells the Indy by phone that the public shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to determine if their elected official has a personal interest at stake in a public matter.

Absent regular disclosure filings, he says, “The public wouldn’t know and would have to spend a lot of time trying to find out whether public officials have personal, business, financial interests that intertwined with the business of local government.

It’s just important to good government that citizens always know that our public officials are acting in the public interest.

— John Pelissero

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Carrie Geitner

“It’s just important to good government that citizens always know that our public officials are acting in the public interest and what’s best for the common good and not acting out of a personal financial interest in the time they’re making decisions,” he says. “Disclosure is a way of providing that information. Their ultimate goal is to increase trust we place in the integrity of public officials and the decisions they make.”

Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, says via email that the voting public deserves to know if decisions made by elected officials could impact those officials’ personal finances.

“Financial disclosure information should be publicly available and regularly updated,” he says, noting that, sadly, Colorado’s Public Official Disclosure Law, part of the Sunshine Act approved by voters in 1972, covers only legislators, state office holders, DAs, judges and other state officials.

Such disclosure mandates should be universal, Roberts says, and notes the state’s rules of conduct for local government officials require disclosure by those officials who have “a personal or private interest in any matter proposed or pending before the governing body.” Such officials also are barred from voting on the matter or attempting to influence other decision-makers.

State law pertinent to local officials states they shall not “perform an official act directly and substantially affecting to its economic benefit a business or other undertaking in which he either has a substantial financial interest or is engaged as counsel, consultant, representative, or agent.”

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Longinos Gonzalez Jr.

That said, without officials filing annual disclosures, the public might not be aware of a financial interest that should trigger an official’s disclosure and subsequent recusal, meaning that the effectiveness of the conduct rules relies on the officials themselves deciding when to disclose and when to recuse.

This restricts citizens’ ability to act as a government watchdog, the bedrock of democracy.

Other government entities recognized the importance of disclosure long ago.

The Congressional Research Office issued a report last November regarding the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, which is designed to “preserve and promote the integrity of public officials and institutions” by requiring federal government officials and employees to file annual financial disclosure statements. 

Those statements report income, gifts, liabilities, property — both real property and business-related personal property — positions in business enterprises and other organizations, and any agreements relating to post-government employment.

They serve as the basis for the government’s review and analysis of covered individuals’ real and perceived conflicts of interest.

The disclosure law is rooted in the mandate that officials place loyalty to the Constitution, laws and ethical principles above private gain. Thus, to prevent real or perceived conflicts of interest, federal law bars federal officials and employees from participating “personally or substantially” in any activity that involves financial interests held by them or their spouse, minor child, general partner or previous organization.

The goal, quite simply, is to assure that “official decisions ... be made in the interests of the common good, not in the narrow self-interests of the individuals in power,” the Research Office said.

Those same principles apply in the state of Colorado and the city of Colorado Springs.

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Stan VanderWerf

As the Indy previously reported, Colorado law requires elected officials to file periodic disclosures providing “basic information about their income and liabilities,” according to the Colorado Secretary of State’s website.

Those officials include the attorney general, governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, treasurer, justices and judges, General Assembly members, Bingo-Raffle Advisory Board members, University of Colorado regents, district attorneys, Gaming Commission members, Lottery Commission members, trustees of the Public Employees Retirement Association board, Racing Commission members, and State Board of Education members.

Available upon request, the disclosure filings include property ownership, IRA investments, life insurance policies and the like owned by officials and their spouses.

Similarly, Colorado Springs City Council members and the mayor are required by ordinance to file annual disclosure statements reflecting their and their spouse’s holdings.

But El Paso County elected officials aren’t required to disclose their holdings in written statements. Thus, the public has no easy way to discover their financial interests.

It’s unclear how widespread the lack of disclosure is among counties, because Colorado Counties Inc., which represents 61 counties on proposed legislation and other concerns, says it doesn’t track those requirements.

Even if a citizen took the time to check out local property records of their elected officials, they might not find everything.

That’s because a Colorado anti-stalking law adopted 20 years ago and since revised allows various public officials and others to shield personal information, including their home addresses, from public view on government websites. That law covers code enforcement officers, child protection workers, judges, prosecuting attorneys and peace officers, among many others.

But elected officials, per se, are not covered by that law.

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Holly Williams

El Paso County Assessor Mark Flutcher tells the Indy via email that he served as a reserve deputy sheriff for 23 years and, thus, had his address blocked. It remains so “due to the bad folks [criminals] I was working with.”

Likewise, he says, “Many of the law enforcement community choose to remain blocked after retiring because some cases drag out for years.” Moreover, he says, some officers have played a role in convicting people who hold grudges and could seek revenge years later.

Flutcher notes that last year, the Colorado General Assembly further modified the law to include protections for election workers. Former Clerk and Recorder Chuck Broerman, who now serves as county treasurer and has his home information blocked, has previously noted the aggressive behavior against election workers demonstrated by election deniers.

Although Flutcher says the blocking law remains “weak at best,” because the data can be shared by other means, it’s one of the few avenues citizens would have to seek out what properties their county commissioners own.

I would have no issues doing an annual statement.

Commissioner Longinos Gonzalez Jr.

Bremer is the only El Paso County commissioner whose residential property is blocked from the public on the assessor’s site. Former Assessor Steve Schleiker says the block was imposed after Bremer was appointed to the El Paso County Public Health board and the agency and its board members received threats amid the COVID pandemic.

In March, when reporting on Bremer’s phone call to Councilor Henjum regarding a decision affecting Bremer’s property investment, the Indy asked Bremer to explain how a potential conflict of interest could be known or discovered by the public, since county officials aren’t required to file disclosure reports. (The property at issue in which Bremer has invested is listed in the name of a limited liability company.) The Indy also asked what efforts commissioners have made to require disclosure, and whether she would support such an effort.

Bremer didn’t address any of those questions in a written statement provided by Stewart at that time but rather said she “has always acted according to statute.”

She did not return a recent phone call about the disclosure question.

Commissioner Longinos Gonzalez Jr., the only El Paso County commissioner without a registered nonprofit or LLC with the state, was elected in 2017 and reelected in 2021.

Property records show he owns a home in the Chelton Road and Hancock Expressway area where he lives and another property in Gold Hill Mesa that serves as a rental. He also owns a rental property in Florida, he tells the Indy.

Asked if he would support a county disclosure requirement, he says, “I would be open to something like that. I would have no issues doing an annual statement.”

He recently disclosed ownership of the Gold Hill Mesa property and recused himself from voting on a measure that would assign tax increment financing to a commercial development in that area.

“Urban renewal could potentially add value to my home, so I felt more comfortable not voting for that,” he says. “I stated my ownership, and I thought it made more sense to not have the perception of conflict of interest.”

Commissioner Stan VanderWerf, who has the most outside interests among commissioners, was less enthusiastic about the idea of disclosure.

Although he had to file disclosure reports while serving in the Air Force due to his security clearance status, he called such filings “an intrusion into a person’s life.”

But he adds that he would “reserve whether I would support that [disclosure requirement],” noting he’s not sure disclosure “delivers the outcome people are looking for” and “from a bureaucratic point of view [is] a pain in the neck.”

VanderWerf has voluntarily disclosed some conflicts, such as his wife’s membership on the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region’s board, and then voted on county budgets that included funding for the agency.

He doesn’t recall recusing himself from any vote due to a conflict or perceived conflict due to his outside interests.

Commissioner Holly Williams announced a potential conflict and recused herself from voting once — on the purchase of ballots. That’s because her husband, At-Large City Councilor and mayoral candidate Wayne Williams, at that time represented the ballot company at issue, she says.

While Holly Williams supports being transparent, she says any county disclosure requirement should be imposed statewide, “because the county is, technically, an arm of the state.”

Asked if she would support an El Paso County measure, she says, “That is something we would have to discuss as commissioners. I don’t know the legalities or ramifications of all that.”

Commissioner Carrie Geitner didn’t respond to a phone call seeking comment.

Senior Reporter

Pam Zubeck recently reached her 45-year mark as a journalist. She's worked at newspapers in Kansas, Oklahoma and Colorado, including at the Indy since 2009. She’s known for her dogged pursuit of accountability, no matter where the trail leads, and has investigated crooked public officials in all three states. Two went to jail because of her reporting. Know of an injustice or something shady? Contact Pam at zubeck@csindy.com