Director Would Also Have Authority to Initiate Board Investigations
People wanting to file ethics complaints against Denver city employees and elected officials have always had to provide their name.
But City Council members said a recent survey of about 3,000 city employees found that two-thirds of them would not file an ethics complaint because they would be afraid of possible retaliation from a superior or colleague, as they would have to sign it.
On April 6 Denver City Council’s Finance and Governance Committee moved forward a proposal to allow people to file anonymous ethics complaints with the city’s Board of Ethics.The proposals would also give the ethics director the authority to initiate investigations based on their relevance to the ethics code.
According to Councilmember Kevin Flynn (District 2, Southwest Denver), who is a sponsor of the bill, the proposed changes are based on a performance audit that was published in February 2020. Flynn said some of the findings of the report addressed concerns of ethics while others would be addressed by other government agencies.
“The auditor’s findings were really stunning to me, that two-thirds of our employees would just not report something they saw for fear of retaliation,” Flynn told the Finance and Governance Committee.
Another proposed change is that the Board of Ethics would not be required to process or respond to an anonymous complaint that “appears frivolous on its face or submitted within 45 days of a municipal election,” according to the bill.
“The cause for concern was if there are ethical violations in the workplace and we allow anonymous complaints … that anonymous complaint could be used for harassment and so forth,” during an election, Flynn told The Denver North Star. “But I think we have a very good screening process, a very good director in place.”
Amendments to the ethics code also being considered include allowing the board eight weeks to render a decision on complaints instead of six, seven days instead of five to notify people involved in the matter and 35 days for the board to screen complaints instead of 31.
The bill with the proposed changes to the ethics code is slated to be considered by the full City Council at a later date.
To make any of these changes matter, there must be some kind of enforcement procedure in the event an ethics violation is found to be legitimate by the board.
The proposed changes would give the Board of Ethics authority to request reports back on what the presiding department of a city employee or elected official regarding disciplinary steps that have been taken, but not the authority to render those decisions.
Flynn said what stands in the way of the board’s independent enforcement authority is that city employees are already subject to disciplinary action by the Denver Career Services Authority, and “subjecting them to a second track of discipline is not something that we thought was beneficial.”
“I ran it by our employment law section in the City Attorney’s office, and the board of ethics shall be informed of the outcome of the final disciplinary action, and they couldn’t do that before,” Flynn said of the proposed changes.
Ethics Board member Jane T. Feldman told the Finance and Governance Committee she would still push for the board’s independent enforcement authority.
Feldman referenced a decision by the board last year that deemed the city’s former chief building official improperly used his position to benefit his home construction business. Last year, ethics officials said they wanted to know what kind of discipline had been taken, as personnel matters between the city and its employees are typically kept confidential.
“I’ve followed the code of ethics now for over a decade, and to my knowledge, it was the only case where the Board of Ethics has found someone in violation of the code,” Feldman said.
Councilmember Deborah Ortega said many of the complainants who want to remain anonymous try to reach out to the City Council for guidance, rather than the Board of Ethics, because of the current policies.
“I think it really is important that, when we get anonymous complaints that have very detailed and specific information, that we protect that individual until we can confirm whether they’re willing to disclose who they are,” Ortega said. “Oftentimes, it’s employees within our city agencies that see … questionable practices that happen.”
Anonymous Complaints Find a Way
Without the ability to file anonymous complaints, people often turn to the media to look into questions and concerns, Ortega said. The Denver North Star was recently contacted by a city employee who wanted to file an ethics complaint regarding District 1 Councilmember Amanda Sandoval related to a social media post and financial expenditures at a North Denver business which they believed was a conflict of interest. The city employee told The Denver North Star that they did not file an official complaint with the ethics board in part because they have professional reasons to interact with Sandoval’s office and feared retaliation.
La Casita, a well-known restaurant in North Denver, was owned by Sandoval’s father, Paul Sandoval, until his passing and is now owned by his second wife, Paula Sandoval. Under most definitions, that relationship would make Paula Sandoval Amanda Sandoval’s step-mother, a relationship which is defined as “immediate family” by the city’s ethics handbook when assessing conflicts of interest.
Councilwoman Sandoval shared a post on her official council Facebook page promoting the business. The original post was a write-up from 5280 magazine. According to open records requests filed by The Denver North Star, Sandoval has spent $1,808 from her office’s account at the restaurant since being elected in 2019. Additional records show then city employee Sandoval spending office funds at the restaurant while working for Councilman Rafael Espinoza, her predecessor. Sandoval said the decision of restaurants was up to the councilman at the time, not her.
Section 2-67 of the city’s ethics handbook states: “No officer, official or employee shall use his or her public office or position or disclose or use confidential information in order to obtain private gain for himself or herself, for his or her immediate family, for any business entity with which he or she is affiliated or for any person or entity with whom the officer, official or employee is negotiating or has any arrangement concerning prospective employment.” (emphasis added).
The question of immediate family is more complicated though, as Sandoval said she does not consider Paula her step-mother but rather the “wife of my father.”
“I think it’s important that the distinction be made clear, since my father died (in 2012), I have had nothing to do with La Casita,” Councilwoman Sandoval told The Denver North Star. “I do not gain financially from there nor I do not have ownership of it.”
Of the total her office spent at La Casita since 2019, $470 was used to buy food for COVID-19 vaccine volunteers, records show. The majority was to cater her office opening.
Councilwoman Sandoval said she would have spent money at other businesses for meetings and other events, but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit Colorado within three months of her time in office.
Without an official complaint and due to the board’s inability to opine on the matter in question, this and similar issues could be left to the catacombs of social media and the question of whether it’s a violation won’t formally be brought up.
Eric Heinz is a freelance journalist based in Denver, who most recently covered Los Angeles City Hall for City News Service.