Less than a week after taking office, attorney Scott Gessler, Colorado’s newly elected Secretary of State, announced that he plans to keep working part-time as an attorney for his law firm, the Hackstaff Law Group. In an interview with the Denver Business Journal, Gessler acknowledged that his plan to moonlight as a contract attorney raised ethical issues, but he needed the money.
Well that’s certainly an encouraging ethics orientation! “Yes, I know it’s wrong to take bribes—but I need the money!” “Of course, embezzlement is wrong—but I need the money!” Perhaps the Secretary of State would like to reconsider his answer. If working as a private attorney while also serving in a full-time elected state position can be defended as ethical, then let’s hear it. “I need the money,” however, is not sufficient to settle the issue.
Gessler is indeed taking a big pay-cut from his yearly income from the law firm, and the $68,500-a-year salary is among the lowest of any state for the Secretary of State position. That is no excuse. Nobody forced Gessler to run; he had to know, or should have known, the financial sacrifice serving as Secretary of State would involve. If he couldn’t live on that salary, then he should not have sought the office.
Gessler, a Secretary of State, taking cases as a private attorney doesn’t “raise ethical issues,” it is flat-out unethical, and in many respects:
1. It is an inherent conflict of interest. No matter how carefully he chooses cases and makes disclaimers to clients, his authority and connections to the state government will inevitably be considered part of the representation.
2. The arrangement has the appearance of impropriety all over it. Many of the Hackstaff firm’s clients do business with the state of Colorado. Even though, as a contract attorney, Gessler’s conflicts may not be attributed to the firm, the fact that he was previously a partner there will draw clients to Hackstaff who will assume the association is more than contract deep. So will the public. It looks terrible.
3. Secretary of Sate is supposed to be a full-time job, yet Gessler will be spending 20 hours a week meeting his ethical duties to Hackstaff clients, 20 hours that he should be devoting to the business of Colorado. Even if there are no regulations preventing moonlighting by state officials, a moonlighting Secretary of State, Attorney General or Governor is cheating the public, and also setting a precedent that will have to be addressed by statutory prohibition.
4. This is a bait-and-switch. Gessler didn’t tell voters that he planned on only being a part-time Secretary of State, and if he had, they might have chosen to vote for his more committed opponent.
But Gessler has an answer for all of this. He needs the money.
I think Colorado should take him at his word, and let him work full-time for his law firm. That way, everyone wins: Gessler will have his cash, and Colorado can find a dedicated Secretary of State….who isn’t an Ethics Dunce.