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Ethical dynamics shift as Griswold and Peters run for same office

Ethics expert: Secretary of state must ‘step away’ from investigations of county clerk
Mesa County Clerk and Recorder Tina Peters, left, and Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold. (Peters: Sharon Sullivan for Colorado Newsline. Griswold: Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)

As embattled Mesa County Clerk and Recorder Tina Peters campaigns for the Republican nomination for Colorado secretary of state, a trail of investigations, ethics complaints and lawsuits follows her – and she could potentially face off with the woman closely tied to her legal troubles.

Peters announced her intent to run for secretary of state on Feb. 14 and officially filed later that month.

If she makes it through the Republican primary – two other Republicans are running – she will compete with Griswold, whose office has one way or another been investigating Peters for nearly eight months.

John Pelissero, a senior scholar at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, told Colorado Newsline that with Peters becoming a political opponent, the ethical dynamic of those ongoing investigations has shifted.

Before Peters filed, it was entirely ethical for Griswold to investigate Peters since it clearly fell under Griswold’s constitutional duty.

“What’s going on now is the politicization of this process,” he said. “To the public, it might appear that she has a conflict of interest in investigating her possible opponent. When you have that, from an ethical perspective – when you even have an appearance of a conflict of interest – it’s incumbent on the public official to step away in whatever way they can.”

“She clearly needs to get herself out of the situation where she would be making a determination about the illegalities or inappropriateness of the actions,” he said.

Peters is facing multiple investigations from different parties, though most of them are closely associated with Griswold and her office.

Peters’ web of legal trouble

It began with a “trusted build” last spring, a routine software update to Mesa County’s election equipment. Though the rules only allow county election workers, Dominion Voting Systems employees and delegates for the secretary of state to be present, Peters let a man named Gerald Wood attend the update. During the process, someone took photos of secure passwords and those photos wound up on a conservative website called Gateway Pundit. That is a major security breach.

Griswold’s office began an investigation into that conduct, which led to a decertification of Mesa County’s election equipment.

District Attorney Dan Rubinstein also launched an investigation into the matter and asked for help from the FBI. In January, a Mesa County grand jury accepted the case.

Griswold’s office went to court and successfully barred Peters from overseeing the November 2021 election and is pursuing similar litigation to prevent Peters from having a role in the 2022 primary and general elections.

Separately, Peters is also facing different ethics complaints that concern travel and housing gifts to Peters from conservative ally Mike Lindell in the fallout of the election security investigation. One is an ethics complaint under the constitutional gift ban and another is a finance complaint under statutory financial disclosure requirements. The ethics complaint, handled by the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission, will be decided after the Mesa County grand jury investigation. The finance complaint was handed to the Office of Administrative Courts by Griswold’s office.

Another ethics complaint alleges that Peters began accepting financial contributions for her reelection campaign for clerk before officially filing. That hearing for that complaint is set for later this month.

Griswold recuses herself

Griswold plans to stay involved in the litigation filed before Peters entered the race. Other than that, she is stepping aside or already has.

“As former Colorado Secretaries of State have done, Secretary Griswold will recuse herself from decisions on ballot access matters regarding Clerk Peters for the 2022 election,” her office said in a statement. “In addition, the Elections Division at the Department of State has referred all pending campaign finance matters concerning Peters – including the ongoing OAC case before an administrative law judge – to the Attorney General’s Office under the constitutional provision that requires the AG to handle complaints against a candidate for Secretary of State.”

The OAC is currently handling the finance complaint that alleges Peters violated a statutory campaign finance disclosure requirement. Once the OAC makes its decision, it will pass the matter to Attorney General Phil Weiser’s office instead of Griswold to be the final arbitrator.

Ballot access matters include determining if a candidate’s petition to get on the ballot is sufficient and deciding if a candidate is legally eligible.

Though Griswold will recuse herself in an official capacity, she still criticizes Peters as a political opponent.

“Election denier Tina Peters just jumped in to run against me. She compromised voting equipment, lies about elections, and has embraced dangerous extremism,” Griswold tweeted from a personal account the day Peters announced.

She included a fundraising plea and link for her ActBlue donation page, and the tweet is currently pinned to her profile.

“That struck me as ethically inappropriate for her to have immediately used her ActBlue site to try and gain some political advantage,” Pelissero said. “Particularly when you have ongoing investigations taking place. If there weren’t investigations and this was simply another person running against you, then fine. But this will appear to many in the public as inappropriate.”

It is unclear right now whether Peters entering the race gave Griswold a fundraising bump. The next financial filing deadline for statewide candidates is May 2, where numbers for both Griswold and Peters will be available. Griswold entered the year with nearly $1.4 million in her campaign bank account.

Neither Peters nor her campaign responded to multiple requests for comment for this story, but she briefly spoke on the subject during a GOP forum in Fort Collins on Feb. 20.

“Weaponizing our elections and targeting political opponents has no place in Colorado and no place in America,” she said.

The Republican primary election is June 28 in Colorado and the general election is Nov. 8.

To read more stories from Colorado Newsline, visit www.coloradonewsline.com.