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Thursday, January 31,2013

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Local gadfly accuses city council of disclosure discrepancies; Boulder Weekly investigations prove him right | by Jefferson Dodge and Joel Dyer, May 2012 to present

By Boulder Weekly Staff

For years, Seth Brigham was one of Boulder’s gadflies, coloring Boulder’s city council meetings with provocative, uncomfortable pronouncements and, dare we say, unconventional ways of presenting information to elected officials, which included stripping down to his boxer shorts to protest an anti-nudity ordinance and sending hundreds of emails to city council members demanding all sorts of different information. No one paid Brigham much mind, though, until spring 2012, when Brigham began asserting that certain members of city council had improperly omitted key information on the financial disclosure sheets they are required to fill out annually and when becoming candidates. Once his inquiries began poking in the wrong place — the financial interests of powerful people — his badgering suddenly (and suspiciously) morphed from a nuisance to what our elected officials suddenly described as a real, physical threat. City council moved to slap a restraining order on Brigham and ban him from contacting members. It was a restraining order that was later struck down by a judge.

During this time, Brigham was sending his correspondence with city council to every media organization in town, including Boulder Weekly. The council’s increasingly disproportionate response to Brigham’s needling over the years had intrigued the editorial staff, and once the restraining order came down, Joel Dyer and Jefferson Dodge decided it was about time to check into Brigham’s allegations against council and see if there was anything to them. Turns out, there was.

After checking various public records, Boulder Weekly discovered that council member George Karakehian had failed to list certain financial interests on his disclosure forms, despite clear wording requiring him to do so. Karakehian failed to disclose LLCs held by his company, which he described as his “retirement,” that represented more than $6 million of assets, as well as ties to some of the biggest real estate moguls in town. K.C. Becker failed to disclose her business interests with Scott Holton when he was appointed by the mayor to the Boulder Housing Partners board in 2011. Investigations revealed that council members Ken Wilson, Suzy Ageton and Macon Cowles all had, to varying degrees, discrepancies on their disclosure forms or other possible conflicts of interest that they would answer for in Boulder Weekly articles.

At one point during the investigation, Boulder Weekly spoke with District Attorney Stan Garnett, who said that his office was investigating complaints about Karakehian’s disclosure forms, and that the investigation would take a couple of weeks. Later that morning, after BW told Karakehian about the inquiry, Garnett called back to say he was closing the investigation because the claims had no merit and it wasn’t the jurisdiction of his office.

This made BW’s journalistic Spidey-sense start tingling. Maybe Karakehian had called City Attorney Tom Carr, who advises council members on conflicts of interest. And maybe, just maybe, Carr had called Garnett.

Mr. Garnett, BW asked, did you happen to have a conversation with Carr during that short period of time that led you to close the investigation?

No, he assured Boulder Weekly.

Being skeptical, Dodge and Dyer obtained Garnett’s and Carr’s phone records, and lo and behold, Garnett had indeed spoken with Carr before deciding to call off the investigation.

To his credit, Garnett later apologized and called the ordeal a learning experience. At the time, Boulder Weekly called it temporary amnesia, tongue in cheek.

City Council finally took up the issue in 2012, but the process is ongoing. Minor “progress” has been made, though: The disclosure form will now be printed in 12-point font instead of 8-point, and the wording will make clear that members must disclose financial interests for the 12 months preceding their deadline. Baby steps.

This story also brought to light the incestuous way laws are enforced on a municipal level. If there are discrepancies on disclosure forms, it is up to Carr to hold council members accountable. But currently, unlike in many cities around the country, Boulder’s city attorney is hired by, and can be fired by, the city council. A leader of a state nonprofit ethics watchdog later said that Boulder’s way of choosing a city attorney must change if that person simultaneously answers to and is in charge of policing city council.

All of this started with one citizen poking his nose in places he shouldn’t. It’s a reminder of the importance of civic duty, and it also hammers home the importance of open records laws. And it’s all because an admittedly mentally unstable guy decided to pathologically devote himself to local politics. Ideas come from the strangest places sometimes.

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