Earlier this week, Westword's Melanie Asmar posted a story about the former chief financial officer in Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler's office–who claims she was harassed, intimidated, and ultimately demoted after she raised questions about Gessler's use of discretionary account funds. You'll recall that Gessler's use of taxpayer money to attend partisan political events resulted in a ruling from the state's Independent Ethics Commission that he had "breached the public trust for private gain."
As published at Westword Tuesday afternoon:
The former chief financial officer for the Colorado Secretary of State's Office is accusing Secretary Scott Gessler of harassing her, retaliating against her and eventually demoting her after she "began to push back on the financial mismanagement" she reportedly saw in the office. Heather Lizotte took issue with Gessler's use of the office's $5,000 discretionary fund and federal grant funds meant to improve state elections, according to a lengthy claim notice filed with the Colorado Attorney General's Office.
According to the notice, Lizotte began working for the secretary of state's office in 2003 and got excellent performance reviews for many years. The trouble started shortly after Gessler took office in 2010, the notice says. Gessler made headlines for wanting to moonlight at his previous law firm because, he claimed, the secretary of state's salary wasn't enough. Meanwhile, the notice says, Gessler didn't always provide receipts in connection with his use of the office's $5,000 discretionary fund; at the end of fiscal years 2011 and 2012, he also asked Lizotte to give him all of the money left in the fund.
Lizotte told Gessler's staff "that the casual practices being used were not appropriate," the notice says. In a November 2011 e-mail to two staffers, Lizotte wrote that all expenditures from the discretionary fund "should have supporting documentation (for example meal receipts etc.)" and that memos for "blanket expenditures" are not allowed. Lizotte's insistence on the rules, the notice says, caused "ongoing tension" between her and Gessler.
Heather Lizotte testified before the Independent Ethics Commission about the matter of Gessler's discretionary funds account. As Westword reports, Lizotte claims that after her testimony, Gessler and his close staff started shutting her out of meetings. Within a few months, Lizotte was on the wrong side of performance evaluations, and in June she was demoted with loss of pay. While we can't claim to know all of the particulars, there are plenty of circumstances in play here that could add up to plausible claim of retaliation.
Between Tuesday and yesterday afternoon, though, something interesting happened. In a new story, Asmar writes about SoS employees, in interviews "facilitated by Gessler's office," coming out of the woodwork to throw Gessler's former CFO under the bus:
[A] document signed by Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert gives different reasons, including that Lizotte abruptly left the office in December 2013 on sick leave without giving her staff any direction. Lizotte claims that she left because Gessler treated her "so aggressively that she became frightened and seriously ill" and that she did brief her staff on how to handle the meetings scheduled during her absence…
Ryan Moyle, who worked for Lizotte from April 2011 until he left the department in November 2013, says that it seemed to him that Lizotte was in over her head. "In my experience, we were doing a lot of her work," says Moyle, who was a budget analyst.
Moyle says he never saw Gessler mistreat Lizotte; instead, he was "supportive" and "patient" with her. However, Moyle recalls Lizotte saying things that made it clear she didn't see things the same way. "She would always make comments about how it was a boys' club and the men didn't respect her," Moyle says…
Deana Wiedemann, an account tech who worked under Lizotte for eight years, agrees. "It's been a rough road to work with her," Wiedemann says in a conversation facilitated by Gessler's office. "Nothing has been consistent with how she makes decisions."
Bottom line: we don't know Heather Lizotte. We don't know any of the people in the story above who question her performance in these downright ad hominem terms. We do know that Lizotte's employment with the Secretary of State's office predates Gessler's term, meaning she wasn't part of the team that Gessler brought in when he took office. And we know that Gessler was found by the IEC, with their judgment upheld in court, to have improperly spent his office's discretionary funds–which could quite reasonably upset his CFO. The Colorado Civil Rights Division, which is currently investigating, will eventually make a judgment. Until then, yesterday's story ends this way:
Laura Schwartz, one of Lizotte's attorneys, says that Lizotte disagrees with the statements made by the other employees but does not want to comment on them further. Adds Schwartz: "These people who are coming out against Heather are the very people who want to stay in touch with a powerful person. And Gessler is." [Pols emphasis]
Perhaps Gessler will be vindicated. But if he is not vindicated, these subsequent actions, marshaling current and former employees to smear this woman even as the investigation of her claims is underway, could turn out to be one of the very worst of "Honey Badger's" many misdeeds.