Ethics Questions Continue To Swirl Around La Plata County Commissioner
La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt is fighting fresh ethics concerns over her environmental activism.
Lachelt, who has encountered questions about her dual role as both an elected official and environmental activist going back to 2014, faced a new complaint during a commissioners meeting last month over her attempt to get a resolution passed in support of a lawsuit by teenagers from Boulder, Colo., and environmental groups against a state regulatory board.
In the case brought by Xiuhtezcatl Martinez and other teenagers, a three-judge panel at the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 in March that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission must consider whether drilling activities “adversely impact human health” or “contribute to climate change” before issuing a permit. Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman asked the state Supreme Court to review the decision, stating that she backed the unanimous decision of COGCC to appeal the case to the state’s highest court.
Lachelt’s resolution on June 27 called for the county to file a friend of the court brief in support of Martinez. It was not seconded by fellow commissioners and died as a result.
Before the commissioners meeting, La Plata County resident Mae Morley filed an ethics complaint that county attorney Sheryl Rogers read into the record at the June 27 meeting.
Morley opposed the county joining the Martinez lawsuit or supporting it in any manner.
“I feel that the Martinez lawsuit has the potential for far reaching negative impact on our county as well as the state of Colorado. The outcome of this lawsuit could slow down, if not totally shut down future drilling for oil and gas in our county as well as the entire state,” Morley wrote.
More importantly, Morley wrote, were questions of conflicts of interest for Lachelt. She asked the county attorney to “prepare a detailed review of ethics to determine if an ethics breach has occurred” in Lachelt’s push to get involved in the Martinez case.
“As a result of an article in the June 22, 2017, Telegraph, I want to voice my concern about Commissioner Lachelt, who is a former Earthworks employee, a former board member of the San Juan Citizens Alliance and now a current employee with the Western Leaders Network. Commissioner Lachelt is serving as the Executive Director of the Western Leaders Network and thus under the direction of the Western Leaders Network board. I am concerned that there is a conflict of interest or at the very least a perceived conflict of interest,” Morley wrote.
Lachelt denied that her support or vote for the county’s participation in the Martinez case would result in any “economically benefit” to her under Colorado Revised Statutes.
“No ma’am, I have no conflict of interest,” Lachelt said during a series of questions from Rogers.
Lachelt said she did not know the circumstances of possible involvement with the Martinez case from any of the three groups Morley mentioned – Earthworks, San Juan Citizens Alliance, or the newly formed Western Leaders Network. However, the March 23 Court of Appeals decision lists Earthworks as having joined an amicus brief, along with Our Health, Our Future, Our Longmont, Sierra Club, Food & Water Watch, and a long list of other Colorado activist organizations, including 350 Colorado and Frack Free Colorado.
Rogers, the county attorney, explained that there was a difference between a conflict of interest and bias and that it was up to the individual, not the “eyes of the beholder,” to determine the standard for recusal. Rogers said that all three Commissioners had bias, as that was likely the reason they were elected, but as the board was not a fact-finding body in this issue, it was not a concern here.
More than 20 residents encouraged opposition to the county weighing in on the lawsuit, with some suggesting it should instead support the COGCC appeal.
Outnumbered 3-1, several representatives of SJCA argued for inclusion, citing environmental and health concerns.
Although Lachelt resigned from Earthworks in 2012 following her election to the Board of Commissioners after more than a decade organizing opposition to oil and gas development, she listed Earthworks as her employer in a 2015 filing when she donated to her re-election campaign.
The filing does not appear to have been corrected, even after a 2016 review of her filings. When asked by Complete Colorado about the contribution, Lachelt wrote that she was “not an employee of Earthworks” and had not received any compensation from the organization since 2012. Lachelt said the entry was a mistake and that she would “make any necessary corrections.”
When pressed by Complete Colorado about possible indirect compensation, such as travel expenses or reimbursements for speaking engagements or to testify in Washington, D.C. in favor of oil and gas regulations, Lachelt did not respond.
Lachelt most recently founded the Western Leaders Network, formed this year, and hopes to draw elected officials and tribal leaders from states across the West: Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming.