New Comments Raise Questions Over Lachelt’s Dual Role
La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt continues to draw fresh ethics concerns around her efforts to lobby against changing the Bureau of Land Management’s methane rule in May.
David Peters of Durango, Colo., told Western Wire that he plans to file an ethics complaint with Colorado’s Independent Ethics Commission sometime in mid-August because he is disturbed by what he described as “multiple conflicts of interest.” Peters said a series of public trips Lachelt took to Washington, D.C. for advocacy — including against the vote on the BLM methane rule in May — drew his attention as a county resident, taxpayer, and former oil and natural gas industry worker.
“I’m very concerned she is no longer representing the county due to her conflicts with Western Leaders Network and her lobbying efforts in D.C., and doing that in place of attending meetings at the county that we as citizens pay for,” Peters said.
Lachelt launched the nonprofit Western Leaders Network this year and told Western Wire the aim of the group is to “unite, support and cultivate local and tribal officials to protect western lands and build healthy, sustainable and resilient communities.”
“I’m the founder and director of WLN. I’m paid a salary,” Lachelt wrote to Western Wire on Monday. Lachelt described recent trips to Washington as being made on behalf of both the county and WLN though she admits travel expenses were picked up by her new employer. “In reference to the trips I took this year to DC to advocate for the methane rule – all travel expenses were covered in the Western Leaders Network budget,” she wrote.
Yet at a May press conference hosted by Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) to preview the upcoming vote on repealing the BLM methane rule, Lachelt did not reveal her employment with WLN. She introduced herself to reporters as “a county commissioner from La Plata County, Colorado.”
Standing beside the two senators, she told reporters, “This is a great rule. It is very critical for my community and people who live in my county. And I urge the Senate to hold onto this rule and to keep this rule.”
Media reports on the BLM methane rule vote from E&E News, WTOP, the New York Times, and Durango Herald highlight Lachelt’s role as county commissioner and do not mention her affiliation with Western Leaders Network during the trips.
Lachelt responded to press inquiries about lobbying efforts by her and fellow WLN board member Don Schreiber, who also spoke at the press conference as a “New Mexico resident.”
The Associated Press’ Matthew Daly asked Lachelt if she or Schreiber had “tried to lobby Sen. [Cory] Gardner or Sen. [Dean] Heller” on the BLM methane vote.
“Yes, I have been to Washington now three times this year. I was able to meet with Senator Gardner in late February and he told me he was ‘decidedly neutral,’” Lachelt told Daly. “The last two times – I was here two weeks ago and today – and unfortunately I’m not able to secure a meeting with the Senator. I’m going to continue to try to do that.”
Schreiber also acknowledged a February meeting with Gardner to discuss the BLM methane rule.
Lachelt confirmed the three trips to the nation’s Capital in 2017 in an email to Western Wire, but did not clarify whether she appeared as a lobbyist, and did not describe the outreach as attempts to “lobby” Sen. Gardner.
Lachelt has not been a registered lobbyist since 2004, according to records at the Colorado Secretary of State’s office.
Western Wire reached out to Sen. Bennet’s and Sen. Cantwell’s office to ask about their understanding of her role. Neither office responded by press time. Sen. Bennet’s press advisory does not mention WLN.
In just a few short months and before an official launch party, WLN was able to score a policy victory on the BLM methane rule, following Lachelt’s advocacy.
According to the Durango Herald, “The organization has run a successful campaign, convincing Congress to vote against a resolution in May that would have overturned the Bureau of Land Management methane venting and flaring rule. The group collected 120 signatures from county commissioners, local officials and electric cooperatives in a letter it sent to all 100 senators.”
Lachelt told the Herald: “Senators we were able to visit with said it makes all the difference in the world to hear from people who are actually directly impacted by these issues and these policies.”
The New York Times described Lachelt’s visit in May, when she “buttonholed Mr. [John] McCain in a Senate elevator to tell him that county residents have suffered from methane pollution drifting over from New Mexico.”
“By chance, I was able to visit with Sen. McCain for quite some time,” Lachelt told the Durango Herald. “I’ll never know…if our visit made him call Sen. [John] Barrasso last night and (tell him) he was changing his vote,” she continued.
She defended her involvement in the advocacy to Western Wire.
“The La Plata County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution in support of the BLM methane rule in 2016, as this regulation is pertinent to our region. Commissioners regularly travel to Denver and Washington DC to represent La Plata County on issues relevant and important to us,” Lachelt wrote in an email to Western Wire.
“I traveled to Washington in February, April and May. As a La Plata County commissioner, I represented the county at the National Association of Counties conference in February; a congressional briefing in Washington in April on the Commerce Department’s new accounting for the outdoor recreation economy impact on GDP; and, I traveled to Washington May 8 to meet with members of Congress regarding the CRA vote on the BLM Methane Rule.”
“These trips were part of my role as an elected official as well as my position as executive director for Western Leaders Network,” she said.
Earlier this summer Lachelt faced ethics questions from a local resident at a county commissioner meeting. In June, La Plata County community members turned out for a commissioners meeting after another resident, Mae Morley, filed an ethics complaint with the County Attorney. Morley questioned Lachelt’s decision to ask her fellow board members to support a resolution in favor of the litigants in the so-called Martinez case, a lawsuit filed by teenagers and supported by environmental groups seeking to impose new regulatory language on the state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
“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,” Morley wrote. “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.”
“No ma’am, I have no conflict of interest,” Lachelt told the board during a series of questions from the County Attorney, Sheryl Rogers. Lachelt went on to deny that her support or vote for the county’s participation in the Martinez case would result in an outcome that would “economically benefit” her under Colorado Revised Statutes.
Rogers concluded, based on Lachelt’s response at the meeting, that while the commissioner might have bias, joining the Martinez case would not present a conflict of interest.
According to Lachelt, “WLN is a non-profit organization registered with the state of Colorado and the IRS.” The Colorado Secretary of State’s office shows WLN filed as a 501(c)(3) in February 2017.
WLN hosted a launch party on June 29, at the Eno Wine and Coffee Bar in Durango. Guests were treated to “[h]igh tea and champagne.”
“Private individuals contribute to Western Leaders Network. As a non-profit organization our donor lists are private,” Lachelt told Western Wire.