DENVER – Two Democratic state lawmakers in Colorado allege that their colleagues repeatedly violated state open meetings law by gathering to discuss official business outside of the public's view and directing aides to “omit or disguise” some meetings from representatives' calendars, according to a lawsuit filed against their own caucus.
The lawsuit, filed late Friday night, also alleges that Democratic and Republican lawmakers used Signal, a communication app where messages can be set to automatically disappear, in violation of state open meetings law and public records law.
Democratic Reps. Elisabeth Epps and Bob Marshall filed the lawsuit against the House of Representatives leadership and the Democratic and Republican caucuses.
Democratic House Speaker Rep. Julie McCluskie and House Republican Deputy Chief of Staff Roger Hudson, speaking for their respective caucuses accused of wrongdoing, said in separate statements that they are both committed to government transparency.
“We are still reviewing the complaint in full, and we stand by our caucus,” McCluskie said in the statement co-signed by Democratic Majority Leader Rep. Monica Duran.
While Hudson wrote that “this lawsuit is what Coloradans hate about politics,” he also affirmed that “Republicans continue to believe that the people of Colorado deserve access to their government through comprehensive open meetings and open records laws.”
The complaint states that, under Colorado law, when at least two lawmakers meet and discuss official business, it must be open to the public. If a quorum is present, the public must be noticed ahead of time, and the meeting minutes must be recorded and publicly accessible.
The lawsuit alleges that Colorado lawmakers met sometimes twice a week to discuss public business, such as pending legislation, but failed to follow any of the open meeting prescriptions outlined by state law, thereby shadowing deliberations from Colorado residents.
Similarly, the lawsuit alleges that the use of Signal was widespread and included discussions between lawmakers while they were sitting in committee or on the House floor – described in the complaint as “meetings within meetings.” Since the messages would self-destruct, they weren't accessible for public inspection under Colorado's public records law, the plaintiffs said.
“I don’t blame our leadership at all,” said Marshall, acknowledging that closed-door meeting practices are long-standing. “There’s not moral fault in any of this.”
But open meeting and public record laws, he continued, are necessary for transparency “so people know what’s going on and have confidence in their government. That weird stuff isn't going on behind closed doors.”
Marshall said that, as written, the law is difficult to follow to the letter, and he hopes it will be rewritten.
Marshall and Epps said they repeatedly raised their concerns to leadership over the course of the four-month legislative session, but nothing changed. Epps boycotted caucus meetings and Marshall took to the well on the last night of the session to warn that he would take action after leadership had failed to follow through on their assurances to fix the situation.
Marshall said “it was a massive swamp they inherited” and that the assurances offered were “just basically perfume rather than draining it.”