Scott Gessler Clumsily Attempts, Then Clumsily Abandons Attempt, To Moonlight At Old Job

After being elected Colorado’s new Secretary of State, Republican Scott Gessler figured out that the gig only pays $68,000 a year.  That’s above the median income in Colorado, for sure, but let’s be serious.  Most serious candidates for state-wide office — Dan Maes doesn’t count — can do much better in the private sector.  Almost certainly, Gessler previously did.

So shortly after the election, Gessler announced that he planned to moonlight 20 hours a week at his old law job to supplement his diminished income.  He apparently failed to take into consideration the inconvenient fact that his old law firm represents clients who have business with the Secretary of State.

Almost everyone in business has business of some sort with the Secretary of State, and almost all of it is routine paperwork stuff no one without a partisan agenda would care about.  But according to media reports, Gessler’s old firm has considerably more than that kind of routine dealings with the office.  Apparently, it represents Republican-aligned clients on election-related issues.

So partisans who — correctly, I’m sure — view Gessler as having aspirations to higher office, pounced on the potential conflict of interest.  After weeks of poor press, Gessler today finally figured out the damage to his reputation and career isn’t worth it and abandoned the attempt:

“Over the past two weeks, many have asked that I publicly disclose client names,” Gessler, a Republican who defeated Democratic incumbent Secretary of State Bernie Buescher in November, said in a statement today.

“My former law firm has expressed great discomfort with this arrangement. Indeed, I cannot in good conscience expect anyone to subject themselves to public scrutiny, merely because I am doing some legal work for them.

“For this reason, I have decided that I will not do any work representing clients through my former law firm. And while I have had substantial discussions with the Attorney General’s office about outside employment, I have nonetheless asked the Attorney General to halt work on this issue. I have decided that I will not go forward with my initial plans.”

I have no sympathy.  Gessler’s approach was completely FUBAR.  He justifiably pissed off his partisan opponents, didn’t get what he wanted, and looked inept in the process.

When evaluating associates or partner candidates in a law firm, one of the most important criteria, if not the most important, is good judgment.  Good judgment is like obscenity — you might not be able to define it, but you know it when you see it.  And you know when you see the opposite.

In this instance, Gessler showed extremely poor judgment.  Of course people would want to know who, other than taxpayers, he is working for.  And of course such inquiries are legitimate if his firm does election-related work.  They are even more appropriate when it appears that the firm is usually associated with one party.

If Gessler wants to move to higher office — and there is little doubt he does — he needs to learn to exercise good judgment.  I know good judgment when I see it, and this was not it.  Quite the opposite.

Ironically, Gessler’s folly sparked a debate about whether Colorado’s top elected officials are properly compensated.  They aren’t.  Like judges, they are under-compensated, and that has adverse effects on the candidate pool.   I fully support a pay increase for top elected and appointed officials.  They have tremendous responsibility and we need to attract the best candidates.  I don’t want them getting rich on the taxpayers’ dime, but I don’t want public service to be a hardship.  For those with a successful private sector career, but without personal fortunes, the pay cut associated with moving to the public sector can make the change impractical. 

But the merits of the issue are irrelevant at this point.  The narrative of this story now is Gessler’s potential conflict of interest, and it is too late to change that. 

Future candidates should learn from Gessler’s mistake.  Try not to screw up your first few weeks in office with a controversy you could easily have avoided.

UPDATE:  T.R. Donoghue takes the wood to a Gessler defender at Steam Powered Opinions

I am not generally one to engage in this red on red stuff — I’d rather root for lots of injuries in blue on blue battles — but Gessler really stepped in it here.  He screwed up, and he needs to recognize that.  He will be a better elected official and have a brighter future if he does.

Published in: on February 1, 2011 at 10:37 pm  Leave a Comment  

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