Denver councilwoman’s spending was “reckless” but did not violate ethics code, board finds

The Denver Board of Ethics on Wednesday found that City Councilwoman Flor Alvidrez’s spending and bookkeeping habits in her first few months in office did not violate the city’s ethics code.

But board members expressed serious concerns about what some termed Alvidrez’s “careless” or “reckless” use of taxpayer dollars last year, and they voted to document those views in an ethics opinion.

A complaint filed in December by a former staffer alleged that Alvidrez paid her ex-husband, Cesar Duron, $4,234 out of her office budget to build a float for a Halloween parade, despite already having contracted with a local nonprofit to build another float for $10,000. Among other alleged violations in the complaint was that Alvidrez used a city credit card to pay for flight upgrades on a trip to and from Chile for the Biennial of the Americas in October.

“The Board of Ethics has limited scope and is an advisory body without authority to impose penalty, but the City Council member’s actions here in this case do appear to raise legitimate questions and concerns related to a pattern of apparent reckless use of taxpayer funds,” board member Ray Gradale said during the board’s meeting Wednesday morning.

Gradale suggested that Lori Wesier, the board’s executive director, author an opinion noting that the board found no technical violation. He cited Alvidrez’s reimbursement of the city for all questionable spending, to the satisfaction of the city controller’s office. And her spending on the float didn’t violate conflict of interest rules.

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Gradale said the ethics opinion also should highlight the board’s significant concerns about Alvidrez’s spending and suggest potential updates to the Denver Code of Ethics. The motion passed 4-0.

Board member Everett Martinez recused himself from the vote and all consideration of the complaint against Alvidrez. He is the general counsel for Denver International Airport, which is subject to council oversight.

Alvidrez did not immediately return a request for comment. She was elected last year to represent south Denver’s Council District 7. She was sworn into office on July 17 as one of six new council members.

In a written response to questions from the board last month, Alvidrez detailed how she reimbursed the city $366 for the flight upgrades in two installments in November and January. She also reimbursed the city $8.12 for museum tickets for herself and her mother while they were in Chile, per that letter, and settled issues around missing receipts for other purchases.

The ethics investigation into her spending dates to Dec. 18, when a former staffer filed a 42-page complaint against her.

Alvidrez did not dispute the Halloween float and flight upgrade in the response letter she sent to Weiser on March 4. She noted that she and Duron are divorced and split custody of their child, with neither paying alimony.

Alvidrez focused on her unfamiliarity with city protocols, around which she since has completed training.

“I wanted to begin by sharing I recently completed the (Ethics) and Public Accountability course in Workday,” she wrote, referring to a city human resources system. “I was never made aware there was such a training and found it very valuable.”

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In that letter, Alvidrez noted that her entire office staff had turned over since she first took office. The departures included Leya Hartman, the senior aide who quit days before filing the ethics complaint.

Alvidrez suggested that her staff was unhappy with her because she refused to grant them bonuses or extra time paid time off around the holidays last year.

The Denver City Council’s central office received workplace complaints against Alvidrez last year that alleged, among other things, that she yelled at and belittled staffers. Those complaints were not investigated because they “involved workplace conduct that did not rise to the level of discrimination, harassment or retaliation” under the city’s workplace policy,” said Robert Austin, a spokesman for the council’s central office, earlier this year.

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While the ethics board did not find a direct violation of the ethics code, Wednesday’s meeting included plenty of criticism of Alvidrez’s conduct.

“I hope that the opinion will note that this was really a flagrant disregard of the appropriate use of public funds,” board member Jane Feldman said.

Board chair Dianne Criswell suggested the code may need to be updated to cover ex-spouses. Under the current code, they are not considered immediate family members and their involvement in a matter does not trigger a conflict of interest.

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“We have worked well with City Council in the past updates to codes, and I think we’re all hopeful (about) consideration of future changes to make the code more relevant and responsive to some of these concerns,” she said.

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