Hundreds of phone calls between Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway, oversight board members, raise questions about fairness of audit process | MyWindsorNow.com

Hundreds of phone calls between Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway, oversight board members, raise questions about fairness of audit process

Tyler Silvy
tsilvy@greeleytribune.com

During the course of a performance audit into Weld County commissioners, the man responsible for ensuring that audit be impartial had more than 150 phone calls with Commissioner Sean Conway, raising questions about the fairness of the audit process.

The calls during that span were between Conway and Weld County Councilman Mike Grillos, who had regular contact with the auditor hired to look into the performance of county commissioners and Conway's niece, Weld County Clerk and Recorder Carly Koppes.

Weld County commissioners say they're disturbed by the number and timing of calls, and two county council members plan to call for Grillos' resignation Monday.

"I don't know how it could be more inappropriate," Commissioner Mike Freeman said. "You're talking about the guy that's supposed to be in charge of the audit. It appears to me they were manipulating the audit from Day 1, or attempting to."

Grillos initially denied having contact with commissioners during the audit.

"None whatsoever," Grillos said. "We kept an arms' length distance with commissioners and auditors during the audits."

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After being told The Tribune had phone records showing the calls, Grillos said he and Conway are friends. He admitted the number of calls could look bad to the public.

Conway said the calls had nothing to do with the audit, and he and Grillos are friends who talk about fishing and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Weld County.

Phone records don't show what topics the pair discussed, but the calls picked up dramatically after Jan. 16, when Grillos became the point person for the $50,000 audit.

In fact, phone records of Conway's county-provided cellphone from the past year show 94 percent of the calls between Grillos and Conway, or 176 out of 187 calls, happened after Jan. 16, despite Conway saying he and Grillos have been friends since 2015.

The Tribune was able to confirm just 12 total calls on public phones in the past year between the other four county commissioners and any member of the Weld County Council, an oversight board for commissioners and other elected officials in the county.

The subjects of those calls ranged from discussions about water boards to calls offering condolences to council member Charles Tucker, whose wife died, according to interviews with the four commissioners.

Though it's hard to measure the effect the calls had on Grillos, or what the calls were about, there are numerous examples of calls taking place before significant events. For example, the pair shared four calls April 17, the day of a council meeting featuring discussion about a 150-page, independent investigative report into Conway's behavior toward Weld County staff. After multiple calls with Conway that day, Grillos had this to say at the meeting:

"I have doubts about the report. Period."


NEXT WELD COUNTY COUNCIL MEETING

The council will meet at 6:30 p.m. Monday for a regularly scheduled meeting at the Weld County Administration Building, 1150 O St. in Greeley. The council also is expected to release the performance audit of Weld County Clerk and Recorder Carly Koppes at the meeting.


This wasn't the first time Conway made an apparent attempt to influence county council members.

Before the audit began, Conway's favored councilman was Jordan Jemiola, whom Conway sometimes talked with just minutes before the start of county council meetings. Nearly 80 percent of Conway's 108 conversations with Jemiola took place before the start of the audit, while Jemiola was actively opposing an audit of Koppes if it wasn't paired with an audit of commissioners.

But when Grillos was appointed as the council's leader of the audit, Conway stopped calling Jemiola as often.

When asked about the subject of calls with Jemiola, Conway had this to say:

"We talk about mostly stuff, again, in terms of things."

Jemiola bristled at the notion the calls were improper, saying it's the council's job to know what's going on with the county, and he doesn't call the other commissioners because they're not nice to him.

"Are you trying to do a story on me getting updates on the county?" Jemiola said.

Jemiola hasn't always dismissed perceived conflicts of interest so quickly. In December, during a discussion about commissioners meeting with Xcel Energy regarding the company's longterm plans, Jemiola said it didn't matter if Xcel had business before the county when commissioners met with the company.

"You could have been discussing the weather," Jemiola said. "But it's the public perception that causes concern for a lot of citizens. I don't think those types of meetings are appropriate."

A year's worth of phone records show nearly 300 calls among Jemiola, Grillos and Conway.

Some of Grillos' fellow councilmen were shocked at the volume of calls when reached by The Tribune for comment.

"With that much conflict of interest with Grillos and Sean, and during an audit, that ought to be grounds to ask for (Grillos') resignation," Councilman Gene Stille said, adding he and Tucker plan to do that at the council meeting Monday.

When asked how the public would view the number and timing of his calls with Grillos, Conway said someone would have to prove Grillos not only communicated with auditors but also attempted to influence the audit.

"There's no proof," Conway said, adding nobody is disputing the facts in the audit.

There was communication between Grillos and the auditors, but it's hard to know how much Grillos attempted to sway them, if he did at all. Harvey M. Rose Associates Senior Manager Dan Goncher said his auditors provided regular updates to Grillos, but said the amount of communication between Grillos and auditors was typical. Grillos isn't saying: After one brief interview, Grillos did not return multiple calls and text messages seeking clarification on the nature of the calls.

But the calls do raise questions, and Conway's fellow commissioners are more than happy to shift the focus back to the Weld County Council.

The council has been embattled for more than a year, and might be in more danger of extinction than at any time in its 40-plus-year history. Commissioners will vote Aug. 28 whether to put the fate of the council on the November ballot.

There has been a spark of support for the council and its watchdog role, including from an upstart group out of Johnstown called People United for Responsible Government, which has garnered nearly 100 signatures to "save the council."

But the hundreds of phone calls between Conway and two council members has some officials wondering how much oversight the oversight board can actually provide.

"If the people were to hear that, (the council) goes from being a watchdog to a lapdog," Stille said.

Weld County Council President Brett Abernathy was hesitant to cast judgment, but he did say the number of calls will raise questions for some people.

Both Abernathy and Grillos have, at least publicly, been strong advocates for an independent and unbiased audit.

"We want people to know this audit is separate and protected from outside influence," Abernathy said during a March 20 county council meeting.

Abernathy said he doesn't know what Grillos, Conway and Jemiola talked about in their nearly 300 conversations spanning 11 months, and said he hasn't had any phone calls with commissioners in the past nine months.

"One thing I'm glad about is in this specific case, we have the public records so we can go look and find that these phone calls were made, so people can make their own judgment, determination or ruling," Abernathy said.

— Tyler Silvy covers government and politics for The Greeley Tribune. Reach him at tsilvy@greeleytribune.com. Connect with him at Facebook.com/TylerSilvy or @TylerSilvy on Twitter.

The calls:

Click the graphic below to view phone calls between Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway and Weld County Councilmen Mike Grillos and Jordan Jemiola with corresponding key events.

By the numbers

295 — Calls between Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway and Weld County Councilmen Mike Grillos or Jordan Jemiola

187 — Of those were to Grillos, while 108 went to Jemiola.

94 — Percent of Conway’s calls with Grillos came after Grillos was named point person for the audit of commissioners.

12.6 — Percentage of Conway’s total calls in the past year that were to Grillos or Jemiola.

32 — Days in the past year in which Conway has had at least three phone calls with either Grillos or Jemiola.

41 — Number of calls between Conway and Grillos, or Conway and Jemiola, that lasted 30 minutes or longer.

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