The City Auditor is suing the City Council over the watchdog’s subpoena power

According to the lawsuit, Denver City Council made an illegal amendment to a law meant to help the City Auditor investigate city partners.
3 min. read
Denver’s City and County Building. Aug. 10, 2021. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

City Auditor Timothy M. O'Brien on Thursday said he had filed a lawsuit against the Denver City Council this week over a law passed in 2021 giving his office subpoena powers.

The auditor is a watchdog for all city agencies and is responsible for reviewing departments, programs, projects and contractors. His office regularly produces reports detailing how things are working in the city. Last year, for example, his office found the city was doing a good job using pandemic relief money.

At the core of the case is a law passed by the Denver City Council in May 2021 at the request of the auditor, who sought subpoena power to help with those very investigations.

Subpoena power would give him another tool to complete audits by demanding stuff like documents be turned over to his office. However, when Council passed the law, they added a slight tweak: City partners only have to provide the auditor with on-site access to materials, which O'Brien's office suggests is restricting its ability to do its work.

A copy of the suit provided by the auditor's office shows it was filed in Denver District Court on Tuesday. The lawsuit seeks a declaratory judgment, which basically means O'Brien's office is asking a judge to decide who's right in all this.

But the case may not even be decided by a court.

Hours before O'Brien's office announced the lawsuit, Denver City Council said in a statement it plans on repealing the law to avoid an "expensive court battle financed by taxpayers."

O'Brien said the council's decision to repeal the law rather than make necessary changes will remove a tool for transparency and accountability.

"The council's amendment was a mistake -- and now we are asking the Denver District Court to clarify the legality of the amendment," O'Brien said in a release. "This was our only choice because the City Council refused to agree to the necessary changes -- and we cannot operate in a way that does not comply with Denver's Charter."

In a statement, Council President Stacie Gilmore said the council's work has always been "rational, prudent and in good faith."

"The Auditor had opportunities to present his proposed legislation three times at committee, but he underestimated the scope of questions and due diligence we as Council expect," Gilmore said in the release. "His disregard for process and then failing to attend the council meeting for the final vote shows he expected us to rubber stamp legislation and then he further wants to waste taxpayers' money by suing City Council for not amending the legislation."

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