Former top Placer County official Rich Colwell pays up for Political Reform Act breach

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Placer County’s former No. 2 administrator Rich Colwell has agreed to pay an $800 penalty for failing to report real estate he owns in Lincoln on conflict-of-interest statements. Colwell, a Penryn resident, retired in December as chief assistant CEO. He said today in an e-mail that he had thought that because the rental properties in question were within Lincoln city limits and he had no influence over policy within that city, he wouldn’t be required to report them in annual filings with the state. The Placer County Deputy Sheriff’s Association filed a complaint with the California Fair Political Practices Commission against Colwell over what they considered failure to report property and rental income. The deputy organization’s complaint covered possible non-reporting of properties going back to 1999. The association didn’t return a call seeking comment as of press time. Colwell agreed to a stipulated judgment that admitted his violation of the Political Reform Act but avoided a full-blown commission hearing. Roman Porter, Fair Political Practices Commission executive director, said the penalty was at the lowest end of its range. Colwell faced the possibility of up to $20,000 in fines in a streamlining process that levies smaller amounts for those who cooperate. Porter said the commission takes reporting on statements of economic interests seriously. “It’s one of the cornerstones of the Political Reform Act,” Porter said. “The form serves as an annual reminder to officials on what their economic interests are and it informs the public and the media on what potential conflicts could be.” The agreement states that Colwell “mistakenly failed to disclose the matters in question because he believed he was not required to disclose real property located in the incorporated areas of Placer County.” The four-counts to which Colwell agreed to cover his annual statements of economic interests from 2005 to 2008 and involve “various real properties and associated rental income.” “Commission staff indicated to me that the regulation was somewhat ambiguous, but that their ruling was that I was required to report all properties in the county, regardless of whether they were located in a city,” Colwell said. “They did not find any conflict of interest, only non-reporting, and offered to assign the lowest penalty available to them – which was $200 per property for four of my seven properties, if I would agree.” Colwell added that while he was disappointed by the Fair Political Practices Commission action, he understood that the misinterpretation of the regulations was his responsibility. “And I agreed to put the matter to rest,” Colwell said. Colwell abruptly left the $243,000-a-year, No. 2 county post in November after 20 years with Placer, leaving some to speculate on whether he was forced to retire. Colwell said that he was honored to serve as chief assistant CEO and as a member of the Placer County management team – working an average of 50 to 55 hours a week. The times were challenging – and sometimes stressful – because of budget reductions and growing service demands, he said. “With more than 30 years of retirement-eligible public service and my 54th birthday in December, it was a good time to retire,” Colwell said. “Since then I have become a full-time mandarin grower and grandfather and have greatly enjoyed both roles.” Colwell also made a break from service with the Placer County Board of Education. He resigned in March at mid-term and less than four months into his yearlong presidency. He had served on the board for 24 years. “Since a portion of my retirement income was based on service with the county Office of Education, I was required, by state regulations, to step down from the board in order to receive my full retirement amount,” Colwell said.