Rep. Joe Stengel today responded to an ethics request over his egregious overbilling of taxpayers for days worked outside of the legislative session last year (you can read more about the story in a previous post), and he generally did everything he could to avoid admitting that what he did was wrong. As the Rocky Mountain News reports, Stengel is still clinging to a misguided belief that it wasn’t a big deal to pretend to have worked 240 out of 247 days last year:

Former House Minority Leader Joe Stengel said he should have handled his leadership pay “differently and with better judgment” but he did nothing to violate the law.

“I am confident that you will not find any probable cause to believe that I have failed to adhere to the Constitution and laws of the state of Colorado and applicable House rules,” Stengel wrote. “I customarily spend the better part of my day reviewing press clippings, communicating with staff and providing strategic guidance and support to staff and caucus members on legislative issues. The obligation of leadership is constant and unrelenting.”

If you enjoyed that, you’ll love his explanation for why he billed taxpayers for working during his “vacation” in Hawaii:

Stengel later reimbursed taxpayers for nine days — seven spent in Hawaii and two for taking the bar exam, although he maintains in his letter he handled legislative matters those days.

“The trip was an opportunity for me to work in isolation on strategy, committee assignments, legislation and staff research assignments,” he stated.

“One area of my personal legislative focus on this trip was preparing for legislation on property rights. I read several legal materials/books I took with me and found in Hawaii on the topic of private property rights … in preparation of the upcoming issue before the General Assembly. Hawaii is a trend setter on eminent domain, so this material I located was valuable to me.”

Stengel is obviously the same kid who told his teacher “the dog ate my homework” and sure seems to be completely incapable of admitting guilt to anything. Anybody who tries to say that they worked all but seven days in 2005, including when they were in Hawaii, is deluding themselves if they think there is a way they can make a logical argument for it.

Put it this way: If you went skiing in Vail for seven days, would you ask your boss to pay for it by telling him that you were working? Would you tell your boss that you wanted to get paid for overtime because you worked every single weekend — all but three, anyway — in 2005? Would you even dare to make either claim?

Obviously it’s silly for Stengel to continue to act like he didn’t do anything wrong, because we’re so far past that stage that any forced explanation for his actions is beside the point. He was wrong. Completely, utterly wrong. Anything aside from a blanket apology should be immediately discarded as a course of action, and his insistence that he didn’t do anything wrong makes Republicans look ridiculous by association.

So what’s next? Stengel was already forced to resign his position as House Minority Leader, and now there are some who think he should resign his position in the legislature altogether. But there is a delicious irony in this whole mess, because some Democrats actually hope he stays right where he is.

Yes, you read that right. It is the Democrats who hope Stengel does NOT resign from the legislature, and there are plenty of Republicans who wish he would just pack up and leave right now. Here’s why…

Stengel is term-limited this year, which means his seat in House District 38 (which includes parts of Littleton, Englewood, Greenwood Village and Columbine Valley) will be wide open in November (The Denver Post included HD38 as one of the races to watch in 2006).

Democrats already have a pretty good candidate lined up to run; Joe Rice, the former Mayor of Glendale and a veteran of the Iraq War, just returned to Colorado last month and his campaign is in full swing. Rice will likely beat another Democratic candidate, Glen Emerson, in the primary for the right to take on Republican candidate Candace “Candy” Figa in November.

If Stengel finishes out the 2006 legislative session, Rice can easily run in November on a platform of cleaning up the legislature by being the anti-Stengel. Rep. Stengel is clearly an embarrassment and makes for easy campaign fodder, and Republicans will look weak and corrupt if they don’t boot him out before May — all of which is great ammunition (no pun intended) for Rice to run with.

If Stengel is forced to resign, then Republicans can say that they cleaned up their own mess and can appoint Figa to Stengel’s seat in mid-session. Figa won’t be able to run as a true incumbent in November, but she could take on a couple of bills and cast a few important votes that would give her something more substantial to talk about when she is campaigning in the fall. It would be considerably easier for Figa to run from the position of an appointed legislator as opposed to running as a successor to the embarrassing Stengel; she could say, for example, that she was appointed to bring respectability back to the seat, and that she deserves your vote for taking on that difficult task and being the kind of Republican representative that you can count on (or something like that).

House District 38 is a Republican-leaning district, but it’s not unwinnable for Democrats. If Stengel is still finishing out his term in the fall, it becomes a lot easier for a Democrat like Rice to swoop in and take the seat from Republican hands. In a year that could see control of the state legislature hinge on just a few seats, a Rice victory could give Democrats some cushion should they lose a seat somewhere else.

This is a different situation than what Democrats and Republicans went through with Sen. Deanna Hanna, who was forced to resign last week after a scandal in which she asked a realtor’s group for “reparations” for endorsing her opponent in 2004. Republicans wanted Hanna out because her senate seat was not otherwise going to be open until 2008; with Hanna gone, and Rep. Betty Boyd likely to fill her seat, Republicans have an opportunity to win both a state senate and state house seat in 2006 that ordinarily would not have been possible.

But because Stengel’s seat was going to be open in 2006 anyway, Democrats would just assume he stays put for now so as not to give a head start to the next Republican candidate. It’s an interesting twist of irony, or fate, or coincidence, or whatever you want to call it, that Democrats want the most publicly loathed Republican in the legislature to stay right there with them as long as possible.