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State senator wants AG review of Hickenlooper’s Tesla connections

Author: Marianne Goodland - November 16, 2018 - Updated: November 16, 2018

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper checks out an electric vehicle in January 2018 before announcing a statewide plan to encourage more charging stations. (Joey Bunch/Colorado Politics)

Update: the Air Quality Control Commission voted 8-0 with one recusal Friday afternoon to approve the rules on low-emission vehicles.

Republican state Sen. John Cooke of Greeley has asked Attorney General Cynthia Coffman to investigate whether Gov. John Hickenlooper broke the law by allegedly touring a Tesla electric-car factory in Nevada shortly before ordering the state Department of Public Health and Environment to set up a low-emissions vehicle (LEV) program that would financially benefit Tesla.

Cooke wants the AG to look into “whether Governor Hickenlooper accepted benefits from a corporation days before taking an official state action that provided direct financial benefit to the same corporation.”

Cooke in his letter referred to allegations “that Governor Hickenlooper flew on private corporate jets owned by Tesla, Inc. or its majority owner Elon Musk.”

> RELATED: Colorado adopts California auto emissions standards

Hickenlooper spokesperson Jacque Montgomery told Colorado Politics Friday that the “allegations in Sen. Cooke’s letter to the AG are false.  The governor has never flown on a plane owned by Elon Musk or Tesla.  He also has never visited a facility in Nevada.”

Colorado Politics has contacted Cooke and Coffman’s office for comment but has not yet heard back.

The letter refers to an earlier ethics complaint filed Oct. 12 with the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission over Hickenlooper’s alleged travel on private jets. The complaint was filed by former Republican Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, who butted heads with the governor when he was in the legislature, and his newly-formed Public Trust Institute.

The state’s ethics law limits third-party payments for travel to attendance at a convention, fact-finding missions or trips paid for by non-profits under certain conditions.

The trips were paid for by for-profit companies, the McNulty/Public Trust Oct. 12 ethics complaint said, and were not related to state business, giving that travel the appearance of impropriety.

Cooke’s letter, first reported by The Denver Post, said one aspect of the earlier complaint goes beyond the purview of the ethics commission and should be investigated by the attorney general.

“The [Public Trust ethics] Complaint appears to demonstrate that Governor Hickenlooper flew on private corporate jets owned by Tesla, Inc. or its majority owner Elon Musk. The Complaint also references the fact that Governor Hickenlooper appeared to travel by private aircraft to tour a Tesla, Inc. facility in Nevada. In fact, Governor Hickenlooper has actually communicated to multiple individuals that he traveled to a Tesla facility on a private jet after his [April] visit. Governor Hickenlooper flying on corporate jets owned by Tesla, Inc. and not reporting it would be a violation of state law,” Cooke wrote in the Nov. 14 letter.

McNulty told Colorado Politics that Tesla travel is not a claim under the complaint he filed  and that the ethics commission has not been asked to look into that specific trip.

But the complaint does make reference to “press accounts” that Hickenlooper was in Dall in April to officiate at the wedding of Kimbal Musk, a Boulder resident and Elon Musk’s brother.

The ethics complaint includes a list of trips made by Hickenlooper, including April 8 travel from an unspecified location, landing at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in Broomfield, an airfield that serves private planes for corporate travel. While there are no public records showing that Kimbal Musk owns private aircraft in Colorado, the ethics complaint said, Elon Musk does own at least two private planes.

Here is “the much bigger problem,” the Cooke letter continued: On June 19, 2018, “just two months after Governor Hickenlooper appeared to have accepted illegal benefits from Tesla, Inc., Governor Hickenlooper signed Executive Order B 2018 006 that unilaterally directed his appointees at the state’s Air Quality Control Commission to undertake rulemaking to establish a Colorado Low Emissions Vehicle program (LEV) that provides direct and substantial financial benefits to Tesla, Inc. In fact, Tesla, Inc. is the only company that initially receives financial benefits from the new program launched by the Governor’s June Executive Order.”

The Tesla factory, near Reno, Nevada, is known as the Gigafactory. It opened in 2016 with full build-out planned by 2020. The factory manufactures ion-lithium battery packs for Tesla electric cars and trucks.

On June 18, Hickenlooper signed the executive order that tasked the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment with developing rules for a LEV program, similar to efforts made in California and 12 other states.

The order’s purpose, the governor said, was to fight back against an April 23, 2018, Trump administration order “rolling back greenhouse gas and fuel efficiency standards” for vehicles that could result in higher carbon dioxide emissions in Colorado and that could thwart Colorado’s clean energy goals.

The ethics commission is scheduled Monday to begin discussing how it will investigate the Public Trust Institute complaint. It is the second complaint on travel filed against Hickenlooper; a 2013 complaint lodged by Compass Colorado over Hickenlooper’s travel to a Democratic Governors’ Association meeting was dismissed in part because the governor was a featured speaker at the event, which is an allowable use of state resources.

The department’s Air Quality Control Commission would also be asked to adopt those rules, no later than Dec. 30. The commission met on Thursday and again on Friday to review those proposed rules. It voted 8-0 to approve the rules over the objections of the state’s auto dealers’ association.

In a statement, Colorado Auto Dealer Association President and CEO Tim Jackson said, “Today, Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission rubber-stamped California’s vehicle emission regulations. This will add a $2,110 tax to the sticker price of average new vehicles in Colorado, a tax that will be even higher on the SUVs and trucks that Coloradans prefer. This is hard-earned cash that the typical new vehicle buyer in Colorado will not recover and will have the biggest negative impact on working families and the economically disadvantaged.

“Rather than trust the citizens of our state to choose the vehicles they need and want to drive safely in Colorado’s unique conditions, the Commission has concluded that California’s regulators, not Coloradans, should decide what vehicles should be bought and sold in our state.


Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland is the chief legislative reporter for Colorado Politics. She's covered the Colorado General Assembly for 20 years, starting off in 1998 with the Silver & Gold Record, the editorially-independent newspaper at CU that was shuttered in 2009. She also writes for six rural newspapers in northeastern Colorado. Marianne specializes in rural issues, agriculture, water and, during election season, campaign finance. In her free time (ha!) she lives in Lakewood with her husband, Jeff; a cantankerous Shih-Tzu named Sophie; and Gunther the cat. She is also an award-winning professional harpist.