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Colorado ethics panel to investigate Hickenlooper’s travel

Authors: Conrad Swanson, Marianne Goodland - October 23, 2018 - Updated: October 23, 2018

ethics complaintColorado Governor John Hickenlooper speaks at a press conference in El Jebel, Colo., on July 6. (Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times via AP)

Colorado’s Independent Ethics Commission has determined that a complaint filed against Gov. John Hickenlooper regarding his out-of-state travel has merit and will investigate, the panel executive director said Tuesday.

The commission reviewed the complaint, which was filed by the nonprofit Greenwood Village-based Public Trust Institute, during an executive session Monday. Aside from one commissioner, who was absent, the group unanimously found the allegations to be “non-frivolous.”

The complaint, filed earlier this month, accused Hickenlooper of traveling the globe in private jets and rooming in expensive hotels paid for by businesses in violation of the state’s ethics laws.

That same day, Hickenlooper’s office dismissed the claim as a “political stunt.” Late Tuesday afternoon, the governor’s office issued a statement again calling the allegations a political stunt “aimed at influencing the upcoming election. Given the legal nature of the issue, we will not be commenting on the specifics of the allegations, but we’re confident this will be resolved quickly and in our favor. We remain focused on doing the work that advances Colorado and improves our way of life.”

The Public Trust Institute was established two days before the complaint was filed by Frank McNulty, a former Republican Colorado House speaker who has frequently been critical of the Democratic governor’s policies.

With the commission’s decision, Executive Director Dino Ioannides said Hickenlooper has 30 days to comment on the allegations. The commission will take those comments into consideration for its investigation.

Often, those under investigation request additional time to comment, Ioannides said. The investigation will begin as soon as the commission receives that comment.

Under Amendment 41, an ethics measure passed by Colorado voters in 2006, the governor and other elected officials are prohibited from accepting gifts worth more than $59, with limited exceptions.

The complaint states that Hickenlooper violated that law multiple times on various trips in the past year. It also says the governor committed additional violations by accepting meals, luxury activities, private tours and gift bags, among other things.

Among the trips cited in the 187-page complaint was one in June, in which Hickenlooper flew to Italy for the annual meeting of the Bilderberg Group, an international gathering of political and business leaders and academics.

In addition, the complaint says Hickenlooper flew to Switzerland to attend the annual World Economic Forum. He flew on corporate jets owned by John Malone’s Douglas County-based Liberty Media Corp., the complaint says. Hickenlooper’s wife, Robin, is an executive of Liberty Media.

It also cites several trips to other states within the last year.

The commission’s jurisdiction only spans a single year. Alleged violations past that time frame can still be taken into consideration, however. In general, Ioannides said, if a public official is found to have violated the state’s gift law, that person can be held liable for twice whatever the gift was worth.

While Hickenlooper now has 30 days to comment, the impending investigation is complicated by his departure from office in January. Ioannides said the commission will determine whether it can investigate Hickenlooper after he leaves office at a later time, if the issue arises.

The matter is complicated further still by potential conflicts of interest within the commission itself. Two of the commission’s five members were appointed by Hickenlooper, and both of them contributed to the governor’s political campaign funds in past years, along with a third member.

One of those members did not participate in the executive session discussion about the complaint against Hickenlooper.

The commission’s code of conduct defines conflicts of interest as “a situation in which an individual’s personal or financial interest conflicts with the individual’s official responsibilities.”

Ioannides said the commissioners “are very good at recusing themselves when it’s necessary,” he said. “It happens all the time.” Whether one or more commissioners might need to recuse themselves is a decision the group will discuss later, he said.

McNulty said the potential conflicts do raise a concern, but that “the commission appears to be doing its job, which is the most we can expect.”

The accusations also come as Hickenlooper explores a possible presidential run in 2020. He has traveled around the country for political appearances and to speak to groups.

McNulty told Colorado Politics Tuesday that the decision by the commission to unanimously approve an investigation of the complaint is a “direct rebuttal” of Hickenlooper’s claim that the complaint was “frivolous and partisan. The commission spoke loud and clear that it isn’t,” McNulty said.

 If Hickenlooper paid for the trips out of his own pocket and before the trips took place, he does not have to report the trips and there is no ethics violation. However, if the governor reimbursed businesses for his travel after the trips, he is required to report those expenses.

This is the second complaint filed against Hickenlooper since he took office in 2011. In 2014, the commission dismissed, on a 4-1 vote, a complaint filed against Hickenlooper in 2013 by Compass Colorado over the governor’s travel to the Democratic Governors Association meeting in Aspen.

At that time, however, it was revealed that three of the five commissioners  — including three of the four who voted to dismiss — had given money to Hickenlooper’s campaigns and one, then-Mayor Bill Pinkham of Estes Park, joined him nine days after the dismissal at a campaign event.

During McNulty’s days in the statehouse, he and Hickenlooper were frequently at odds over policy.

In 2012, before the Supreme Court recognized the right of same-sex couples to marry, McNulty, as speaker of the Republican-led state House of Representatives, blocked a Hickenlooper-backed proposal to allow couples — gay and straight — to enter into civil unions. The standoff contributed to Democrats taking control of the House in the fall 2012 election.

In a 2013 profile of Hickenlooper by The New Yorker magazine, McNulty is quoted as saying, “The critique that many in Colorado have, particularly the ones who have worked with him, is there’s a lack of leadership.”

McNulty served a speaker from 2010 to 2012, and represented Highlands Ranch in the House from 2006 until 2014.

More recently he has been founder and principal of Square State Strategy Group, a political consulting and lobbying firm based in Denver.

Conrad Swanson

Conrad Swanson

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.