Panel: Ex-Colorado Gov. Hickenlooper violated ethics law

DENVER (AP) — U.S. Senate candidate John Hickenlooper violated Colorado ethics law as governor by accepting a private jet flight to an official event and by receiving benefits he didn't pay for at a meeting of government, business and financial leaders in Italy, the state's ethics commission ruled Friday.

The Colorado Independent Ethics Commission dismissed four other complaints against Hickenlooper that were filed by a conservative group led by a former Republican Colorado House speaker. It scheduled a June 12 hearing to discuss possible fines for the violations as well as for a contempt order it issued when Hickenlooper ignored a subpoena to appear at its hearing on Thursday.

Hickenlooper, who has the backing of national Democrats, has long denied the charges as politically motivated. But his absence Thursday drew fire from his Democratic primary opponent, former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, as well as national Republicans seeking to defend U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner’s seat in November. The primary is June 30.

"We fully expect the special interests who’ve exploited this process to continue to mislead Coloradans with negative attacks because they know John Hickenlooper will be an independent voice in the U.S. Senate,” Hickenlooper campaign spokeswoman Melissa Miller said in a statement Friday.

“He is guilty of shrugging off the state’s ethics rules and violating the trust taxpayers had placed in him as governor," said Joanna Rodriguez, spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which plans to spend millions of dollars to defend Gardner's seat.

Romanoff issued a statement saying Republicans' “outrage is hard to stomach.”

“But it wasn't the GOP that found Mr. Hickenlooper in contempt or in violation of the state Constitution,” Romanoff said. “The commission's message is clear and Coloradans agree: No one is above the law.”

Hickenlooper participated in the remote hearing after seeking an in-person hearing he said would make it easier to confront his accusers. The Public Trust Institute, the conservative group that brought the complaint, didn’t oppose that request. Commissioners ultimately set this week’s remote hearing, noting the format adopted because of the coronavirus pandemic worked for civil cases not requiring juries in Colorado courts.

Hickenlooper repeatedly insisted the trips either involved personal business or happened while he was promoting Colorado’s economy to potential investors during his 2011-2019 term as governor.

Colorado law at the time prohibited gifts worth more than $59 to elected officials with limited exceptions. That figure is now $65.

By a 4-1 vote, the quasi-judicial commission found that Hickenlooper violated ethics law by accepting transport, meals, tours and other perks during a 2018 conference in Turin, Italy, sponsored by Fiat Chrysler. Hickenlooper testified that he believed a $1,500 hotel bill he paid there covered all expenses.

Institute attorney Suzanne Staiert asked Hickenlooper whether he felt that the $1,500 he paid personally covered hotel costs, shuttles, tours of cultural attractions, dinners and cocktail hours at the event. “To my knowledge I felt I paid the full cost,” Hickenlooper replied, adding he was invited to attend not as governor but in a private capacity.

Commissioners voted 5-0 to find Hickenlooper violated the law by accepting a trip to Connecticut on a jet owned by Republican billionaire Larry Mizel’s company, MDC Holdings, to preside at the commissioning of the USS Colorado, a U.S. Navy submarine. MDC Holdings is a large developer in Colorado. They cited several Hickenlooper's attendance at VIP events hosted by MDC Holdings.

“What was given to the governor in this case was far beyond what was necessary for the governor to represent the state at this event,” Commissioner William Leone said.

Earlier Friday, Staiert asked Hickenlooper how it would look to the public to fly on an MDC Holdings jet to the USS Colorado commissioning and not pay for it.

“What I was really focused on is that we could present a unified front before various high ranking officials in the U.S. military,” he replied, adding later: “Mr. Mizel and I don’t agree politically, but he has been a supporter of our military as long as I’ve known him. ... In that instance our interests aligned.”

Hickenlooper said he either was not on state business, had offered to pay personally for the travel or accepted the travel to save time for pressing state business, among other reasons. He said he and his top staff reviewed each trip for possible ethics violations.

The ex-governor acknowledged that on several occasions he didn’t seek an opinion from the ethics commission on individual gifts. He also acknowledged he didn’t get formal training on Colorado ethics law.