Election 2020 John Hickenlooper Capitol

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democratic U.S. Senate candidate, is pictured at the state Capitol in Denver.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Andrew Romanoff wants the state to audit a federal fund tapped by primary rival John Hickenlooper's administration to defend the former Colorado governor against an ethics complaint.

Republicans have been demanding for more than a month that the state scrutinize use of the 16-year-old federal account by Hickenlooper, the front-runner for the nomination to challenge GOP Sen. Cory Gardner.

"If I were John, I'd welcome an audit. I would request an audit, put the question to rest," Romanoff, a former speaker of the state House, told Colorado Politics.

"If I were in the legislature, I'd want one too," he added. "This is a nonpartisan issue; we all have an interest in transparency, good government, making sure public dollars are not misused. This is not a hard call, actually."

A spokeswoman for Hickenlooper's campaign earlier dismissed GOP charges involving the fund as "politically motivated lies" and "a partisan stunt."

On Tuesday, a legislative committee voted along party lines to shut down a request from a GOP lawmaker to examine the state's use of federal funds, including the 2003 account that has paid out at least $40,000 to a prominent Democratic attorney to represent Hickenlooper.

It was the second time Democrats on the Legislative Audit Committee blocked a proposal by state Sen. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument, and state Rep. Rod Bockenfeld, R-Watkins, to investigate use of the fund, which was established when the federal government sent Colorado $146.3 million in stimulus funds from the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003 to help the state recover from the 2001 recession.

Most of the fund was spent in the first couple years after its receipt, but reports show governors have dipped into what remained over the years for miscellaneous government expenses, including organizational dues and personnel expenses. As much as $1 million still remains in the fund.

In December, Democrats on the audit committee rebuffed Lundeen and Bockenfeld's request for an audit of the fund, calling the Republicans' request "politically motivated" and "seriously inappropriate."

"This is about how we spend money," Lundeen said Tuesday, when he expanded the request to look "not only at this fund but at other (federal) funds" maintained by the state.

"It's the General Assembly's responsibility, at the end of the day, to guide and direct the use of funds," he said, adding, "It is a good government motion, in my opinion."

State Rep. Tracy Kraft Tharp, D-Arvada, said she disagreed, noting that the legislature's Joint Budget Committee is examining the state's use of federal funds.

"It's not like this issue is not being taken care of," she said before the committee voted Lundeen's motion down on a party-line vote.

The controversy blew up last fall when it turned out that Denver attorney Mark Grueskin, who regularly represents Democrats and the Democratic Party, was being paid $525 an hour from the fund to represent Hickenlooper on two ethics complaints alleging he improperly accepted travel expenses from corporations when he was governor.

The complaints were filed in 2018 by Frank McNulty, a Republican former speaker of the state House, and his organization, the Public Trust Institute.

The state's Independent Ethics Commission has set a March date for a hearing on the matter.

Hickenlooper campaign spokeswoman Melissa Miller declined to make the former governor available for an interview on Friday but dismissed the latest round of grousing in a written statement.

“Anyone who looks at the federal flex funds will see that 94% were spent by Republican and Democratic governors before John Hickenlooper took office and that, of the small amount spent by Hickenlooper, the majority went to cover payroll-related expenses for State employees," she told Colorado Politics.

"The Joint Budget Committee has discussed these funds and expenses in their public hearings, and the information is also documented online on Colorado’s Transparency Database, an online resource started during the Hickenlooper administration."

National Republicans have jumped on the charges, blasting Hickenlooper in digital ads and regularly issuing press releases to keep the allegations in the public eye.

“Between the ongoing ethics investigation for Hickenlooper’s repeated use of free private jets and these bombshell reports of inappropriate ‘sneaky’ spending, Colorado voters are finally seeing Hickenlooper for who he really is,” said Joanna Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, in a statement issued last week.

Romanoff acknowledged that he was asking for the same thing as the Republicans but said that shouldn't call the suggestion into question.

"Ideas are not responsible for the people who come up with them," he said. "There might be no doubt partisan motivation if the NRSC is pushing for this, but that doesn't mean the audit is a bad idea. I think we all have an interest in making government as transparent and accountable as possible."

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