John HIckenlooper, June 5, 2020

Former Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper testifies in an ethics hearing being held by the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission, June 5, 2020

The Colorado Independent Ethics commission Friday decided to impose fines totaling $2,750 for the two ethics violations committed in 2018 by former Gov. John Hickenlooper. The commission decided not to issue fines or seek attorney costs tied to a contempt finding tied to Hickenlooper's refusal to appear at a June 4 remote hearing.

A statement from the Hickenlooper campaign said “Governor Hickenlooper accepts the Commission’s findings and takes responsibility." That includes paying the fine, and Hickenlooper will not appeal the commission's decision.

The commission ruled on June 5 that the former governor, a candidate for the June 30 Democratic U.S. Senate primary, violated the state's ethics law, known as Amendment 41, which bans corporations from providing gifts to elected officials that exceed $59 in value. (The value has since been increased to $65).

The two violations occurred in trips Hickenlooper took in 2018, while he was still governor. 

The sanction is for Hickenlooper's defiance of a subpoena that mandated he attend the first of two days of hearings into the complaint. Hickenlooper argued that a remote hearing would violate his due process rights.

Fines imposed for violations of the law are twice the amount of the gift, which proved to be tricky since those amounts were not documented by by the corporate sponsors or disclosed in the hearing by Suzanne Staiert, the attorney for the Public Trust Institute that filed the complaint.

The five-member commission first unanimously denied a motion by Hickenlooper attorney Mark Grueskin to "purge" the contempt charge tied to his refusal to appear on June 4., since he did show up a day later. Commissioner Elizabeth Espinosa Krupa offered a motion to deny, noting that Hickneloper did appear but only after a district court ordered him to do so.

Commissioner Yeulin Willett said that if Hickenlooper had showed up on June 4, "we could have avoided a lot of heartburn. Showing up on the 5th was unacceptable." But he said the commission probably doesn't have the authority to seek attorneys' fees for its court time in enforcing the subpoena, and they did not impose sanctions. 

The complaints, filed by the Public Trust Institute and backed by the Republican operative research PAC America Rising, allege Hickenlooper accepted illegal gifts, in the form of travel, six times in in 2018.

The violations and fines, as determined by the commission: 

  • June 2018: a trip to Turin, Italy, for the Bilderberg Meeting, an annual forum "designed to foster dialogue between Europe and North America." The commission found that Hickenlooper accepted a limo ride and other considerations paid for by sponsor Fiat-Chrysler.

Leone suggested a total fine of $550, double an estimated cost for transportation of $550, which he called "light." It should have been easy to get the costs for security and the limo, he said, and both he and Krupa again scolded Staiert for failing to provide that evidence. An exhibit with estimated costs for transportation, security and other incidentals, filed with the complaint, suggested total costs of more than $13,000. "This isn't the quality of evidence I would look for," said Krupa, who also questioned whether Staiert had "forum-shopped" for the most expensive estimates.

The motion passed on a 4-1 vote, with Krupa voting against. 

  • March 2018: one-way travel to Connecticut for the commissioning of the USS Colorado. That, too, was a violation, in the form of a ride on a jet owned by MDC Holdings. Hickenlooper attended two private VIP dinners, also hosted by MDC, which is owned by Larry Mizel, who helped fundraise for Hickenlooper in his first run for governor in 2010.

The commission, on a 4-0 vote, imposed a $2,200 fine for the USS Colorado violation. Commissioner Bill Leone scolded Staiert for failing to provide evidence on the cost of that flight during the hearing, although she did give estimates in the complaint. Leone said the commission has never had the ability to impose "robust penalties," but said the complaint is not about the money. It's about a "breach of public trust." Leone suggested a cost of $1,100, for the one-way trip, and then doubled it as a fine under commission rules. The estimate was based on the fact that there were other people on the flight, Leone said.

Staiert said her estimate was based on flight time and divided by the ten people on the flight. 

Grueskin said the estimate provided by Staiert had nothing to do with calculating flights from Denver to Groton. "It is literally irrelevant because it has nothing to do with this flight or destination."

Krupa abstained from the vote on the USS Colorado fine. They did not impose a separate fine for the VIP dinners.

The trips that did not constitute a violation: 

  • January, 2018: private travel from New York to Denver, on an aircraft owned by a long-time friend. The trip was to be at his wife's bedside while she was having surgery; 
  • April, 2018: travel to Dallas to officiate at the wedding of friend Kimbal Musk, in a plane owned by Musk;
  • August, 2018: travel to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in August 2018 to attend the American Enterprise Institute’s Jackson Hole Symposium, on a plane owned by his chief of staff, Pat Meyers; and 
  • January, 2018: travel from Washington, D.C. to Denver, also on Meyer's private plane. 

In his response, Hickenlooper said both the trip to Jackson Hole and the commissioning of the USS Colorado were tied to his official capacity as governor. He submitted receipts for the Bilderberg meeting totaling $1,500, but commissioners said that was probably not sufficient to cover the hotel, security, ground transportation and other incidental costs. Hickenlooper also paid for the airfare for the meeting.

The complaint was lodged in October, 2018 by PTI, which was formed two days earlier by former Republican Speaker of the House Frank McNulty. The complaint stemmed from open records requests filed by a vice-president of America Rising in March 2018. 

McNulty was not available for comment. 

The $2,750 fine is the largest the commission has imposed in its 13-year history. However, in 2014, the commission accepted a stipulation (an agreement) for restitution totaling $4,862.50 tied to a criminal complaint against former state Sen. Steve King, a Grand Junction Republican. King had falsified time sheets showing he was simultaneously working for the Mesa County Sheriff and for Colorado Mesa University. 

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