The Colorado Independent Ethics Commission voted unanimously on Monday to increase the value of gifts that elected officials, including state lawmakers, can accept.
It also rejected a request that it dismiss ethics complaints against former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, filed by a former statehouse foe, and will move ahead with an investigation.
The commission is required to review the limit on gifts to officials very four years and increase the value if appropriate.
Amendment 41, which voters approved in 2006, set the value of gifts to lawmakers and other elected officials at $50. That doesn't apply to lobbyists, who are prohibited under the ethics amendment from providing gifts of any kind to lawmakers.
Since then, the ethics commission has upped the value twice, to $53 and, four years ago, to $59. On Monday, the commission increased it again, to $65.
In other commission action, commissioners consolidated two complaints against Hickenlooper filed by former Republican Speaker of the House Frank McNulty and his Public Trust Institute.
One complaint against Hickenlooper alleges he improperly accepted gifts of travel and conference costs in 2018. The then-governor traveled to Switzerland for a conference, to Dallas to officiate at a wedding, and to Wyoming, New Jersey, and Connecticut, primarily on private jets.
A second complaint, filed in December, alleged the governor traveled on a private jet to Washington, D.C., to attend a Brookings Institute meeting.
Shortly after the complaints were filed, Hickenlooper’s office said both claims were politically motivated.
The commission rejected a motion from Hickenlooper's attorney, Mark Grueskin, to dismiss the McNulty complaints based on the statutory guidelines tied to Amendment 41 that apply to the purposes of a gift. The amendment, passed by voters in 2006, sets limits on gifts to officials and estbalishes various other ethics rules.
The General Assembly, in passing clarifying legislation tied to Amendment 41, said that qualifying gifts had to be for private or personal financial gain and offered with the intent of influencing an official act by the recipient.
But that's not language you'll find in Amendment 41. Commissioner Bill Leone, in arguing for rejecting the Grueskin motion, said the commission has always ruled based on the language of the constitution and not the statute.
"We’ve always taken the position the Constitution has to be applied as written," Leone said. "The Legislature is not empowered to change the elements of the constitution or add to it."
The commission dismissed the Grueskin motion on a 4-0 vote.
A date for a hearing has not yet been set; the next step is for the commission's executive director, Dino Ioannides, to begin a formal investigation.
Meanwhile, the commission has set an April 22 hearing date for a complaint filed against former Secretary of State Wayne Williams. But contrary to previous policy, the Secretary of State's Office has decided not to pay for the continuing legal expenses tied to the complaint, according to emails provided to Colorado Politics.
The complaint, filed on Oct. 22, alleges that Wililams used a discretionary fund in his office to purchase clothing, at a cost of $2,427.86, between 2015 and 2017. Most of those clothing items were intended for use at the Denver Rustlers charity fundraiser at the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo. The fundraiser dates back to the mid-1980s.
The complaint also claims Williams reimbursed himself for continuing legal education (CLE) credits in July 2016 and July 2018, for a total of $35, and that he used a state credit card to pay for annual membership dues to the Colorado Bar Association in July 2016, July 2017 and June 2018, totaling $1,270.
At the time of the complaint's filing, former deputy secretary of state Suzanne Staiert called the complaint "a political stunt timed for the election."
The commission decided to look at only the June 2018 bar association membership and the CLE credit from July 2018. That's because the ethics commission only reviews complaints for allegations that took place in the 12 months leading up to the complaint.
The Attorney General's Office has, in the past, represented the secretary of state in ethics matters -- most notably, spending out hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend former Secretary of State Scott Gessler in an ethics complaint that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The complaint against Gessler was filed in 2012. Gessler chose not to run for re-election in 2014 and was out of office in January 2015, yet the attorney general continued to represent him for another three and a half years as his case proceeded through the courts. (Gessler lost at every level, from the ethics commission, which found he had violated the provisions of Amendment 41, through the lower courts, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which rejected his appeal in October.)
The Secretary of State's Office has not responded to a request for comment.