Both of Colorado’s major-party candidates for governor have made big bets on their own campaigns — and they have the means to do it.
But while it’s clear that Democrat Jared Polis and Republican Walker Stapleton are wealthy men, thanks to their business successes, they have refused to tell voters how wealthy — and government rules don’t make them.
Stapleton, currently state treasurer, so far has put $1.05 million of his personal fortune into his race for governor. That would be impressive in most other election years. But Polis, Boulder’s congressman, has shocked the political establishment by contributing $21.8 million to his own campaign so far.
They’re both certainly comfortable. But beyond a list of assets whose value is unknown, there’s no way to know how comfortable.
State law doesn’t require candidates to release tax returns or other detailed disclosures that would tell voters more about a candidate’s wealth, and the potential for conflicts of interest.
Both candidates have declined repeated requests from Colorado Politics to voluntarily provide their recent tax returns, citing the unwillingness of their opponent to do so
Colorado does require a bare-bones personal financial disclosure statement (PFDS) when a candidate files for statewide office. The form provides little more than a short summary of a candidate’s assets (but not how much) and debts over $1,000 (but not precisely how much) plus a listing of properties owned by the candidate (but not their values).
It’s one of the reasons Colorado has consistently received poor grades for transparency of public information, including in how it handles the information related to elected officials. A 2015 report by the Center for Public Integrity pointed out that personal financial disclosure documents, which are filed with the secretary of state’s office, aren’t audited.
Colorado voters have in the past been able to rely on tax returns to find out about the finances of their top-tier candidates. Candidates for governor previously voluntarily released their recent tax returns, including Democrat John Hickenlooper and Republican Bob Beauprez in 2014 and Hickenlooper, Republican Dan Maes and third-party candidate Tom Tancredo in 2010.
But in 2018, neither Polis nor Stapleton has been willing to share recent tax returns that might reveal more about their millions.
And millions they have. From the list of assets on the PFDS, real estate holdings and filings with various federal agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission, Stapleton has done well as a scion of the Bush/Stapleton real estate organizations. Polis’ fortune grew about the same time as the advent of e-commerce and entrepreneurship, starting off with companies like Blue Mountain Arts and ProFlowers.com.
Polis does disclose more information about his finances, which is required as a member of Congress. His federal disclosure information runs 30 pages or more in some years, although it contains estimates and dollar-figure ranges rather than precise numbers.
Both Stapleton and Polis have faced questions about their finances throughout the campaign: Polis for not paying taxes for several years before entering Congress (true, but that was in years when he had business losses and didn’t owe any) and Stapleton for numerous errors in his personal finance disclosures. Those errors, which go back to 2012, were pointed out last May by the Colorado Independent but weren’t corrected until September, when a letter “clarifying” Stapleton’s information was sent to the secretary of state by Stapleton’s attorneys at Denver law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.
But although Polis released tax returns when he ran for Congress in 2008, he has not released more recent tax returns since launching his gubernatorial campaign. Stapleton hasn’t ever released his tax returns.
Polis even made releasing tax returns an issue — for then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has become the first president since Nixon not to do so. But when the time came Polis to run for governor, he has refused to release recent returns, stating he didn’t want to be the only candidate to do that.
Both men have put their assets into blind trusts, meaning that the assets have been placed under the control of a trustee who has full discretion and that keeps the holdings of the trust “blind” from the beneficiaries.
The notion of a blind trust is important, according to experts, to avoid conflicts of interest between an elected official’s holdings and what he/she votes on. Both Stapleton and Polis have had issues with their blind trusts in the past year. Stapleton misidentified his trust for six years and corrected it only after questions were raised about whether it was blind or not. (More on that below.) Polis faced a campaign finance complaint earlier this month related to a company he owned that was part of the trust and which showed up on congressional disclosure forms but not his state forms.
So while there’s much we don’t know about the two candidates’ finances, here’s a look at what we do know.
Stapleton has been filing the state’s required personal financial disclosure statement since he first ran for state treasurer back in 2009 (he was elected the following year).
In 2009, he listed 20 businesses in which he and/or his wife held a financial interest, including SonomaWest Holdings, a family-owned real estate business in California that he listed as a source of income with himself as chief executive officer and as a board member.
He also noted unspecified assets with Wells Fargo & Co., the largest bank operating in Colorado. The 2009 disclosure and those that followed do not list income from Wells Fargo.
San Francisco-based Wells Fargo is one of three banks listed on the treasurer’s website as providing cash management services to the state, including checking accounts and investment services.
Stapleton added substantially to his assets as listed in his 2011 state disclosure. Notably, that included income from an apparent new asset, Stapleton Baseball Partners, a Connecticut-registered company with his father, Craig, listed as the CEO. The baseball partnership in January 2010 purchased 3 percent of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team. Craig Stapleton at one point also owned a stake in the Texas Rangers baseball team with cousin and former President George W. Bush.
The 2011 disclosure noted 12 new assets, in addition to the baseball partnership, including investments in the car rental company Avis, hotel chain Wyndham Worldwide, and a pharmaceutical company, Stapleton Pharma.
Stapleton set up a blind trust — listed as Rocky Mountain Trust LLC — in 2012, although a Sept. 25, 2018, letter from his attorneys to the secretary of state’s office said that name was inaccurate and should have been listed as Walker R. Stapleton Blind Trust. That same error was made in succeeding personal financial disclosure statements for the next five years after 2012; a May 25, 2018, letter to the secretary of state’s office signed by Stapleton said that “all assets listed in my October 2017 candidate [form] are currently owned by Rocky Mountain Trust LLC, as noted in my 2012 disclosure…”
Rocky Mountain Trust is a real company, set up in 2010 by Stapleton. But he told the Aurora Sentinel and KCNC-CBS4 that it was not a trust despite the name. It’s a consulting company that appears to be largely based on a 2011 agreement with SonomaWest Holdings, which was taken over at the beginning of the 2011 year by his father. Under the agreement, the younger Stapleton would be paid $250 an hour, to a maximum of $150,000 per year, for consulting work, despite the fact that he had another job at that time as state treasurer. According to the Sentinel, Stapleton conducted business for the consulting contract during weekdays on at least three occasions in 2011. That raised questions whether the trust, which listed Stapleton as its manager, was really blind.
The Sept. 25, 2018, letter also corrected other errors, such as failing to disclose income that Stapleton’s wife made from a foundation and income that does not derive from the trust, such as from SonomaWest Holdings and Denver Bank. How much? Unknown, since the state doesn’t require that level of disclosure.
Stapleton’s debt, as disclosed in the personal financial statement filed in 2017 when he entered the gubernatorial contest, consists of monies owed to Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase. But the amounts are not specified.
The Sept. 25, 2018, letter lists four of the candidate’s real estate properties. One is located in Greenwood Village, owned by Stapleton and wife Jennifer, and second property in Snowmass Village is owned by Stapleton and sister Wendy Stapleton Reyes.
Westword reported in September that property taxes for the Greenwood Village home were paid three months late every year between 2013 and 2016. The Pitkin County home in Snowmass village also showed late tax payments, according to Westword.
Stapleton is also listed as an owner of 3822 Tenn, LLC, a commercial property located in Denver’s Berkeley Park neighborhood, purchased for $325,000 in 2007. The current tenant is a drapery business, according to a Google Maps search.
The fourth property,located in Douglas County, is owned by Stapleton and a long list of other family members and trusts.
Unlike Stapleton, Polis as a member of Congress is subject to federal financial disclosure rules that far exceed what Colorado requires.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets.org website, in 2015, Polis was the second-wealthiest member of Congress, with an estimated net worth of $313.5 million. That was based on 401 listed assets, including three valued at between $25 million and $50 million: Jovian Holdings, a venture capital firm; Jovian Capital Holdings; and Jove Equity Partners, a mutual fund.
Forbes reported in March of this year that Polis is now third on the list and the wealthiest Democrat in Congress, although Forbes did not provide a fresh estimate of his net worth.
In his state filing as a gubernatorial candidate, Polis listed 10 income sources, including the Jared Polis Qualified Blind Trust, which he set up shortly after being elected to Congress in 2008. Members of Congress are not required to put assets into a blind trust, but those who don’t run the risk of being accused of conflicts of interest, as was reported by Politico last year. Polis did so on the advice of the House Ethics Committee, with whom he worked for a year to set up the trust.
In a 2012 statement refuting an opinion piece in The Denver Post, Polis said he had not purchased stock “in any publicly-traded company since entering Congress. … Additionally, when I was first elected in 2008, I decided to set up a blind trust to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, a step few members [of Congress] take and that is not required. But I believe elected officials should be held to a higher standard…”
Jove Equity, based in New York, finances early-stage technology companies. Jovian Capital and Jovian Holdings are both based in Littleton, along with other Polis’ companies and properties. According to Polis’ gubernatorial filings, the two Jovian companies receive assets from a variety of other investments, such as Goldman Sachs, Citibank, and Bow River Capital, which is owned and co-founded by Blair Richardson. Bow River owns 45 residential properties in south Denver under the name Songbird Properties, as well as commercial properties. Those properties are listed individually on Polis’ congressional disclosure documents.
Richardson contributed $39,000 to Bold Colorado, the independent expenditure committee that supports Polis.
Jovian Holdings appears to be outside the Jared Polis Qualified Blind Trust, as it is listed as a separate source of income. According to 2017 congressional disclosures, Polis received between $100,000 and $1 million in 2016 from the blind trust. He also received income from at least 30 other investments in the same dollar range.
Polis receives income from a variety of other trusts, including several set up for condos in Boulder and Vail and three properties in Berthoud. The Berthoud properties total more than 72 acres, all but seven acres zoned agricultural. The Boulder condo, according to Polis’ congressional disclosure in 2017, is valued at between $500,000 and $1 million; the Vail condo is between $1 million and $5 million in value. The Berthoud farm is valued at a minimum of $5 million.
Polis told the Aurora Sentinel he would maintain his blind trust if elected governor.
His 2017 state disclosure does not list his investment in BridgeHealth Medical, a company he founded in 2007. However, his congressional disclosures do list BridgeHealth, including a “promissory note” purchase made in June 2017 for between $500,000 and $1 million.
Polis became the subject of a campaign finance complaint earlier this month over failing to include BridgeHealth on the gubernatorial filing. Secretary of State Wayne Williams, a Republican, dismissed the complaint on Oct. 19, citing a failure by the filers to disclose a violation of the state’s campaign finance laws.
When Polis first ran for Congress in 2008, he released seven years’ worth of tax returns. Those returns showed a “net loss of income” from 2001 to 2005 stemming from his business activities, excusing him from owing income tax in those years. That’s not uncommon among entrepreneurs, who often sustain losses when starting up a company and then profit from selling them.
The Denver Post reported in 2008 that in other tax years, Polis paid a total of $18.4 million in taxes on $120 million in adjusted gross income.
The Democrat has fired back at the suggestion in a Republican Governors Association ad in September that he evaded paying taxes improperly, insisting that he paid all taxes that he owed under federal tax law.
He also has denied using offshore Cayman Island accounts to avoid paying taxes, saying he invested in a company that also maintained a fund in the Cayman Islands for international investors, but never had any of his own money in the Cayman fund.
Since 2008, Polis has not released any tax returns.
Ernest Luning of Colorado Politics contributed.