Michael Hancock

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock addresses the media during a Nov. 15, 2018, news conference in Denver.

There was a celebratory atmosphere in Concourse B at Denver International Airport. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock wore a blue kimono-like jacket called a happi coat. Along with then-Gov. John Hickenlooper and airport brass he performed a traditional Japanese ceremony called kagami-wari, breaking open a barrel of sake. The ancient ritual is said to bring good fortune.

Hancock eventually shed the coat and boarded a 787 Dreamliner to Tokyo to commemorate a new direct flight to Japan. The 2013 trip was just one in a series of high-profile international flights for Hancock, where he was joined by his top staff, the largest construction companies doing city work, local universities and city councilmembers, all primed to promote the city abroad.

There was another curious addition to the passenger lists for these flights: Denver’s municipal lobbyists.

Someone from CRL Associates, Sewald Hanfling Public Affairs or The Pachner Group was along for each of the  trips. Over the years, according to city records, these lobbyists have built impressive client lists. The companies they represent have done more than $1 billion in city work during Hancock’s two terms, according to a review of city records.

Hancock is seeking a third term in office in the spring municipal elections, and on the campaign trail he’s often criticized for his close ties to the business community, particularly developers.

But even critics say there’s nothing wrong with the mayor and his staff being in close quarters with the business community.

“The real question is one of access, or competitiveness. Does everybody have a seat on the plane? Or have international flights become the mayor’s Mar-a-Lago?” said CL Harmer, a longtime political consultant in Denver. She’s donated $100 to Hancock’s challenger Penfield Tate.

These travel opportunities for lobbyists and contractors came at a time when the city was poised to spend billions of dollars on massive projects, from the National Western Stock Show to the airport Great Hall remodel to the nearly $1 billion general obligation bonds approved by voters in 2017.

These lobbyists help shape Denver projects and campaigns, making them among the most powerful unelected people in the city government.

Over the course of six months, CPR interviewed more than a dozen people, spent more than $750 to obtain public records and analyzed eight years of calendars for Hancock and his senior staff. CPR’s reporting grew out of an investigation last year over ethical questions surrounding DIA gifting travel to the mayor and city council members.

Digging into the records, it was sometimes difficult to know where the city ends and the lobbyists begin.

Several lobby groups that travel with the mayor, for instance, also have contracts to work for the city. At the same time they’re actively lobbying the city on behalf of corporate clients. Lobbyists often stock their firms with former city workers, who sometimes go back to work for the city, perpetuating the revolving door, which is legal under city rules. These lobbyists meet, drink, dine and party with the mayor and his top staff. The lobby firms are also among the largest donors to city campaigns.

“It seems problematic that an unelected lobbyist who’s accumulated a lot of power and influence over time seems to be able to get access on a bunch of different issues,” said Paul Teske, dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver. Teske says that lobbyists provide an important function, helping companies navigate a complicated city bureaucracy, “but with the money, with the time, with the airline trips, that’s not something open to other folks, other interest groups that have legitimate city concerns.”

Of course, lobbyists are ubiquitous in government at all levels, but their focus on Denver and the mayor’s administration reveals something about the unusual style of government in the Denver. By charter and by political circumstance, the mayor has tremendous power to run the city.

“It’s where the power lies,” said city councilwoman Debbie Ortega. “Whoever sits in that seat appoints the cabinet members, sets the budget, and they control that budget throughout the year in terms of implementing the priorities”

Ortega was surprised, however, by the scale of what CPR’s reporting revealed — just how extensive the lobbyists’ client lists are, and how much access they have to the mayor’s office.

“A lot of them probably have better access than I’ve historically had,” said Ortega, one of the few on city council who is routinely critical and votes against contracts and projects promoted by the administration.

Trade mission or a lobbying opportunity?

The international delegations are meant to prove Denver is serious about doing business in the host city. Hancock boasts that DIA has secured 12 direct international flights on his watch. Studies show cities with more direct international flights have greater international business connections and attract more corporate headquarters.

“That doesn’t happen without the business community,” said Hancock, in an interview with CPR. “You’re a delegation. You have a common mission together, and so you’re a team, quite frankly, again representing, marketing the city and the region. And so the opportunity to interact with these individuals is important.”

Having been in politics for more than 30 years, Hancock said he  understands boundaries and knows lobbyists or contractors approach him with an agenda. But Hancock said the international trips are different.  

“I don’t know if lobbying is going on, because I don’t get a chance to interact with them that way,” he said.

But Hancock isn’t the only official, and may not even be the most important one, to lobby on these trips. The mayor is often joined by his CEO of Denver International Airport, Kim Day, along with other senior staff members like Deputy Chief of Staff Evan Dreyer, and key city council members, including Albus Brooks and Jolon Clark.

“I have no doubt that on these trips good work is sometimes done,” said Amanda Gonzalez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, an ethics watchdog. “The problem is: What other work is being done?”

Is it a cushy perk, Gonzalez wondered, “or an opportunity to get the kind of exclusive lobbying that average people in Denver might not have had the same access?”

For their part, the lobbyists say these trips are not an ideal place to lobby. They say the trips allow them to learn a lot about how other cities and airports work. But the travel does serve another critical function for lobbyists.

“You’re with these people, meals and buses all day long,” said Josh Hanfling, with Sewald Hanfling Public Affairs, who flew with the mayor and top staff to Dubai in 2016. He said he might have spent five minutes actually lobbying, “the rest of it is just talking and being around them and getting to know them a little better, in a different way, which is nice.” For Hanfling, it's a clear priority. “That’s the No. 1 thing in our job, we’re relationship building.”

Hanfling represents the single largest contractor doing city business now, a joint venture called Great Hall Partners, which has a $1.8 billion contract to remodel DIA’s main terminal.

In Hanfling’s Denver office there’s a pillow resting on a chair in the waiting area that says “Dubai.” The city said he was invited on the Dubai delegation trip because he runs a charity based in London that helps Arab women.

Hanfling couldn’t remember why he was invited, but said it was at least in part because his client, Great Hall Partners, was supposed to fly with the Dubai delegation too, but couldn’t make it. A few months before, Great Hall Partners had entered into negotiations to design and build the new interior at DIA. Great Hall Partners is a joint venture between Ferrovial Airports, Saunders Construction and JLC Infrastructure. Saunders Construction had flown with Hancock and top airport staff on a delegation trip to Tokyo in 2013.

Hanfling noted that he paid his own way on the trip. Other records obtained from Denver International Airport show on the trip to Tokyo, for instance, companies on the delegation also paid a $2,000 flat fee to the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, on top of the cost of the tickets. The fee paid for some parts of the overall delegation trip. The chamber couldn’t say why exactly they collected the fee. No taxpayer money appears to be used to fund the trips.

The lobbyist friend

Hanfling is also a close personal friend of the mayor. Hancock said they met before he was in politics, but Hanfling said he first reached out to Hancock when he was on city council. According to a review of Hancock’s calendar, Hanfling stands out among the other lobbyists in the amount of personal time he gets with the mayor. There were 30 calendar entries with his or his firm’s name between 2011 and 2018.

“Yes, knowing the mayor certainly is helpful,” Hanfling said. “People know that I know him, so they perceive it as helpful. But again, I think honestly, in the six years I’ve been a lobbyist, I’ve gone to him directly three times on something. And at least on two of them I could remember the decision was already made, and it did not change. The decision did not change.”

“I think anywhere you go, lobbyists being cozy with politicians is not a news flash,” Hanfling said.

Many of Hancock and Hanfling’s interactions are dinner meetings and luncheons put on by his firm, and meetings with Hanfling and his clients. Some entries are more opaque: One from April 2018 reads, “STOP-BY Josh Hanfling’s” and another from December 2017 reads, “Meet with Josh Hanfling re: update on development (confidential project).”

When asked, a city spokesperson said the “confidential project” meeting was “on challenges facing Larimer Square restoration and redevelopment.” Larimer Associates, a client of Hanfling’s, sought city approval to partially demolish several buildings in historic Larimer Square to construct two towers. The proposal drew community backlash, and the prospect of demolition was recently taken off the table.

The mayor said his friendship with Hanfling does not influence his decisions.

“I think the world of him, but we also draw boundaries. We very seldomly talk about city business,” Hancock said. “He’s a friend, a confidant, but we draw boundaries, we do not engage in the business of his clients, not one-on-one.”

Still, the nature of their relationship raises questions.

“Folks are friends and that’s OK,” Gonzalez with Colorado Common Cause said. “But when those meetings are actually lobbying, and when somebody who’s paid a significant amount of money is trying to influence the way we’re all governed, I think the rest of us should be able to know when and how that’s happening and what’s going on.”

Hanfling does focus his attention beyond Hancock. CPR reviewed emails between Hanfling and the city’s top staff. In 2015, Hanfling sent an email to Hancock’s Deputy Chief of Staff Evan Dreyer, on behalf of a client, requesting a meeting to talk about "’privatizing’ the affordable housing for the city.”

Hanfling said there was a meeting, but his proposal never went anywhere.

Other lobbyists agreed that the mayor’s staff is where the lobbying really happens, and some try to limit contact with the mayor by design.

“I think that we really try to limit our meetings,” said Marcus Pachner, who runs The Pachner Group. “I think that we spend more time understanding at a staff level … where a policy is headed.” Pachner only had three entries on Hancock’s calendar in the last eight years.

“I probably can count on one hand how many times I had a drink with the mayor by myself last year, maybe two or three,” said Maria Garcia Berry, with CRL Associates. “Maybe we were having specific discussions, maybe we were just going to catch up. But normally what we do is we work with his senior staff. We know that he doesn’t make a decision on everything.”

Berry has had more contact with Alan Salazar, Hancock’s chief of staff. There were six calendar entries between 2017 and 2018, often for dinner or drinks, but also for official meetings including Berry, her staff, and Salazar.

Blurring the line between city and lobbyist

Maria Garcia Berry has been a part of the Denver political scene for about 40 years. She’s been involved in the Union Station redevelopment, FasTracks, National Western Stock Show and many others. One longtime lobbyist called Berry “the Queen.”

“Maria is a force of nature, very sophisticated, has made her mark on so many projects in the city,” said Harmer, the Denver political consultant.

Berry runs CRL Associates, where her clients include some of the largest companies in Denver: Parsons Brinckerhoff (now WSP), Kiewit, Kaiser Permanente, Waste Management and Comcast. Altogether the companies she represents have collected $651 million in city money since 2011, according to city records. Real estate developers she represents, like Oakwood Homes and Forest City, don’t receive city money but have remade large swaths of the city.

She also works for the city directly and indirectly.

In between her trips with the mayor and top city staff to Tokyo and Munich, she ran the National Western Stock Show ballot issue campaign in 2015, supported by the mayor, to extend hundreds of millions in city lodging and car rental taxes for redevelopment of the north Denver site.

Berry officially works for National Western, not the city, on the project. But her connections to the city’s largest contractors run deep enough that she said the city required her to sign a non-disclosure agreement for when it comes to construction bidding for the Stock Show project.

“We’ve been reached out by a lot of clients to say, ‘how can you help us?’ Even new people who want to bid it,” Berry said. “And our line is very simple, ‘We are on the owner side of this issue. We can’t represent you, we can’t engage in conversations, and we’ve signed an NDA.’ ”

Berry also has a direct contract with the city, which was competitively bid, to help shepard the rebuild of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

Berry said she also has her own internal controls on conflicts.

“I’m very confident we don’t have conflicts in our work for the city,” said Berry, whose firm is filled with former city staffers, including at one point, Happy Haynes, the city’s current parks director and former deputy mayor for Hancock. Haynes worked at CRL for four years before joining the city.

Some other lobbyists also work directly for the city. Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, for instance, has recently lobbied city officials on behalf of Verizon, but also has been paid $521,887 by the city for work with DIA and the City Attorney’s office since 2011.

Last year, The Pachner Group had a contract to work directly for DIA on land use issues with Aurora. Phil Workman, who is a partner at The Pachner Group and flew to Munich in 2016 with Hancock, also represented Mortenson Construction (at one time the largest airport contractor).

The city said Workman was invited on the Munich trip because he is “active in the Colorado German community due to his German heritage.” Pachner told CPR his firm was invited because “we were actively working on development issues in the city … I think we’re also known again as supporting economic development in our region. So I don’t think that was a strange request. We were probably asked to go on more of those.”

Marcus Pachner said work for his two clients, the city and Mortenson, didn’t overlap. Mortenson, as part of a joint venture, built the airport transit center and hotel. The company is currently involved in a bid rigging scandal for a $233 million contract at the Colorado Convention Center. (Hanfling now represents Mortenson). Pachner said Mortenson had long finished work at the airport when Pachner and Workman started lobbying for the airport.

Pachner said he is always careful about potential conflicts.

“But there are certainly opportunities where cities or departments or agencies need additional help that we bring...kind of subject matter expertise to work on specific areas,” Pachner said.

But several lobbyists questioned this practice. One former high-ranking executive at CRL Associates said it used to be that the firm would not bid on contracts from the government entity they lobbied. That changed in 2004, when CRL won a contract to represent the Regional Transportation District. CRL also represents the largest transportation contractors in Colorado.

Hanfling agreed with the caution, at least when it comes to perceptions.

“We made a conscious decision Day One, when we started our firm six plus years ago not to work directly for the city,” Hanfling said. “We didn’t want anybody to raise the question you’re asking right now. We decided not to work directly for the City and County of Denver, though we do for other cities.”

‘Campaigns take money’

If you want to be the mayor of Denver and wield the power that the city grants, you're going to need about $1 million.

The need for money is not new to Denver politics, nor unique to city government. Social media and increasingly expensive TV ads have led to electoral arms races up and down the ballot.

In step the lobbyists. Those who flew with Hancock on the international trips are among his largest donors. They also give to city council races. Between CRL Associates, Sewald Hanfling and The Pachner Group, the mayor collected about $54,000 in direct contributions since 2011.

They also all throw fundraisers for the mayor and city council.

“I so admire people who are willing to run for public office,” said Pachner, who lost his own race for city council more than a decade ago. “If we see people that we think love their city, want to do best for their neighborhoods and want to do great things for their city we absolutely will support them.”

Hanfling said it’s not at all surprising that lobbyists like himself and contractors are among the largest donors to city campaigns. And he said it doesn’t make a difference in city decisions.

“If money made the difference this would be the easiest job in the world,” he said.

But it’s the combination of flights, contributions and close personal ties to the mayor that irks ethics watchdogs, even if it is perfectly legal.

“This doesn’t seem fair,” said Amanda Gonzalez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause. “I would argue that’s just not good for our system, and that we’re going to have a better and stronger government when we can all have confidence when this isn’t as questionable as it first appears.”

This story was first published by CPR News and is used by permission.

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