Former governor and U.S. Senate candidate John Hickenlooper was held in contempt by the state's Independent Ethics Commission after refusing to appear for a remote hearing on Thursday that the candidate had attempted for days to delay.
The action, unprecedented in the commission's 13-year history, came after hours of testimony from the group that filed the ethics complaint against him without the former governor in attendance.
Early Thursday, Hickenlooper's attorney had filed an appeal of a ruling late Wednesday that compelled him to testify. By mid-afternoon, Hickenlooper had agreed to comply with the subpoena, just not until June 16.
The commission chose to issue the contempt order. The members will meet again on Friday to decide sanctions, which could include disallowing his defense as well as fines.
"It's not sufficient to say, 'Sorry, I'll come on the 16th' and there are no consequences for failing to appear today," Commissioner Bill Leone said. "The respondent has indicated a disrespect for the commission, disrespect for the rule of law, disrespect for the commission, disrespect for the process, disrespect for the parties and the witnesses" and the agreement to appear voluntarily.
Suzanne Staiert, representing the Public Trust Institute that filed the ethics complaints in 2018, said Hickenlooper's "disregard for the IEC process is troubling." She noted a media report that the former governor was at another event Thursday, which indicated to her that he never intended to comply with the subpoena. She asked the commission that the governor be held in contempt for failure to comply, and that his defense be stricken, given that it requires his testimony.
The media report said that Hickenlooper was at a Colorado Holiday Commission meeting, but later corrected it to say that his campaign participated, not him personally.
The hearing early on suffered from technical problems, including poor WiFi connections. After the morning session, a tweet from Jane Feldman, the commission's executive director for its first six years, said "They are creating appellate issues right and left."
They are creating appellate issues right and left.— Jane Feldman (@jtfdenver) June 4, 2020
The potential for technical problems was part of the reason the Hickenlooper campaign said the governor would not participate, stating that a virtual hearing is unreliable and could violate his rights of due process.
Commissioner Bill Leone, however, said he has been able to hear everything, complimenting the commission's executive director, and commission chair Elizabeth Espinosa Krupa, for their work to set it up.
The Public Trust Institute, led by former Republican Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, filed the complaints in October and November 2018. They allege the governor accepted illegal gifts in the form of travel to various meetings and events.
The Institute was formed two days before the complaint was filed. The complaint is based on open records requests sought in March 2018 by the America Rising PAC, which does opposition research on behalf of Republicans. Hickenlooper is a target because he is a candidate for the Democratic U.S. Senate primary on June 30. Polls show Hickenlooper has a significant lead over incumbent Republican U.S. Senator Cory Gardner of Yuma.
Staiert, however, is facing her own political problems. She is running for state Senate District 27 in Centennial, citing her experience as "prosecutor on [Hickenlooper's] ethics charge." A campaign finance complaint filed May 6 said she failed to disclose her income from PTI in 2019 as required by law. The Secretary of State's office gave Staiert an opportunity to "cure" or fix the financial disclosure form. That cure period ends close of business Thursday.
The hearing has been delayed for months for a variety of reasons: one was a lack of an available conference room; the other is due to concerns over the commission hosting a remote hearing.
The first witness Staiert called: Sen. Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican. Gardner was a co-sponsor of a 2014 bill creating a special license plate honoring the the U.S.S. Colorado and a 2017 bill on the commissioning of the boat. That bill authorized $100,000 for the commissioning event.
Gardner said he attended the commissioning with Republican Rep. Larry Liston, also of Colorado Springs, and said they paid for their own travel and meals. He said the commissioning was a "very big deal," calling it prestigious for the state.
Hickenlooper also attended that event, flying on a private plane owned by MDC Holdings of Colorado. He has said in his response to the complaint that he attended in his role as governor, calling it an official state function.
Gardner did not seek reimbursement for his travel expenses, stating that a travel policy from the state Senate discourages payment for out-of-state travel.
The complaint also alleges that Hickenlooper accepted illegal gifts related to travel to the Bilderberg conference in Italy in 2018, and among the exhibits filed by Staiert, a 2018 Colorado Politics article in which Hickenlooper was asked about that travel. Grueskin objected to its inclusion, stating that it was an "unauthenticated article," but the commission later decided to allow it in because Hickenlooper didn't show up.
Leading off witnesses in the afternoon: State Controller Bob Jaros, who discussed state fiscal rules. Notably, rules around Amendment 41 are not a part of those fiscal rules, he said.
The hearing also got the attention of Donald Trump Jr. on Thursday, although he incorrectly complained that the mainstream media was ignoring the issue.
Chuck Schumer's hand-picked #COsen candidate @Hickenlooper is hiding out as the state's AG fights to enforce a subpoena from a the Colorado Ethics commission about his HUGE ethics troubles. Where's the wall-to-wall news coverage from the mainstream media? https://t.co/K3AgBCjms2— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) June 4, 2020
There are more than 100 people on the ethics commission hearing call, with every media outlet in the Front Range represented. Colorado news outlets have been reporting on the complaint since it was filed in October 2018. Colorado Politics has reported on the complaint at least three dozen times.
After the hearing, Hickenlooper campaign spokeswoman Melissa Miller said in a statement "as reported, today’s meeting was a 'massive technical mess,' confirming concerns we’ve raised for months. In order to put an end to the partisan political circus orchestrated by a dark money Republican group, Governor Hickenlooper offered to testify, and though that was rejected, he remains ready to appear." Miller also said Hickenlooper will appear at Friday's hearing "if the commission asks him."
The commission is scheduled on Friday to deliberate on the evidence and could make a ruling as early as tomorrow, although that seems unlikely, given the legal issues involved.