A letter submitted last month by Sen. Paul Lundeen (R-Monument) and Rep. Rod Bockenfeld (R-Watkins) caused a stir in Monday’s legislative audit committee meeting. But their request — to get the state auditor to investigate a federal fund used to pay the legal expenses for former Gov. John Hickenlooper — failed to win over even one committee Democrat, necessary for the request to go forward.
Lundeen and Bockenfeld, both committee members, asked the audit committee to investigate the “inappropriate, perhaps illegal, use of federal funds for the purpose of paying legal bills for former Governor John Hickenlooper.” The letter also demanded an explanation on why the name of Hickenlooper’s lawyer — Mark Grueskin — was redacted from the state’s financial transparency database.
Democrats immediately struck back, calling the request a political ploy and that it wasn’t an appropriate use of the audit committee or state auditor’s time.
The issue is related to recent reports that Hickenlooper’s attorney, Mark Grueskin, is being paid to represent the former governor on two ethics complaints filed against him by former Speaker of the House Frank McNulty and his Public Trust Institute. The money for the legal costs is coming from the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003.
Hickenlooper is the frontrunner in the Democratic slate challenging Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in the 2020 election.
State auditor Dianne Ray said during the meeting that the request could be folded into an ongoing audit. She said one question would be why the state is holding onto money from a 2003 federal program, and whether the spending had been reported. She also pointed out that the state does do an annual audit on federal funds. This particular program was reported on the annual audit for 2003 through 2005 “and that was it," Ray said.
The auditors don’t audit every dollar coming from the federal government, lacking the resources for that, and instead focus on big-ticket federal funds, she explained.
Rep. Susan Beckman (R-Littleton) supported the request. She said she was interested in how these funds are spent and whether this is a systemic issue.
“If we have more of this, or if it’s a large amount of money,” Beckman said, she wanted to know that the state is in compliance with federal requirements.
But Democrats — Sen. Rhonda Fields of Aurora and Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp of Arvada — pushed back hard on the Lundeen/Bockenfeld letter.
Fields called the request political. She said that it’s common practice for the state to pay for the legal representation of statewide elected officials who face ethics complaints. Most recently, the state and taxpayers paid more than $515,000 for the ethics complaint against former Secretary of State Scott Gessler, a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which rejected it. The state's independent ethics commission found Gessler had violated several provisions under Amendment 41, the state's ethics amendment.
“We should not be looking at this,” Field said. “I don't think this is the role of audit committee to evaluate this issue.” She said the fund is there to deal with emergencies, and that its use was appropriate.
“I can understand why individuals might think there is potentially politics,” Lundeen said, “but this is square in the purview of the audit committee and accountability on how dollars are spent.”
Given that there’s already a financial audit going on, there’s “enough smoke” to wonder how those dollars are being spent. “The idea that we have a federal program that theoretically ended years ago is a curiosity.” He called the request a good government approach.
Fields continued to push back, calling the request “politically motivated” and that the auditor doesn’t have the resources to audit every single program. “Whenever you tap into federal programs, there’s specific criteria that warrants the distribution of funds,” she said. “It’s not like you can use them for anything.”
She said the request targets the former governor, and that if someone wanted to know how the money was spent, they could just ask for “someone to run a report.”
“To ask the auditor to investigate a governor in reference to funds is seriously inappropriate,” Fields added. “We’re not the police, the FBI or the sheriff’s department,” and she suggested that lawyers should investigate such matters.
Kraft-Tharp said that the request contained in the letter is different from what Lundeen was asking for in the meeting, and that investigating inappropriate use of funds and how someone’s name got redacted from a database is not the purview of the committee.
The committee split 4-4 on the request, meaning it will not move forward.
After the meeting, Beckman said in a statement that the "Auditor’s proposal was necessary transparency for the federal funds that were given to Colorado to help in a time of need. It just doesn’t seem right for Democrats to block the State Auditor’s review of these financial transactions.”
Lundeen added that "there is no reason, save for one, that Democrats would block the Auditor from looking into this use of the 9/11 funds. Protecting John Hickenlooper’s failing U.S. Senate campaign should not be a part of the analysis, yet here we are, legislative Democrats blocking a review of the potential misuse of 9/11 funds to protect John Hickenlooper."
According to Hickenlooper spokeswoman Melissa Miller, “the funds used to pay for the attorney authorized to represent the Office of the Governor are flex funds from the Bush Tax Cuts that have covered other miscellaneous state expenses over several administrations." She said Monday that "independent observers have called the complaints against Governor Hickenlooper 'politically-motivated lies' - it’s no surprise this latest partisan stunt failed."
The campaign also claimed that the funds have been used for a variety of miscellaneous state expenses including food and food service supplies, dues and memberships, employee wages, health insurance and other personnel benefits.