The Colorado Independent Ethics Commission was in a quandary Monday as it began reviewing an ethics complaint against Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Former Republican Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, who filed the complaint, didn’t attend the Monday hearing.
Hickenlooper’s lawyer, Mark Grueskin, had hoped to walk away with some clarity over a rebuttal McNulty filed Nov. 29.
The complaint, which McNulty filed through his new Public Trust Institute, said the governor “traveled on private jets owned by for-profit corporations both domestically and internationally and illegally accepted luxury hotel accommodations and expensive travel expenses from corporations.”
Under Amendment 41, passed by state voters in 2006, elected officials are barred from accepting gifts worth more than $59, with some exceptions.
Grueskin responded to the complaint Nov. 21 by asking that it be dismissed. Hickenlooper paid for some of the travel cited, took trips unrelated to his official duties, or traveled for private or personal reasons, Grueskin wrote.
“The Governor [paid] for certain expenses about which ethical concerns were raised,” he wrote. “The State paid for certain others that pertained to State business. And, as is permitted by law, personal friends absorbed a limited universe of other such costs.”
Hickenlooper’s office has called McNulty’s complaint a “political stunt” and said its timing was aimed at influencing the Nov. 6 midterm election. Hickenlooper has been pondering a potential run for president in 2020, too.
But McNulty said the governor’s response “provides a creative narrative for each restricted gift he has accepted over the past 12 months. However, Governor Hickenlooper’s excuses do not stand up to the facts and evidence now before the Commission.”
The commission doesn’t accept rebuttals from the original complainant, though, as Executive Director Dino Ionaiddes told McNulty last week.
The commission accepts a complaint and decides whether it has merit. If it’s found non-frivolous, the accused person can file a response. Then an investigation can be launched, usually by the commission’s executive director and sole employee, who determines the legal and factual issues.
Grueskin noted that McNulty posted his rebuttal on his Public Trust Institute website and on Twitter and sent it to the media, but he never gave a copy to the governor. Commissioner Bill Leone said both parties will be ordered to provide each other with all documentation.
The commission voted unanimously to tell McNulty to clarify by Friday whether his rebuttal is in response to Hickenlooper’s request to dismiss the complaint. Grueskin then will have until Jan. 4 to respond.
The commission’s next meeting is Jan. 14, after Hickenlooper is no longer governor, and all parties have been ordered to appear. That’s partly because of Grueskin’s conversations with the commission, despite an interjection by a representative of the attorney general’s office.
The lawyer said those conversations are “ex parte” and improper because McNulty wasn’t present.
Despite that admonition, the commissioners and Grueskin continued to talk about the rebuttal until Commissioner Elizabeth Espinosa Krupa called for a halt to those discussions.
McNulty later said the rebuttal was sent to the commission to help it decide. “More information is better than less,” he said, and Hickenlooper’s response had “holes” in it.
McNulty pointed to costs related to the Bilderberg conference in Italy that Hickenlooper attended last spring. Hickenlooper said he paid for the travel and hotel costs but left unanswered who paid for the conference costs.
McNulty also said the explanation for the trip to Washington, D.C., for commissioning the USS Colorado, in which Hickenlooper traveled from Washington, D.C., to Denver on a plane owned by his chief of staff, Patrick Meyers, “doesn’t even pass the smell test.”
The commission chose Krupa to be its hearing officer, overseeing all future discussions of the complaint. Hickenlooper appointed her to the commission last August after naming her to three other state boards or commissions. And Krupa contributed $250 to Hickenlooper’s 2014 gubernatorial campaign.
“I think the commission will be judged by the seriousness and impartiality they devote to this investigation,” McNulty said.
“We’ve identified several holes in Hickenlooper’s response” that need to be investigated. “The ball’s in their court.”
A second complaint by McNulty related to a separate travel gift to Hickenlooper also was expected to come up for commission review Monday.