The Colorado Independent Ethics Commission took a step closer Tuesday on the ethics complaints filed against former Democratic governor, and now-U.S. Senate candidate, John Hickenlooper.
The currently four-member body voted unanimously to dismiss a motion made by Hickenlooper's lawyer, Mark Grueskin, to dismiss the complaints, although since they dismissed without prejudice, the motion could be introduced again at some point in the future.
The commission also gave the green light to its executive director, Dino Ioannides, to release an investigative report that could take place within the next week on the Hickenlooper complaint that has been in the works for several months.
The investigative report is mandated by the state Constitution in Amendment 41, the state's ethics amendment, and is part of the process of dealing with what's known as non-frivolous complaints. That's when the commission decides a complaint meets all the requirements to be reviewed by the commission, such as whether the complaint falls within their jurisdiction, is reported to the commission within the one-year statute of limitations and that it involves an ethics issue outlined in Amendment 41.
The report is a critical step in the complaint process. The investigation is almost always conducted by the executive director (there have been a few exceptions), and it contains the complaint, evidence presented by the complainant and the response by the person who has been accused of violating Amendment 41. It then goes to the commission and to the parties in the complaint so that they can prepare for presenting the case to the commission in a formal hearing.
Most importantly, the investigative report does not offer any opinion on the complaint or the response, nor make any judgments on the case. That's the commission's job.
Former Republican Speaker of the House Frank McNulty and his then-newly formed Public Trust Institute filed two ethics complaints against Hickenlooper in October 2018, alleging Hickenlooper had "repeatedly traveled on private airplanes owned by corporations and accepted travel expenses paid for by corporations," all in violation of the state's ethics laws governing travel by elected officials.
The commission dismissed the part of the complaints that took place prior to Oct. 12, 2018, citing the one-year statute of limitations.
Hickenlooper called the complaints a political stunt and "frivolous," although the commission thought otherwise. With regard to the specifics on travel, the governor's office at the time said, "The governor [paid] for certain expenses about which ethical concerns were raised [by McNulty's complaint]. 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."
Part of the delay in moving forward on the complaint had to do with changeover in the commission's membership: This spring, three of the five members either resigned or chose not to seek reappointment.
Speaker of the House KC Becker appointed former Denver City Clerk Debra Johnson (D) to replace April Jones in May; Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Nathan Coats appointed former Republican lawmaker Yeulin Willett of Grand Junction in June, replacing longtime commissioner Matt Smith.
That left a fifth member — who, by law, must represent a local government entity — to be chosen. That's a selection made by the other four members. On Tuesday they unanimously chose Selina Baschiera, deputy director of the Department of Motor Vehicles in Arapahoe County. Baschiera is unaffiliated and replaces Jo Ann Sorensen.
At the time the Hickenlooper complaint was filed, three of the five commissioners (Jones, chair Liz Krupa and Bill Leone) had made campaign contributions to Hickenlooper's gubernatorial bids, although those contributions were made several years prior to their commission appointments.
Hickenlooper originally appointed Leone to the commission in 2013; Leone was subsequently reappointed by then-Senate President Kevin Grantham in 2017. Hickenlooper appointed Krupa to the commission last year.
TRACER records maintained by the secretary of state do not show any contributions by Baschiera to Hickenlooper's state campaigns.
The next step in the Hickenlooper complaint takes place on Dec. 5, when the commission will decide the issues that will be discussed during a formal hearing, to take place sometime in 2020. At that time, the commission will take testimony from both parties, who also can bring witnesses if they choose.
The investigative report completed by Ioannides will become public once released to both parties, and that could take place within the next seven days.