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Hickenlooper faces ethics complaint over travel

Authors: Conrad Swanson, The Gazette, Marianne Goodland - October 12, 2018 - Updated: October 13, 2018

Gov. John Hickenlooper arriving at the Bilderberg Group conference in Turin, Italy. ( via YouTube)

Gov. John Hickenlooper was accused Friday in a complaint filed by a former Republican lawmaker’s group of traversing the globe in private jets and rooming in expensive hotels paid for by businesses in violation of the state’s ethics laws, a claim dismissed by the governor’s office as a “political stunt.”

The  Greenwood Village-based Public Trust Institute, a newly formed nonprofit, filed the complaint against Hickenlooper with the state’s Independent Ethics Commission, according to a news release from Frank McNulty, director of the group and the Republican Speaker of the Colorado House in 2011 and 2012.

Over the past year, McNulty says in the release, the Democratic 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.”

Hickenlooper’s spokesperson, Jacque Montgomery, issued a statement Friday afternoon. “It looks like the organization was created in the last few days to trump up frivolous accusations,” the statement said. “They ignored the Independent Ethics Commission process by going straight to the media. This is clearly a political stunt aimed at influencing the upcoming election.”

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The Public Trust Institute describes itself as a group “founded to help restore the public trust in American leadership. PTI monitors federal and state activities and holds public officials accountable for ethical abuses.”

McNulty formed the nonprofit Wednesday, filing articles of incorporation with the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office. He said the group aims to serve as an ethics watchdog for public officials and he wants the Ethics Commission to investigate the complaint.

“It is absolutely necessary to have someone out there calling balls and strikes and being an impartial observer,” McNulty said of the commission.

Under Amendment 41, a state constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2006, the governor and other elected officials are barred from accepting gifts worth more than $59, with limited exceptions.

“These are not isolated or inadvertent violations of Amendment 41 but … are part of a pattern of illegal conduct repeated throughout Governor Hickenlooper’s term in office,” the complaint reads.

It also alleges that Hickenlooper’s office “has implemented a practice of redacting the governor’s corporate flights and corporate travel expenses from public records to avoid detection while disclosing information about commercial flights and authorized travel expenses. Further, Governor Hickenlooper has not publicly reported any of these travel expenses as gifts or reimbursed costs as required by state statute.”

Then-Colorado Speaker of the House Frank McNulty meets with schoolkids in the House gallery in 2011. (Photo courtesy Colorado House Majority Office.)

The accusation comes as Hickenlooper, who is term-limited and leaves office in January, has been exploring a potential presidential run in 2020, and has been making a number of trips around the country for political appearances and to speak to groups.

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In June, Hickenlooper flew to Italy for the annual meeting of the Bilderberg Group, says the Public Trust Institute’s 187-page complaint. (Joey Bunch of Colorado Politics reported on the trip here.)

“Requested public records do not disclose exactly how the governor traveled to Italy for the Bilderberg Meetings, they only show that he departed the U.S. from Detroit, Michigan on June 6th, and all flight information has been redacted,” the complaint says.

Regardless, the flight would have cost more than $59, the complaint says.

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McNulty said he and several other “politicos” began investigating months ago. In all, up to six people were involved in the investigation, he said.

“We started just by asking questions about how he’s getting to all these conferences,” he said. “We noticed that certain flights were redacted and other flights weren’t redacted and at that point red flags started popping up.”

The complaint says that within the past year, Hickenlooper made similar trips to or from Connecticut, New Jersey and Wyoming. Again, flight details were largely redacted for those trips, the complaint says.

“This is an example of a sitting governor who was jet setting around the world on private jets and who attempted to hide it, attempted to cloak it and attempted to cover it by redacting these flights from his calendar,” McNulty said.

The complaint also says Hickenlooper violated the law by accepting meals, luxury activities, private tours and gift bags, among other things.

In addition, the complaint says Hickenlooper flew to Switzerland multiple times to attend the annual World Economic Forum. He flew on corporate jets owned by John Malone’s Douglas County-based Liberty Media Corp., the complaint says.

Hickenlooper’s wife, Robin, is an executive of Liberty Media, a diverse conglomerate that either owns or controls the Sirius XM Holdings satellite-radio company, Formula 1 racing and the Atlanta Braves baseball team and has a large stake in Live Nation Entertainment.

Asked about the complaint’s potential to appear as a partisan attack on the Democratic governor, McNulty said the document and the Public Trust Institute’s actions stand on their own merits.

During McNulty’s days in the statehouse, he and Hickenlooper were frequently at odds over policy.

In 2012, before the Supreme Court recognized the right of same-sex couples to marry, McNulty, as speaker of the Republican-led state House of Representatives, blocked a Hickenlooper-backed proposal to allow couples — gay and straight — to enter into civil unions. The standoff contributed to Democrats taking control of the House in the fall 2012 election.

In a 2013 profile of Hickenlooper by The New Yorker magazine, McNulty is quoted as saying, “The critique that many in Colorado have, particularly the ones who have worked with him, is there’s a lack of leadership.”

McNulty served a speaker from 2010 to 2012, and represented Highlands Ranch in the House from 2006 until 2014.

More recently he has been founder and principal of Square State Strategy Group, a political consulting and lobbying firm based in Denver.

The ethics complaint filed by McNulty and the Public Trust Institute is not the first for the term-limited governor. In 2014, the commission dismissed, on a 4-1 vote, a complaint filed against Hickenlooper in 2013 by Compass Colorado over the governor’s travel to the Democratic Governors Association meeting in Aspen.

At that time, however, it was revealed that three of the five commissioners  — including three of the four who voted to dismiss — had given money to Hickenlooper’s campaigns and one, then-Mayor Bill Pinkham of Estes Park, joined him nine days after the dismissal at a campaign event.

That may become an issue in the 2018 matter. Three of the commission’s current members — Bill Leone, Chair April Jones and its newest member, Elizabeth Krupa, who was named to the commission by the governor in August — have all given campaign contributions to Hickenlooper for his gubernatorial runs.

Dino Ioannides, executive director of the commission, said he could neither confirm nor deny that a complaint was filed.

Speaking generally, Ioannides said the commission will discuss all complaints filed recently during an executive session on Oct. 22. Then, the group will vote publicly on whether the complaints will be investigated.

Frivolous complaints are dismissed while those found to be credible will be investigated after the subject of the complaint has had 30 days to comment on the matter, Ioannides said.

However the timeline for the complaint against Hickenlooper is truncated because he will leave office in early January.

Asked whether the commission can investigate a private citizen, Ioannides said the group must discuss the matter and make a determination.

The timeline is further shortened by several calendar conflicts among commission members, Ioannides said. As such, the group will either need to call a special meeting or decide to push all recent business to Nov. 19, the next regularly scheduled meeting.

Ioannides said the commission’s jurisdiction only goes back one year. Alleged violations past that can still be taken into consideration in an investigation, however.

In general, if a public official is found to have violated the state’s gift law, Ioannides said that person can then be held liable for twice whatever the gift was worth.

Mark Harden

Mark Harden is managing editor of Colorado Politics. He previously was news director at the Denver Business Journal; city editor, online news editor, state editor, national editor and popular music critic at The Denver Post; and an editor and reporter at newspapers in the Seattle area and San Francisco.

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland is the chief legislative reporter for Colorado Politics. She's covered the Colorado General Assembly for 20 years, starting off in 1998 with the Silver & Gold Record, the editorially-independent newspaper at CU that was shuttered in 2009. She also writes for six rural newspapers in northeastern Colorado. Marianne specializes in rural issues, agriculture, water and, during election season, campaign finance. In her free time (ha!) she lives in Lakewood with her husband, Jeff; a cantankerous Shih-Tzu named Sophie; and Gunther the cat. She is also an award-winning professional harpist.