In a few days, Colorado voters will elect a wealthy businessman for governor who has been dogged for months by questions about financial transparency and potential conflicts of interests that could influence how he governs.
It’s just a matter of which one.
Call it the Donald Trump effect. Two years after voters elevated the wealthy real estate mogul to the presidency amid unanswered questions about his financial entanglements, Colorado gubernatorial candidates Jared Polis and Walker Stapleton have adopted similar postures on transparency of their personal fortunes, revealing what is explicitly required by law, but rejecting the long-held political norm of releasing their tax returns for public inspection.
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As a result — more than in any Colorado gubernatorial race in recent memory — the two deep-pocketed candidates are illustrating the limits of financial disclosure requirements in Colorado and leaving voters with only a blurry picture of their financial interests.
With just days left until the election, here’s what we know about their finances — and what we don’t.
They took divergent paths to their wealth.
Polis, the Democratic congressman from Boulder, likes to say he built his fortune from his dorm room, launching web businesses and tech companies that made him a millionaire by his mid-20s. Now 43, the entrepreneur has diversified, investing not just in tech companies, but also in health care, real estate and renewable energy, among other industries, according to an analysis of financial disclosures by CBS4, a reporting partner of The Colorado Sun.
Stapleton, the Republican state treasurer from Denver, was born into wealth and familial ties to the nation’s political elite. He’s a cousin to the Bush family on his mother’s side, and his father’s a successful businessman and former U.S. ambassador who has had an ownership stake in the Texas Rangers and now the St. Louis Cardinals. Stapleton built on that family legacy with a private sector career as an investment banker and real estate executive, before being elected state treasurer in 2010.
Neither one has released his latest tax returns.
But we know more about Polis’ tax history than Stapleton’s, because he released seven years’ worth when he was running for Congress in 2008, according to the Boulder Daily Camera.
The tax filings revealed that Polis didn’t pay income taxes from 2001 to 2005 — something that his political opponents have seized on in attack ads. But independent fact-checkers, including CBS4 and 9News, have concluded the attacks are misleading.
While it’s technically true that Polis didn’t pay taxes for a few years, that’s because his businesses lost money for several years straight, leaving him with no net income to pay taxes on. The returns also show he paid a substantial sum to Uncle Sam when he turned a profit — more than $18 million over the remaining two years, the Daily Camera reported.
Still, we don’t know the effective tax rate of either candidate.
Polis has given his campaign an eye-popping $23.3 million.
That’s the fifth most of any candidate in the country in the midterm elections, according to the analysis from The Sun. The latest total includes a few last-minute infusions, too.
That also accounts for a whopping 70 percent of all self-donations by a Colorado gubernatorial candidate since 2002, a separate Sun analysis of National Institute on Money data found.
To put that figure into context, it’s more than a third of the $66.1 million Donald Trump invested in his campaign in 2016 — and that was for president of the United States, not the governorship of the 21st largest state.
In any other election, we’d talk about how much Stapleton has spent on his own campaign.
The $1.3 million the Republican hopeful has given himself is the fourth most in Colorado history among gubernatorial candidates, behind only Polis, Victor Mitchell and Bob Beauprez. It’s also four times what anyone else has spent dating back to 2002. But when your opponent is as rich as Polis, $1 million starts to look like chump change.
They both have money in blind trusts to mitigate conflicts of interest. But concerns remain.
There’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s start with Stapleton.
The state treasurer says he’s had nearly all of his assets in a blind trust — meaning someone else is managing his investments without his knowledge — since he took office in 2011.
But until recently, his personal financial disclosures told a different story. In documents filed with the Colorado Secretary of State, he initially listed a company called Rocky Mountain LLC as his blind trust. But an investigation by CBS4’s Shaun Boyd found that Rocky Mountain was actually a consulting firm managed by Stapleton, according to separate documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
As recently as June, Stapleton’s financial disclosure also listed investments in banks, utilities and insurance and health care companies — all industries that he would regulate as governor.
But Stapleton insists there are no financial conflicts — he simply botched the disclosure forms. He said his money was actually held in the Walker R. Stapleton Blind Trust, not Rocky Mountain, and he provided documents to CBS showing it had been set up in 2010.
He also said the June 2018 disclosure listed investments he had owned before he set up the blind trust, telling The Denver Post, “I incorrectly filled out the form with the name of the trust and also restated the assets that were in the trust (back in 2011). But they are the assets that, to my knowledge, are in the trust — and I have no idea whether those assets were increased, divested, whether other assets were acquired, or anything else.”
Stapleton says he corrected the record in subsequent filings.
Polis, too, has a blind trust as a member of Congress. But the potential for conflicts remains.
Reviews by CBS4 and The Post found that the majority of his assets are held outside the blind trust, potentially undermining the whole purpose of establishing one. As little as 9 percent of his assets are in a blind trust, according to figures from the Center for Responsive Politics.
When questioned by CBS4 about his holdings outside the trust, Polis insisted he’s a passive investor without any “decision-making capacity … that I’m aware of.” But his disclosures tell a different story, listing him as a managing member, partner or director for 26 different limited liability companies with millions in assets that span a number of prominent industries, including health care, which has been a focal point of this year’s campaign.
Even if he’s not forthcoming, Polis is in compliance with congressional rules regarding blind trusts, The Post reported citing the House Ethics Committee. Congressional guidelines say that “real property, a business entity, or assets held in a qualified retirement plan are typically not ideal assets to inject into a Qualified Blind Trust because those types of assets are generally not able to be managed and controlled entirely by the trustee as required by law.”
They’ve both been accused in filings by political opponents of violating financial disclosure laws.
Both complaints were dismissed.
The complaint against Polis accused him of omitting significant details off his financial disclosures, such as his investment in BridgeHealth, a Colorado-based health care company that he helped found. The company could benefit from expanded health care that Polis pushed in Congress and advocates for in his gubernatorial campaign, a CBS4 report determined.
But Polis’ campaign told The Post the BridgeHealth investment isn’t listed on his state disclosure because the form doesn’t require the sort of specificity that the congressional form does. So while BridgeHealth is mentioned on Polis’ congressional disclosure, the investment is listed under a related company, Jovian Holdings, in his state filing. The Colorado Secretary of State’s Office agreed, dismissing the complaint.
The complaint against Stapleton, meanwhile, involved $30,000 in unreported income that his wife, Jenna Stapleton, earned at a family foundation. It was dismissed on technical grounds, and Stapleton’s filings were subsequently updated to disclose her earnings, the Post reported.
Both candidates would look at more financial protections if elected.
As governor, Stapleton said would keep his assets in a blind trust. And Polis has said he would look to put more of his assets in a trust out of his view.
Staff writer John Frank contributed to this report.
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