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U.S. Senate candidate John Hickenlooper speaks at a forum held at Centennial Middle School in Montrose on Oct. 20, 2019. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper on several occasions last year criss-crossed the nation on private planes owned by high-powered businessmen or their companies, at times during trips to conduct state business, but only repaid the owners of the aircraft in one instance. 

The Democrat told investigators that he tried to repay the planes’ owners for the travel but was rebuffed or claimed that he was riding on their aircrafts as a friend.

That’s according to a report released Thursday by the state’s Independent Ethics Commission as part of an investigation into allegations made by a Republican group that Hickenlooper violated Colorado laws around public officials accepting gifts. 

It’s not clear, though, if any of the travel was illegal since there are exemptions for travel for official business and gifts made by friends.

The report, notably, doesn’t make conclusions about whether the travel was legal — that could come at a later date, once the commission has digested its findings. The report is comprised of interviews with Hickenlooper and the people or representatives of organizations that provided him with flights or other travel accommodations and includes documents substantiating his claims.  

MORE: Read the Independent Ethics Commission report.

The ethics commission’s investigation came after a complaint was filed in October 2018 by Frank McNulty, a former Republican lawmaker. He alleged Hickenlooper illegally accepted gifts of travel in private jets and cars owned by corporations or political donors and also accepted stays at luxury hotels around the globe.

Hickenlooper, who is running for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate next year, brushed off the report on Thursday as a partisan attack.

“The Denver Post editorial board has already called these complaints ‘politically motivated lies,’ and they were filed by a dark money Republican group,” said Melissa Miller, a spokeswoman for Hickenlooper’s 2020 campaign. “The fact-finding report released today is a routine and required step in the review process that we hope will proceed on a timely basis.”

But McNulty said the findings represented a validation of many of his accusations.

“I think that the report is clear in underscoring that John Hickenlooper has a pattern of illegal behavior in violating Colorado’s ethics laws,” he said. “To us, this looks like an open-and-shut case.”

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks to reporters on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019, the day he announced he was running for U.S. Senate. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

McNulty’s original complaint alleged as many as 17 violations of Amendment 41, the state’s constitutional ban on gifts to elected officials above $59, the amount at which disclosure is required in some instances.

In January, the commission voted to investigate five specific complaints involving travel and gifts provided to Hickenlooper, but dismissed two others related to private travel to Aspen and Montreal in 2018. Complaints about travel that occurred more than a year earlier also were dropped because of a statute of limitations. 

The 2018 travel facing scrutiny in the investigation involves a private flight to New Jersey in January; a private flight and hotel reservation for a trip to Connecticut related to the commissioning of the USS Colorado submarine in March; a private flight from Texas to Broomfield after the wedding of Kimbal Musk in April; a flight, accommodations, meals and gifts during travel to Turin, Italy, for the Bilderberg Meetings in June; and a flight to Jackson, Wyoming, to attend a conservative institute’s symposium in August. 

According to the report:

  • Hickenlooper traveled from New York City to Colorado on a private jet belonging to Kenneth Tuchman in January 2018 after visiting the East Coast with his wife, Robin Hickenlooper, following a medical procedure she underwent. Hickenlooper said Tuchman, the billionaire founder of the global outsourcing company TeleTech, is a personal friend and that Tuchman paid for the flight. The former governor said the “arrangement allowed him to stay longer with his wife during her recuperation and return just in time for his State of the State speech.” 
  • Hickenlooper traveled to Connecticut on a private plane owned by MDC Holdings — whose CEO is political donor and philanthropist Larry Mizel — in March 2018 for the commissioning of the USS Colorado. Hickenlooper says he tried to reimburse MDC for the flight, but that the company refused. Documents show that the state paid for Hickenlooper’s lodging during the trip. MDC said it did not pay for any of Hickenlooper’s travel outside of the flight, and Hickenlooper said Mizel is a friend. The representative for MDC did not respond to investigators’ questions about whether MDC Holdings had any business pending before the state at the time for which Hickenlooper could have had an impact.
  • Hickenlooper traveled on a private plane belonging to Boulder restaurateur Kimbal Musk in April 2018 to officiate his wedding in Texas. Both Musk and Hickenlooper say Hickenlooper paid for the flight with a personal check tendered just before he boarded the aircraft. They both say they did not discuss Colorado’s vehicle emissions policies, which could have benefitted Tesla, the electric car company led by Musk’s brother Elon. Kimbal Musk serves on Tesa’s board of directors.
  • Hickenlooper said he paid for his commercial air travel to Turin for the Bilderberg Meetings either by using airline miles or his personal credit card and that he also paid personally for the cost of the conference, which included ground transportation and lodging. A representative for the conference told investigators that Fiat Chrysler Automobiles sponsored the meetings and provided attendees with transportation, small gifts and meals. The Bilderberg Meetings are an annual gathering of high-profile figures from across the globe.
  • Hickenlooper traveled in August 2018 to Jackson from Washington, D.C., for an American Enterprise Institute event on a private plane leased by his then-chief of staff, Pat Meyers. The men told investigators they were on the East Coast for unrelated meetings, but because Meyers was traveling back to Denver he offered to give Hickenlooper a lift to Jackson — describing it as a “small” detour. They spent the flight talking about state business. Hickenlooper says he offered to reimburse Meyers for the flight or make a donation to a charity in his name, but that Meyers refused both. The pair described each other as friends.

From the start, Hickenlooper has suggested the complaint is without merit because he paid for the cost of the travel, or in other cases, it was official business or an allowed gift from a friend. 

His attorney, Mark Grueskin, moved to dismiss the entire complaint, but the commission rejected the request and moved forward to release the report. Grueskin’s challenge could resurface when the commission considers a potential hearing date at its next meeting in December.

The investigation makes no determination about whether a violation occurred, reserving that judgment for the five-member commission. 

If the commission finds Hickenlooper guilty of accepting an improper gift or failing to file a required disclosure report, it’s a misdemeanor punishable by a fine ranging from $50 to $1,000.

The original complaint came more than a year ago, after Hickenlooper created a federal leadership political action committee in preparation for his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. He exited the White House contest in August and four days later launched a campaign for U.S. Senate in Colorado with backing from national Democrats.

The report doesn’t substantiate many of the claims initially made by McNulty. Among the allegations not corroborated: that Hickenlooper’s travel to the Bilderberg Meetings was on a private jet and gifted to him; that his lodging in Connecticut was paid for by MDC Holdings; that he traveled to Jackson from Dallas on Meyers’ plane, and that the plane he traveled on to officiate Kimbal Musk’s wedding was owned by Elon Musk.  

A private jet parked at Denver International Airport. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The ethics complaint is expected to play a role in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, where Hickenlooper faces former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff and handful of other lesser-known candidates. 

Republicans also are eager to capitalize on the report, hoping it will boost U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, the most vulnerable GOP incumbent facing reelection in 2020.

On Thursday, the GOP pounced on the investigation’s findings. 

“The pattern of alarming behavior outlined in this report shows Hickenlooper ignored the state constitution and violated the trust of Colorado voters,” Joanna Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in a written statement. “We look forward to the commission’s continued investigation and Hickenlooper answering for his actions.”

The case has advanced despite lingering questions about the organization behind it, the Public Trust Institute. McNulty, the former Colorado House speaker, created the nonprofit organization shortly before filing the complaint. 

The institute’s director is now Suzanne Staiert, the former deputy secretary of state under two Republicans. She also is currently running for state Senate as a Republican.

Staff writer John Frank contributed to this report.

The Colorado Sun —

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Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage.

A Colorado College graduate, Jesse worked at The Denver Post from June 2014 until July 2018, when he joined The Sun. He was also an intern at The Gazette in Colorado Springs and The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, his hometown.

Jesse has won awards for long form feature writing, public service reporting, sustained coverage and deadline news reporting.

Email: Twitter: @jesseapaul