John Hickenlooper, the former governor and a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, must testify Thursday at a hearing about whether his travel on private planes amounts to a violation of the state’s gift ban.
Denver District Court Judge Christopher Baumann issued a ruling late Wednesday that declined Hickenlooper’s request to block a subpoena and delay the remote hearing before the state’s Independent Ethics Commission.
“For better or worse,” the judge wrote, “remote legal proceedings are the norm right now and the IEC has made an informed decision to proceed by videoconference in order to avoid any additional delays in plaintiff’s case. The court will not second-guess that decision.”
In the ruling — which came 11 hours before the 9 a.m. hearing was scheduled to begin — the judge dismissed Hickenlooper’s concerns about the format of the hearing and questioned the last-minute lawsuit given that the remote hearing was initially scheduled in early May.
But Hickenlooper never showed up — and Attorney General Phil Weiser’s office moved to enforce the subpoena in court to get him to appear at the online hearing, which is moving forward without him.
Commissioner Bill Leone said Hickenlooper is “in contempt of the subpoena and in violation of an order of this commission.”
Hickenlooper filed an appeal Thursday morning challenging the judge’s ruling and his attorney Mark Grueskin told the commission the former governor “continues to want to testify before you in person and safely.” If that is not possible, Grueskin asked the commission to render a decision on the complaint without a hearing.
Earlier in the week, the commission issued a subpoena to testify after Hickenlooper reneged on an agreement to answer questions because of the virtual format prompted by the coronavirus. His legal team filed a lawsuit Tuesday seeking to block a subpoena because the video conferencing format would deny him a fair hearing and the ability to adequately confer with his attorney.
The commission rejected the argument and pointed to remote court hearings taking place across the state.
The judge noted Hickenlooper’s concern about technical issues marring the hearing and his reputation, but dismissed them. “To the extent (Hickenlooper) is concerned that he has only one opportunity to defend himself against these complaints and a remote hearing does not give him the same opportunity to mount a proper defense when compared to an in-person hearing, the court concludes the argument is too speculative to justify a stay of tomorrow’s hearing,” Baumann wrote.
Hickenlooper’s campaign proposed dates for an in person hearing in August — well after the June 30 Democratic primary in the U.S. Senate race.
But the judge wrote that further delay “will not serve the public interest as this matter has been pending for well over a year and it is unclear when in-person hearings may resume at the IEC.”
His Democratic rival, Andrew Romanoff, has said that the commission needs to rule before the election. “Coloradans deserve the chance to weigh the facts before they vote next month and John Hickenlooper deserves the chance to clear his name,” he said in a statement.
First filed in October 2018, the ethics complaint filed against Hickenlooper by a conservative group involves five flights he took on corporate jets owned by his friends and transportation at the exclusive Bilderberg meetings in Turin, Italy. In addition, the complaint says he failed to disclose the gifts as required. Hickenlooper argues the travel is exempted from the state’s constitutional ethics ban and doesn’t need to be disclosed.
The escalating legal battle surrounding the hearing on the complaint is notable because of the intervention of national Democrats. His new attorney is Marc Elias, a high-profile Washington, D.C.-based attorney who represented Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Elias is being paid by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — led by U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who recruited Hickenlooper to run — to represent the candidate and his campaign. The committee endorsed Hickenlooper soon after he entered the race, picking favorites in a party primary and upsetting Democrats back in Colorado.
In addition to the legal case, Elias has asked to represent Hickenlooper before the ethics commission.
Hickenlooper also is represented by Grueskin, a prominent Denver attorney, who is paid by the state to represent the former governor given the complaint is related to his time in office.
Updated 11:45 a.m. June 4, 2020: This story was updated after it was originally published to include new information.