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

The political ramifications of the ethics complaint against John Hickenlooper, the national Democratic favorite to help retake control of the U.S. Senate, just went from bad to worse.

The Colorado Independent Ethics Commission on Thursday voted unanimously to hold the former governor in contempt after he defied a subpoena to testify at a hearing about whether he accepted improper gifts in the form of flights on private corporate jets when he was governor.

His decision not to appear at the video-conference hearing only amplified the stature of a complaint filed by a conservative group, turning it into a broader question about Hickenlooper’s disregard for the law.

“By failing to honor the subpoena of the commission, the respondent has indicated a disrespect for the rule of law,” said commissioner Bill Leone, a former U.S. attorney who was appointed to the ethics board by Hickenlooper and then again by the state Senate.

Earlier in the day, Hickenlooper’s successor, Gov. Jared Polis, who spent significant sums to pass the 2006 ballot measure that created the ethics commission and the gift ban, touted the process and thanked the panel for its work. Amendment 41 “created a process — a fair quasi-judicial process — for evaluating transgression in as nonpartisan a way as possible,” the Democrat said when asked about Hickenlooper’s absence.

The commission is still considering potential sanctions for Hickenlooper — fines or even the dismissal of his arguments against the complaint because he didn’t make them at the hearing. A decision on the issue and a verdict in the case is expected Friday. 

His back against the wall, Hickenlooper relented later in the day and now says he will appear Friday if called to testify, according to a spokeswoman.

MORE: What you need to know about the ethics complaint against John Hickenlooper, explained in 6 questions

Hickenlooper’s political rivals used contempt charge as an attack line

All the political trouble came on a case that is now 20 months old and flew largely under the radar during Hickenlooper’s unsuccessful presidential bid and the early days of the Senate race. The renewed interest driven by his failure to cooperate now comes in the middle of the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, where Hickenlooper is competing against Andrew Romanoff. The winner will challenge U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, who is considered one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents, in the November election.

The ballots in the primary race will begin hitting the mail Monday. Romanoff, the former state House speaker who is challenging the national Democratic establishment in his bid, said after the hearing that “Hickenlooper should testify now.”

“Coloradans deserve a chance to weigh the facts before they vote next week,” Romanoff added.

Republicans pounced on the contempt ruling — a preview of what Gardner and his allies are expected to use against the Democratic candidate if he makes it to the fall campaign. “No one is above the law and it is time for John Hickenlooper to answer for his pattern of ethics abuses,” Colorado Republican Party spokesman Joe Jackson said in a statement.

Hickenlooper’s refusal to show recalled his repeated attacks against the Republican-led U.S. Senate ahead of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. He called a trial without witnesses and evidence “a sham” and said at one point: “This shouldn’t be hard. No one’s above the law.”

Democratic strategist Jason Bane, who supports Hickenlooper, pointed to recent polls showing Gardner’s dismal popularity ratings. “I suppose this helps Gardner a little, but it’s like giving him an umbrella in a hurricane,” he said.

Dan Baer, a former Democratic U.S. Senate candidate who is now backing Hickenlooper, suggested it is merely a distraction. “There’s no amount of political theater that’s going to fool voters into seeing this as something other than a desperate and futile move to save a GOP incumbent that is on his way to losing badly,” he said.

MORE: Hickenlooper didn’t always reimburse travel on private planes, report says. An ethics panel will decide if that was illegal.

Five private flights and ritzy conference at issue in the complaint

The entire situation escalated a week ago when Hickenlooper said he would not testify at a remote hearing because it would impinge on his due-process rights. The commission issued a subpoena Monday to compel his testimony and a Denver judge backed the order dismissing Hickenlooper’s claims that the format would lead to an unfair hearing.

Hickenlooper’s legal team filed an appeal minutes before the hearing, but the commission directed Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser to enforce the subpoena in court. Hickenlooper filed another legal challenge to quash it, but later in the day the same judge upheld the order.

The hearing moved forward as Suzanne Staiert, an attorney for the conservative Public Trust Institute, which filed the complaint, presented evidence showing that Hickenlooper took five flights on corporate jets owned by his friends and attended the exclusive Bilderberg meetings in Italy in 2018 without paying for the conference. 

“These trips all have a few things in common: they were all bought and paid for by corporations; they all had potential conflicts of interest; they were all lavish expenditures that benefited Mr. Hickenlooper directly; he didn’t reimburse a single one,” she said in her opening statement.

Mark Grueskin, Hickenlooper’s state-funded attorney, participated in the hearing. But when it came time for Hickenlooper’s testimony near 2 p.m., he remained absent. “He is not appearing,” Grueskin told the commission. “He is pursuing an appeal.”

He later said his client could attend the panel’s next meeting, on June 16, but could not participate on Thursday. Elizabeth Espinosa Krupa, the commissioner chairwoman, rejected the idea, alluding to the fact that Hickenlooper volunteered to testify for months but changed his mind a week before the hearing. “We’ve had assurances before that he’d show and he didn’t,” she said.

John Frank

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.