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

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper violated state law when he took a flight aboard a corporate jet owned by a top political donor and accepted transportation in a Maserati limousine at a conference in Italy, an ethics panel ruled Friday.

Three other private flights aboard company planes owned by friends did not violate the state’s constitutional ban on public officials receiving gifts. The Colorado Independent Ethics Commission rejected those elements of the complaint after deciding that the travel fit an exemption in the law because it was a gift from a friend or a benefit to the state.

The verdict in the case — the state’s most high-profile ethics trial since voters approved the ban in 2006 — came after a two-day hearing that started dramatically with Hickenlooper refusing to testify and being held in contempt. The commission delayed a decision about potential sanctions for the ethics violations and the contempt charge to June 12, but he faces a fine that amounts to double the benefits he received. 

“If we allow this kind of special privately financed treatment for elected officials, it just accentuates the cynicism in the public that led to Amendment 41,” said Bill Leone, a commission member and a former U.S. attorney who voted in favor of the violations. 

The more immediate impact is political. The complaint was filed in October 2018 by the conservative Public Trust Institute. And now Hickenlooper is vying to be the Democratic nominee in the U.S. Senate race against Republican incumbent Cory Gardner, and the decision comes just days before voters begin receiving their ballots for the June 30 primary. 

Shortly after the decision, Hickenlooper’s campaign issued a statement that did not address the substance of the commission’s rulings, but it acknowledged that they expect it to be exploited in negative campaign ads.

Democratic rival Andrew Romanoff emphasized that it was the ethics commission, not Republicans, that found him in contempt and violation of the state constitution. “The commission’s message is clear — and Coloradans agree: no one is above the law,” Romanoff said in a statement.

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

Hickenlooper testifies after avoiding first day of hearing

Hickenlooper snubbed the first day of the video-conference hearing but testified Friday after a Denver District Court judge moved to enforce the subpoena at the request of the Colorado Attorney General’s office, which represents the ethics commission.

He appeared in a shirt and tie from his Denver home and answered questions in a sober tone as an attorney for the conserative nonprofit behind the complaint peppered him with questions about his travel in 2018, his final year in office. He didn’t recall most of the details regarding the trips at the center of the complaint but portrayed each as part of his mission to bring economic development to Colorado. 

The trip to Connecticut in March 2018 for the commissioning of the Navy’s USS Colorado submarine drew the most questions. Instead of flying on a commercial airline like other state officials, Hickenlooper rode on a private plane owned by MDC Holdings, a Colorado-based homebuilder, led by Larry Mizel, a supporter who is also a top fundraiser for President Donald Trump. The then-governor also attended private dinners for the MDC delegation.

Hickenlooper said he considered Mizel a friend and suggested the flight benefited the state because it allowed him to shorten his travel time. He said he did not discuss state business with Mizel and the trip was not related to his actions as governor.

“We are constantly trying to present the state in as positive a way as possible and make sure that in those opportunities where we really can build those relationships, get the maximum time,” he said.

The commission debated the arguments at length before voting 4 to 1 in favor of finding Hickenlooper in violation. “The voters, when they adopted Amendment 41, were trying to make a broader, more prophylactic rule to try to make government have more integrity,” said Leone, a commissioner Hickenlooper first appointed who was recently reappointed by the state Senate. “And I think they were concerned about the stockpiling, if you will, or warehousing of political favors through gift giving.”

The other violation affirmed by the commission came in a unanimous vote. It involved Hickenlooper’s travel to the exclusive Bilderberg meetings in Turin, Italy, that featured top CEOs and heads of state. Hickenlooper spoke on a panel at the meeting about economic development and paid for his flight and hotel. 

He testified that he assumed the $1,500 he paid for four nights at the hotel covered the entire cost of the conference and he didn’t know he needed to reimburse for transportation, meals and other benefits. 

A preliminary investigation found that Fiat Chrysler Automobiles paid for the conference, including the transportation and other related benefits. Hickenlooper said he didn’t realize it.

At the conference, Hickenlooper was photographed on the trip riding in a Maserati limousine to the airport. But he said he didn’t realize it. “To be honest, I didn’t notice,” he told the commission. “It certainly didn’t feel like a limousine and didn’t look at or notice what the brand was.”

Other complaints didn’t meet the bar for violations

The other flights aboard private planes that the commission dismissed were all deemed personal gifts from friends.

One involved a flight aboard billionaire Ken Tuchman’s plane from the New York City area back to Colorado after his wife underwent a medical procedure. Hickenlooper said politics weren’t involved in the trip, but he attended a Bloomberg Philanthropy conference and had lunch with Vernon Jordan, a top former Democratic official, at which they discussed a potential 2020 presidential bid.

A commissioner said Hickenlooper’s testimony helped lead to her decision to acquit him on that count.

Two more were from Washington, D.C., aboard a plane owned by a company connected to his chief of staff, Pat Meyers. And the other was a flight from Texas home to Colorado aboard restaurateur Kimbal Musk’s private plane. Hickenlooper traveled to Texas to officiate Musk’s wedding. The groom is the brother of billionaire Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX.

Even in these situations, the commission felt uneasy about consenting to the travel. “What I see is an uncomfortable creep to find more and more friendship and more and more special occasions,” said Yeulin Willett, a former Republican state lawmaker on the commission. “Given that history of creep I’d like to pump the brakes on that a little.”

A handful of other trips first listed in the complaint as potential violations were dismissed months ago by the commission. But Frank McNulty, the former Republican state House speaker who filed the complaint for the institute, said the commission’s verdict reaffirmed their work. “At the outset we said that John Hickenlooper broke the law as governor,” he said in a statement. “Now Colorado knows that John Hickenlooper illegally accepted gifts from U.S. and foreign corporations.”

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