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Colorado ethics panel orders John Hickenlooper to pay $2,750 for two violations

Colorado's former governor was found to have violated the state’s gift ban and was found in contempt for skipping a hearing

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)
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Colorado’s Independent Ethics Commission on Friday ordered former Gov. John Hickenlooper to pay the state $2,750 for two illegal gifts he accepted while governor.

The panel voted 4-0 to impose a $2,200 fine for a trip to Connecticut on a private jet owned by a top political donor. It then voted 4-1 to impose a separate fine of $550 for a Maserati limousine ride he took in Italy. Commission chairwoman Elizabeth Espinosa Krupa abstained on the first penalty and then cast the lone no vote on the second.

In a two-hour video-conference hearing, the commission also unanimously voted to affirm a contempt finding issued last week when the former governor initially refused to attend its video hearing. But panel members decided not to impose any penalties or seek attorneys’ fees relating to contempt. 

Hickenlooper’s attorney Mark Grueskin had asked the panel to dismiss the contempt issue because Hickenlooper testified the day after he had originally been asked to appear. 

“Some of the arguments that were made and the request to stop the hearing I thought were especially offensive,” commission member Bill Leone said. 

The ethics commission last week determined Hickenlooper violated the state’s constitutional gift ban by accepting flights on private jets and attending an exclusive conference in Italy.

Hickenlooper did not speak during Friday’s hearing, but “Governor Hickenlooper accepts the Commission’s findings and takes responsibility,” Melissa Miller, a Hickenlooper campaign spokeswoman, said in a statement afterward.

MORE: John Hickenlooper violated Colorado’s gift ban, state ethics commission rules

Hickenlooper, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to take on Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in November, also was found in contempt last week when he defied a subpoena to testify at a hearing. He eventually testified the next day.

Hickenlooper has not said whether he will pay back taxpayers for the cost of his state-paid attorney. Those fees now exceed $125,000, according to state records.

Gardner was quick to pounce on the commission’s findings and highlight the attorney costs.

“It’s now up to Governor Hickenlooper to do the right thing: take full responsibility for violating the Colorado Constitution and pay back Colorado taxpayers over $127,000 for his taxpayer-funded attorney fees,” Gardner said in a statement.

Hickenlooper’s opponent in the Democratic primary, Andrew Romanoff, also issued a statement noting how much taxpayers have spent on Hickenlooper’s defense.

“When he said he wasn’t ‘cut out’ to be a senator, we didn’t know he’d try so hard to prove it,” Romanoff’s statement said.

The ethics complaint against Hickenlooper was filed in October 2018 by the conservative Public Trust Institute.

The first violation came when Hickenlooper took a March 2018 trip to Connecticut for the commissioning of the Navy’s USS Colorado submarine, the ethics panel concluded. 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.

The second instance involved Hickenlooper’s June 2018 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 also rode in a limousine at the conference. 

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

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

The amount of the fines ordered by the commission was based on a partial estimate of the costs of the two trips. 

Three other private flights aboard company planes owned by friends did not violate the state’s constitutional ban on public officials receiving gifts, the ethics panel concluded. The 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.

Hickenlooper snubbed the first day of last week’s video-conference hearing, objecting to the video conference format put in place amid the pandemic, and he was held in contempt by the commission. But he testified last 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.

Hickenlooper filed a lawsuit earlier that week asking a judge to move the hearing to August. 

Voters approved Amendment 41 in 2006. It created the Independent Ethics Commission and a gift ban for public officials in the state constitution. The language prohibits all monetary gifts, as well as any item of value from lobbyists.

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