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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)

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper accepted millions of dollars from corporations and nonprofits to fund initiatives and positions in his office — an arrangement that came with limited oversight and public disclosure despite the potential conflicts of interest.

The most significant corporate donations came from the oil and gas industry, where Anadarko Petroleum and Noble Energy gave at least $325,000 to Hickenlooper’s office in his second term alone, according to a months-long analysis of state records conducted by The Colorado Sun and CBS4 Denver. At least one donation from Anadarko came in May 2017, weeks after the deadly Firestone explosion that investigators traced back to a well owned by the company.

The companies sponsored the internship program in the governor’s office and initiatives related to veterans and childhood literacy, according to records and interviews. Other significant donations came from private foundations and nonprofits that funded efforts to address health care, homelessness and more. And the donors behind some contributions are listed as anonymous.

Hickenlooper is not the first Colorado governor to embrace corporate money for government expenses, and the practice has continued under his successor Gov. Jared Polis. Polis has accepted at least $700,000 from private foundations since 2019, in part to fund six positions in the governor’s office, The Sun and CBS4 found.

But Hickenlooper expanded the practice to a new level as a vocal proponent of public-private partnerships.

His ties to corporate interests are facing renewed scrutiny as he seeks the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in the June 30 primary. His campaign rival, Andrew Romanoff, the former state House speaker, is highlighting Hickenlooper’s close relationship with the oil and gas industry and past campaign contributions from energy executives.

Most of the entities that made the gifts, grants or donations worked on issues in front of state regulators or legislators, but the governor’s office did not have a written policy to prevent conflicts of interest. The analysis found no evidence that the donations were connected to official action taken by Hickenlooper’s administration.

Gov. John Hickenlooper speaking during a press conference in the west foyer of the Colorado State Capitol on Sept. 18, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

In an interview, Hickenlooper defended his decision to take the money and acknowledged his office should have had a policy to manage potential conflicts of interest. He doesn’t remember ever personally soliciting the contributions, but did pitch his initiatives at events in front of major funders. “I looked at it as a way to try to make the community better, especially at times when you are short funds,” he said.

“We tried to look at this as a frame of reference — that a good company that wanted to make the state better … they should have the opportunity, that was a good thing that they should have,” Hickenlooper said. He added: “If there was a sniff of politics in it, then we walked away.”

Donations spur questions about conflicts and legislative move for more oversight

The arrangement doesn’t pass the sniff test in the mind of Frank LoMonte, the director of the Brechner Center for the Freedom of Information at the University of Florida. “Big-dollar presents like that are the exact kind of things that ethics laws seek to prohibit and regulate,” he said in an interview.

In Colorado, the constitution prohibits gifts to public officials but does not appear to prohibit gifts and grants to the state from corporations. (The ban also includes a 12-month statute of limitations, which means complaints against Hickenlooper, who left office in January 2019, would not be considered valid.)

Further he suggested the donations allow corporations to circumvent campaign finance laws that prevent them from donating to state-level and federal candidates in Colorado.

“Even if it’s well-intentioned, and there is no influence buying going on, it just raises all sorts of red flags that it could influence the direction of policy and it could influence what legislation is prioritized,” ” LoMonte said.

“If not influence, it could give preferred access to the governor,” he added.

In a statement, Romanoff called for more transparency. “We deserve to know how much oil and gas money Mr. Hickenlooper raised, when he raised it, and what these companies got in return,” he said. “Keeping this money under the table doesn’t pass Hick’s own ‘sniff’ test.”

When asked about potential conflicts, Hickenlooper disputed the idea but acknowledged it’s a perception issue. “Perception is an important thing and it’s possible people could have gotten the wrong impression,” he said.

He acknowledged the potential political liability of his administration’s actions at a recent campaign forum where he was asked what Republicans will use to attack his campaign. “They’re going to attack my paperwork when I was governor. They’re going to attack — was I helping shovel money one way or another. They’re going to come out and look at anything they can come up with,” he said in a reference to the political fallout from this story by The Sun and CBS4.

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

More than half the states allow public-private partnerships, according to the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures. But in Colorado and other states the so-called P3s are typically reserved for big-ticket items like roads and airports and come with strict oversight protections to ward off potential conflicts.

Colorado lawmakers have begun allowing more private grant funding to cover programs approved in legislation as a replacement for scarce public dollars with various levels of reporting required. But the private dollars flowing into the governor’s office rarely — if ever — get reported to the state lawmakers who oversee the budget, and no state laws appear to govern the practice, which dates back decades through Republican and Democratic administrations.

The Democratic-led legislature blocked a request earlier this year from Republican lawmakers to audit a $1 million account controlled by the governor’s office. But Sen. Dominick Moreno, a budget writer from Commerce City, said findings from The Sun and CBS4 investigations should lead to more transparency about how governors accept and spend money.

He plans to put forward legislation next year to add more accountability about gifts, grants and donations in the governor’s office. “We have received a number of budget requests that seek to continue some of these positions that were originally seeded with private dollars,” said Moreno, the vice-chairman of the Joint Budget Committee. “Ultimately, it’s the governor’s office that’s going to have to explain to voters what they use those funds for and they’re going to be held accountable to voters.”

MORE: Hickenlooper faces renewed pressure and questions about his administration’s spending in final months

A lack of transparency makes money to governor’s office hard to track

Asked about the idea, Hickenlooper expressed support. “There are also dozens and dozens, probably hundreds, of different grants that come from the federal government various ways that are outside the purview of the Joint Budget Committee,” he said in the interview. “I think you make a good point that maybe that all those financial resources should be in some sort of database in real time and in one place.”

In his two terms, Hickenlooper said his office “tried to be as transparent as we could be,” pointing to government websites and annual reports that mentioned the sponsorships in passing. But most of the huge donations went unnoticed until The Sun and CBS4 discovered them earlier this year in a state transparency database.

The accounting information the state provides in the Transparency Online Project — which was revamped by Hickenlooper administration — is limited, and records from his first term were not immediately available because they are housed in an older system.

The transactions reported are not consistent, making it difficult to calculate how many donations were received. For instance, in May 2017, weeks after the Firestone explosion, the database shows three donations from Anadarko Petroleum for a total of $68,000 in the same transaction, but shows two donations of the same amount.

In addition, the database doesn’t note when donations are returned. Two $35,000 donations from Noble Energy made in 2017 were returned by the Hickenlooper administration, according to the Polis administration.

Noble Energy disclosed one $5,000 contribution in 2018 on its report of political activity to shareholders that didn’t appear in a quick search of the state’s database. Both companies declined to answer questions about the money.

The Sun requested records from the state related to all grants and donations the governors received in the past decade, but the Polis administration said it would cost $1,200. A cost waiver was declined.

The source and timing of donations overlapped with state business

Instead, The Sun and CBS4 analyzed a subset of more than 50 donations or grants from corporations, foundations and nonprofit organizations during Hickenlooper’s second term that amounted to more than $1 million.

In addition to Noble Energy and Anadarko, which is now Occidental Petroleum, the records show other companies that made donations included Lockheed Martin, financial firm BERI Management, CoBank, State Farm, Southwest Airlines and Safeway. The database does not list the purpose for the money or how it was spent, but the governor’s office said much of it went toward the Denver Post’s Pedal the Plains ride or One Book Colorado.

A public records request to the state Department of Personnel and Administration for transaction-level details for the 50 donations went unanswered. But the Polis administration later provided details about a handful of those identified by The Sun and CBS4.

The source of the money and the timing of certain donations raises questions about how it overlaps with state business:

  • Southwest Airlines made donations over multiple years starting in 2016 for One Book Colorado. A year earlier, Hickenooper spoke at the company’s Denver airport terminal for an “Acts of Kindness” campaign. 
  • The Safeway Foundation donated at least $10,000 and possibly as much as $30,000 two months before the governor signed a bill expanding beer sales to grocery stores. 
  • The private foundation led by former DaVita CEO Kent Thiry’s family donated $125,000 in 2015 and 2016 to an unspecified homelessness initiative. Hickenlooper helped recruit the company’s headquarters to Denver in 2015.
  • The Bezos Family Foundation, led by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, donated $15,000 to One Book Colorado the same month in 2017 that the company announced a new facility in Colorado. A foundation spokeswoman said the sponsorship allowed them to put a sticker in the back of the book advertising their free education resources. 

In other cases, grants to the governor’s office allowed advocacy organizations and nonprofits to make their issues a priority. Four foundations and organizations combined to provide $140,000 over two years to fund a program that included a statewide coordinator position in the governor’s office to work on family economic stability in a program called Two Gen.

Elsewhere, the Colorado Health Foundation gave the Hickenlooper administration a $105,000 grant over three years for a health care specialist within the governor’s internship program. 

The governor’s office applied for the grant and the foundation considered it “capacity building” for them. Spokeswoman Taryn Fort said the foundation “did not have any part in this program aside from funding it.”

Hickenlooper said his administration — not the organizations — drove the direction of the programs. “Our agenda was always the agenda first with specific and clear goals and to my knowledge we never compromised that,” he said.

CBS4 Denver is a reporting partner of The Colorado Sun.

Boyd is the political specialist at CBS4, The Colorado Sun's political news partner.

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