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Politics and Government

John Hickenlooper’s legal defense against ethics complaint cost taxpayers $150,000, a final tally shows

Colorado paid an outside attorney $525 an hour to represent the former governor against the ethics complaint first made in October 2018

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper turns in petition signatures to secure his spot in the 2020 U.S. Senate Democratic primary on Feb. 19, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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Taxpayers spent $150,000 to defend former Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s against an ethics complaint that led to two violations of the state’s gift ban, records show.

The final cost of the legal expenses matches the maximum allowed in a contract with Mark Grueskin. The prominent Democratic election attorney represented Hickenlooper on behalf of the state after a conservative nonprofit filed two ethics complaints against him in late 2018 just months before he left office.

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The practice of hiring an outside counsel for such matters is routine, but the cost of the defense is a political touchpoint in the U.S. Senate race, where Hickenlooper is challenging Republican incumbent Cory Gardner. Hickenlooper is facing a barrage of attacks from Gardner’s Republican allies related to the violations and the cost of his legal defense.

Gardner has called on Hickenlooper to repay the legal costs from his own pocket, but Hickenlooper has rebuffed the suggestions even as he said he accepted responsibility for the violations. A campaign spokeswoman did not return calls Thursday seeking comment on the expenses.

The case concluded Aug. 19 with the release of the 19-page written opinion from the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission that determined Hickenlooper violated the state’s ban for elected officials when he took a flight on a corporate jet owned by a top political donor and a ride in a Maserati limousine at an exclusive conference in Italy. Four other flights on private jets were found not to be violations.

The expenses are detailed in a series of invoices obtained by The Colorado Sun from the governor’s office. The records are incomplete — and other reports estimate a slightly different total — but Jenna Goldstein, the office’s deputy legal counsel, told The Sun the final cost amounted to $150,000 and no additional costs are expected.

The final invoice came in late July and covered the hearing before the commission and a subsequent June 12 penalty phase, during which the commission fined Hickenlooper $2,750. Grueskin earned $525 an hour for his work and a legal assistant at his firm Recht Kornfeld billed $150 an hour, the records show. The ethics commission discussed the case at virtual hearings in July and August but no comments from either side were allowed and Grueskin did not bill the state for listening to the meetings.

Hickenlooper initially defied a subpoena to appear at the hearing and was held in contempt by the commission. But it’s not clear from the records whether additional legal expenses were incurred by the state related to Hickenlooper challenging the subpoena.

In addition to the state-paid counsel, Marc Elias, a prominent national Democratic Party attorney, joined Hickenlooper’s defense for the ethics case. Hickenlooper’s federal campaign finance records show $151,000 in payments to Elias’ firm Perkins Coie through June 30, including $83,300 from April through the end of the reporting period when the ethics case neared a hearing. It’s not clear if any of the payments to Perkins Coie were related to the ethics case. The campaign also said at one point that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is supporting Hickenlooper, hired Elias. 

The state money for Hickenlooper’s legal defense came from an account with leftover federal dollars provided to Colorado in the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003. The legislation included the second round of tax cuts from President George W. Bush, as well as fiscal relief for states after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the recession that followed.

Gardner and his Republicans allies misleadingly label the money as a 9/11 economic recovery fund even though the legislation was more expansive

The federal package allowed the state latitude to use the money on essential government services and the type of expenses permitted in the state budget, but U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, filed a complaint with the U.S. treasury in August alleging misspending of federal dollars. A Lamborn spokeswoman said the complaint is still pending.

Lindsey Singer, a spokeswoman for Colorado Rising Action, a conservative group that is using the ethics complaint to undercut Hickenlooper’s campaign, said the candidate should repay the legal fees incurred by the state. 

“Hickenlooper is a millionaire, and he’s more than able to pay back Coloradans,” she said, referring to his net worth. “He lost his case and Colorado’s budget is struggling right now, so there’s lots of things that Colorado could use that money for right now.”

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