John Hickenlooper Will Face An Ethics Hearing On Private Flights — Soon, Maybe?

John Hickenlooper Gun Sense
Charlie Neibergall/AP
Then Democratic presidential candidate former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks at the Presidential Gun Sense Forum, in Des Moines, Iowa, Aug. 10, 2019.

One of Colorado's most closely watched political dramas will culminate in a day-long courtroom-style hearing. Soon-ish.

The state's ethics commission tentatively plans to hear the case involving John Hickenlooper, the former governor, and current U.S. Senate candidate, on March 17. Hickenlooper faces a complaint that he accepted improper gifts in the form of free air travel.

"We finally feel like we're seeing some progress with the case moving forward," said Suzanne Staiert, an attorney for the group pressing the complaint against Hickenlooper.

But the Independent Ethics Commission didn't confirm the exact date at its meeting Wednesday morning. The hearing could move earlier if facilities are available, but the commission doesn't currently have an appropriate room for its February meeting. It will confirm the March 17 date later.

The case first got underway more than a year ago, when former Republican state Speaker of the House Frank McNulty filed the complaint through his newly formed group, Public Trust Institute.

The current case covers six trips in 2018, although McNulty originally raised questions about earlier travel too. His complaint argues that the flights were illegal gifts under the state constitution. Gifts must be reported and can't exceed a token value.

Hickenlooper's team has countered each claim. For flights paid for by the developer Larry Mizel and the billionaire Kenneth Tuchman, they argued that they were exempted as "special occasions" involving personal friends. They also have argued that some of the flights were for official government duties.

Another flight to Turin, Italy was funded by the governor himself, they said. And a trip on restaurateur Kimbal Musk's jet was allowed, Hickenlooper's representatives argued in part, because it came in exchange for a service: Hickenlooper was officiating Musk's wedding. He also reportedly wrote Musk a $1,000 check for the flight that was never cashed, the commission's report stated.

Other flights were on a plane leased by Hickenlooper's chief of staff, Patrick Meyers.

“... (T)he Governor paid for certain expenses about which ethical concerns have been raised. The State paid for certain others that pertained to State business. And, as is permitted by law, personal friends absorbed a limited universe of other such costs,” Hickenlooper's representatives wrote in a response.

An earlier attempt to dismiss the case was rejected.

Staiert said that she hoped the case would serve as a warning to other elected officials to obey the constitution. Staiert also is running for a state senate seat.

When the case is finally heard, it could take as little as a day, officials said. The commission will then make a decision

Republicans have used the complaint as a bludgeon against Hickenlooper, hoping to damage his campaign to unseat U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner.

In a statement, Hickenlooper's campaign said that he had followed the state's ethics guidelines and dismissed the complaints as a "partisan group funded by secret money to try to tear down the governor."

Hickenlooper is being represented by top Democratic attorney Mark Grueskin at a taxpayer-funded cost of $525 an hour, The Denver Post reported -- a standard practice for elected officials. Grueskin declined to comment on how his rate was determined.

The ethics commission's members are appointed by the legislature, the governor and the state's chief justice. The commission can punish violations by charging fines.