Ethics Commission Subpoenas Hickenlooper, Setting Up Legal Faceoff Before Thursday Hearing

Matthew Putney/for CPR News
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks at the Story County Democrats Soup Supper, Feb. 23, 2019, in Ames, Iowa.

The state’s Independent Ethics Commission has ordered former Gov. John Hickenlooper to testify at a virtual hearing this week. But, his lawyer plans to fight for a delay, arguing that the video conference format would violate Hickenlooper’s legal rights.

The IEC plans to hold a hearing this Thursday to consider allegations that Hickenlooper improperly accepted gifts of air travel while he was governor

Hickenlooper’s team wants to delay the hearing until it can safely be held in person — perhaps in August, they have suggested. Alternatively, they asked to submit his testimony in writing. The question is time-sensitive because Hickenlooper is a candidate in the June 30 primary for the U.S. Senate.

Mark Grueskin, Hickenlooper’s attorney, argued that the commission is still struggling with its teleconferencing technology.

“With Commissioners and others working remotely during the COVID-19 Global Pandemic, plainly unfamiliar with the technology, and hobbled by inferior internet connections and no on-site technological support, there is no assurance that any of these issues will be resolved by June 4, let alone that the process will be ‘stellar,’” he said in a written filing. 

Glitches and delays could interfere with the commission’s ability to assess the body language and credibility of a witness, Grueskin argued.

The IEC rejected those arguments, saying in an earlier filing it was “plainly an attempt to avoid appearing at hearing.” It underlined that position on Monday, voting 5-0 to compel Hickenlooper’s appearance by issuing a subpoena. It issued the subpoena at the request of the complainant.

Hickenlooper’s team said it would challenge the order in district court, setting up more legal maneuvering and clashes ahead of the Thursday hearing. It would be the first time in at least five years that the commission has had to defend a subpoena.

The commission originally scheduled an in-person hearing in March; Hickenlooper said he would testify on that date, but the pandemic forced commissioners to cancel. Hickenlooper earlier spoke before the commission in a non-public investigative hearing.

The accusations against Hickenlooper were filed by the Public Trust Institute, a recently formed group led by a former Republican lawmaker. The complaint is focused on the idea that Hickenlooper took flights that should have been considered unlawful gifts. State law bans valuable gifts to elected officials.

Hickenlooper’s team argues that the flights were all allowed for various reasons. He paid his way for some of the travel, while other flights were exempted as special occasions with friends or as official government duties.

PTI said previously that it was open to a delay. Its leader, Frank McNulty, agreed that an in-person hearing “would be best.” But he has declined to officially request a delay. Instead, he has said he’s ready to move forward with the commission’s decision.

The campaign has dismissed the complaint as an attack by “dark money” Republican groups. Another group, Unite for Colorado, has run months of Facebook ads about the complaint. Hickenlooper has pushed back with his own ad called “Phony Smears.”

In an earlier filing, the IEC said that the virtual hearing is “most expeditious and satisfies all due process requirements.” It said it would allow a delay if both parties agreed.