‘Disrespect For The Rule Of Law’: Colorado Ethics Commission Holds Hickenlooper In Contempt For Skipping Hearing

June 4, 2020
John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperAlex Brandon/AP
John Hickenlooper speaks during a presidential candidates forum sponsored by AARP and The Des Moines Register, Monday, July 15, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Updated 5:09 p.m.

The state’s Independent Ethics Commission unanimously voted to hold former Gov. John Hickenlooper in contempt after he skipped an ethics hearing on Thursday.

It was a day of drama that ended with his campaign reversing course and promising to make him available on Friday. Minutes later, a judge ordered him to attend the hearing.

Hickenlooper’s team has been fighting all week to keep the Senate candidate out of the hearing, which was held via WebEx teleconference software. They have argued that the virtual format is untested and unfair.

When the meeting began at 9 a.m., it was unclear whether Hickenlooper would show up. The IEC had issued a subpoena to compel him to testify, and a district court judge had declined to intervene. But the candidate still held out.

“He is currently in my view in contempt of that subpoena … in open violation of an order of this commission,” commission chair Elizabeth Espinosa Krupa said early in the session.

Hickenlooper’s team has argued that glitches and technical difficulties would infringe on his due rights as he tried to make his case. Indeed, the conference was plagued at times by strange sounds, barking dogs and even side conversations from observers.

“I thought I was in the hearing. Am I not in the hearing?” an audience member said after stumbling into the hearing. The commission was in a separate executive discussion at the time.

The hearing started to go more smoothly as the hours passed. The complainants, a Republican-led group called Public Trust Institute, called witnesses including Republican state Sen. Bob Gardner.

Hickenlooper is accused of illegally accepting valuable gifts in the form of free trips, especially airplane flights on private and corporate jets. His attorneys argue that the trips were allowed under exemptions for special occasions with personal friends, and for trips taken to conduct official state business.

The complainants’ case was argued by Suzanne Staiert, a Republican political candidate and former state official. Staiert argued that the gifts were from corporations, not personal friends. The flights were provided directly or indirectly by wealthy people like Kimball Musk, Kenneth Tuchman and Pat Meyers, who was Hickenlooper’s chief of staff.

“They were all lavish expenses that benefited Mr. Hickenlooper directly,” Staiert said.

But it was the legal maneuvering, not just the substance of the hearing, that will be the subject of political attack ads for months to come. 

When Hickenlooper did not appear in the morning, the commission voted unanimously to ask the attorney general to enforce their earlier subpoena. That set in motion another legal confrontation. If Hickenlooper doesn’t comply, Judge Christopher Baumann could send law enforcement after him.

The commissioners’ patience seemed thin by the end of the day. Midway through the afternoon, attorney Mark Grueskin asked for a delay so he could find Hickenlooper.

“I’m trying to get a hold of my client before I can put a position on the record,” he said, asking for another 15 minutes. ‘“I was wondering if I could get another 15 or 20 minutes to track him down so that I could be definitive with the commission.”

The commission chair responded that Hickenlooper “had the opportunity to be here all day.” The board kept considering a motion to admit evidence requested by Staiert. Ten minutes later, just before they voted, Grueskin interrupted with an apology.

“I have been trying to get to the governor,” he said. “The governor will accept and comply with the commission's subpoena. I cannot produce him today. I could definitely produce him on the 16th.”

The commission wasn’t inclined to help. Commissioner Selina Baschiera said that Hickenlooper’s camp had blamed the commission for earlier delays, and she said she didn’t trust that the former governor would appear.

"By failing to honor the subpoena of the commission, (Hickenlooper) has indicated a disrespect for the rule of law, a disrespect for the commission, a disrespect for the process, a disrespect for the parties and the witnesses,” said Commissioner William Leone, a former U.S. attorney.

Hickenlooper had incurred significant costs on the courts and the commission, he said.

The commission voted unanimously to hold Hickenlooper in contempt and reconvene the hearing Friday. They’ll decide whether to assess fines and legal costs or even to strike some of Hickenlooper’s legal defenses.

“We’ve had assurances before that he would show, and he didn’t,” Krupa said. 

Hickenlooper previously agreed to appear at an in-person hearing in March, which his campaign argues is far different than a virtual hearing. That earlier date was scuttled by the pandemic. But all the debate could be for naught: Hickenlooper’s campaign confirmed after the hearing that "if the commission calls him tomorrow he will be ready."

Minutes later, Judge Baumann made it a sure thing by ordering Hickenlooper to obey the IEC's subpoena. That order could be carried out by law enforcement if Hickenlooper defies it, including threats of fines and jail time.

Still, Hickenlooper's campaign said that technical glitches during the hearing had proved their original point.

“As reported, today’s meeting was a 'massive technical mess,' confirming concerns we’ve raised for months. In order to put an end to the partisan political circus orchestrated by a dark money Republican group, Gov. Hickenlooper offered to testify, and though that was rejected, he remains ready to appear,” said Melissa Miller, a campaign spokesperson, in a written statement.

It was at times difficult to hear testimony due to connection issues, and participants sometimes struggled to share documents. But commissioners said that staff had sorted out problems throughout the day and they were ultimately satisfied with the tech-powered hearing. Krupa, an attorney herself, noted that she’d argued in WebEx hearings throughout the pandemic.

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