Hickenlooper Owes Colorado $2,750 For Ethics Violations

June 12, 2020
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks at the Story County Democrats Soup Supper, Feb. 23, 2019, in Ames, Iowa.Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks at the Story County Democrats Soup Supper, Feb. 23, 2019, in Ames, Iowa.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 mission of the Independent Ethics Commission on Friday was simple: figure out how much money John Hickenlooper owes the state.

They looked over screenshots from car booking websites, considered the cost of commercial airfare to Connecticut and did some advanced guesstimation.

In the end, they decided to fine the former governor $2,750 for violating the state's "gift ban." They voted last week that Hickenlooper improperly accepted gifts of travel during trips to Connecticut for a submarine commissioning and to Italy for a conference. On Friday, they had to calculate the value of the improper gifts to determine his penalty.

It was an inexact science. The complainants, a group led by former Republican officials, had submitted their own ideas about the costs of a flight aboard a plane owned by a homebuilding company and the value of a ride in a Maserati limousine. But the commissioners at times relied their own best guesses.

"I do remain concerned about the lack of evidence (for the value of the gifts) but realize we sometimes just have to bring a practical approach to these matters so that people don't get away with accepting a valuable gift without consequence," said Commissioner Yeulin Willett.

Commissioner Bill Leone pressed Hickenlooper's attorney, Mark Grueskin, about the value of the flight aboard a corporate plane to the commissioning of the USS Colorado in Connecticut. The plane was owned by homebuilder MDC Holdings, whose chairman was involved in funding the commissioning ceremonies.

"With all due respect, I have no idea what the cost of an airplane flying from Denver to Groton is," Grueskin said. Willett said that $2,000 seemed reasonable based on his experience with a private pilot friend.

Also up for debate was Hickenlooper's trip to the Bilderberg Meetings in Turin, Italy. The former governor paid for airfare and lodging, but he claims he was unaware that a sponsor, Fiat Chrysler, provided security, transportation and meals. To settle on a figure, the IEC reviewed printouts from the booking website Talixo, which were provided by the complaining party.

"I don’t know when this was printed. Was this 2018 rates, or was this rates for 2020?" said commission chair Elizabeth Espinosa Krupa at one point in the discussion.

"At some level, the collective wisdom of five people ought to be able to to make a reasonable estimate of fancy ground transportation," Willett said.

The meals, reportedly, were buffets.

The commission voted unanimously to penalize Hickenlooper $2,200 for the Connecticut trip. Krupa abstained from a 4-0 vote to add on $550 for the Italy trip, since she hadn't voted to find Hickenlooper in the wrong for that case.

The IEC decided not to penalize Hickenlooper for defying a subpoena and skipping the first day of the virtual hearing last week. Hickenlooper, also a U.S. Senate candidate in the June 30 primary, contended that the virtual format was untested and unfair.

Hickenlooper's campaign released a short statement: Governor Hickenlooper accepts the Commission’s findings and takes responsibility."

In a debate this week, he took the same line, but continued to argue that the entire complaint was part of a dark-money smear campaign. Hickenlooper's attorney, Grueskin, has billed the state for close to $125,000 for his service in the case, according to a source in state government.

State officials did not immediately respond this week to a request for public records on the payments. Grueskin couldn't immediately confirm that figure, saying his bookkeeper was out of the office. It's common practice for taxpayers to cover attorney costs for cases that arise against public officials in the course of their duties.

Hickenlooper's Republican opponent was quick to speak out on the commission's ruling.

"Last week Governor Hickenlooper became the first governor in Colorado history to have been found in violation of the Colorado Constitution and held in contempt by the Independent Ethics Commission," Sen. Cory Gardner said in a statement sent by his campaign. "Today, the Commission levied its highest fine ever against Hickenlooper."

Gardner said Hickenlooper should refund the state for the money spent on his defense.