Here’s The Story Behind Cory Gardner’s Pointed Ethics Jabs At John Hickenlooper

October 16, 2020

In terms of presidential politics, Colorado has lost a bit of its luster as a battleground state. That's not the case if you look at the contested race for the Senate. The winner of the contest between incumbent Republican Sen. Cory Gardner and his Democratic challenger, former Gov. John Hickenlooper, will most likely be the lynchpin for whoever gets control of the chamber.

You've seen the almost inescapable TV political ads between the two, now you can get the backstory.

The Claim:

Sen. Cory Gardner’s attacks against John Hickenlooper have centered on a recent case before the state ethics commission.

“Only one governor has been convicted of violating state ethics laws,” Gardner said in one recent ad. “Hickenlooper took illegal gifts, traveled by corporate jet, toured Europe illegally in a Maserati.”

The Backstory: 

Hickenlooper was not “convicted” of a crime in a court of law. 

The state Independent Ethics Commission did find that he had broken state law by accepting gifts in the form of travel accommodations for two trips. He was ordered to pay a fine of $2,750 in June.

The ethics complaints against Hickenlooper started during his final year in office as governor when a Republican-backed group obtained details through public records requests about numerous trips he took. The group alleged that Hickenlooper had violated the state’s ethics rules because he had improperly accepted valuable gifts. The state’s constitutional “gift ban” says elected officials can only accept gifts below a certain value — at the time, the limit was $59.

The state’s Independent Ethics Commission took up the case and investigated the numerous cases listed in the complaint. The commission is a group appointed by the governor, the legislature and the chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court. It was formed in 2007, during the tenure of Hickenlooper’s predecessor Bill Ritter.

The travel in question included:

  • A trip aboard a private jet owned by a homebuilder to attend the commissioning of the U.S.S. Colorado submarine in Connecticut.
  • A trip to Italy for the Bilderberg Meetings conference. Hickenlooper paid for his own airfare and the conference cost, but the conference’s corporate sponsor provided meals and travel, including a pick up from the airport in a Maserati limousine.
  • A trip home from New Jersey aboard an acquaintance’s plane after Hickenlooper’s wife had surgery.
  • A trip home from Dallas aboard Kimbal Musk’s plane after officiating Musk’s wedding.
  • A trip from Washington, D.C. to Jackson Hole, Wyoming aboard a leased private plane with his chief of staff, Patrick Meyers.

Hickenlooper’s team said that the trips fell under various exemptions under the law, including allowances for gifts from friends and trips on official business. The IEC ultimately voted that the Connecticut and Italy trips were not allowed.

The former governor also angered the ethics commissioners when he skipped the first day of the hearing, despite the commission’s subpoena ordering him to appear. His lawyers argued that he shouldn’t have to appear because he was still appealing for a delay in the hearing. His team argued the virtual format would violate Hickenlooper’s due process rights.

Looking For Ballot Assistance? Check Out Our 2020 Voter Guide

The IEC voted to hold him in contempt and asked the Attorney General’s office to compel his testimony. One member said Hickenlooper showed “disrespect for the rule of law.” Hickenlooper appeared on the second day and testified at the virtual hearing. 

Republicans have turned it into a central part of their attack campaign against Hickenlooper, which seeks to paint the former governor as unethical and corrupt.

Gardner’s attack also alleges that Hickenlooper “sold positions in his office for big corporate checks.” 

That is apparently a reference to an investigation by The Colorado Sun and CBS4, which found that various foundations and business interests, from health care to oil-and-gas companies, donated money that paid for specific staffing positions and initiatives in the governor’s office. 

Hickenlooper was “not the first Colorado governor to embrace corporate money for government expenses,” but he “expanded the practice to a new level,” the Sun reported. The article found no evidence that companies received a quid pro quo in exchange for their money.

Read more about how we're covering Election 2020 here.