February 25, 2014 Updated: February 25, 2014 at 5:24 pm
DENVER - The Colorado Ethics Commission ruled Tuesday that three commissioners who donated to Gov. John Hickenlooper's campaign prior to joining the board do not have a conflict that precludes them from deciding on a complaint against the governor.
Commissioner William Leone said that the board, by nature of being appointed by politicians in office, will have political activity in their backgrounds, but that activity doesn't weigh into decisions that are inherently non-political.
Compass Colorado, a nonprofit group, filed a complaint against Hickenlooper saying it was a violation of the Colorado Constitution's gift ban for him to accept a free hotel room at the Democratic Governors Association convention in Aspen.
The complaint also asserts it was a misuse of state resources for Hickenlooper's staff to be involved in planning the clearly partisan event.
Jack Finlaw, chief legal counsel for Hickenlooper, responded to the complaint in December, saying the hotel room was not a gift because in exchange Hickenlooper donated his time and expertise to the policy discussions occurring at the conference.
Finlaw said the staff work on the event was based on policy questions not partisan events.
Attorney for Compass Colorado Geoff Blue filed a motion that the ethics commission pass the case off to an administrative law judge because three of the commissioners having donated to Hickenlooper's campaign.
"This body sits as a judge in this case and it shouldn't be sitting in judgement of a case where the defendant has received donations from three of the commissioners," Blue said. "It's not whether we think that this commission is biased . it's an appearance issue."
There are five appointed commissioners, so if three recused themselves there wouldn't be a quorum left to hear the issue.
Finlaw argued it's not a partisan issue so there is no conflict.
He said the ruling will have bipartisan repercussions because elected officials from both sides of the aisle have participated in partisan events similar to the Democratic Governors Association.
"The governor in this case has done what many of his predecessors have done, both Democratic and Republican," Finlaw said.
He added that the governor's office is being as transparent as possible so the commission can apply the law and give guidance on such events for the future.
He said a ruling against Hickenlooper wouldn't be "politically embarrassing."
Blue said its important for the commission to appear nonpartisan and the campaign donations make that impossible.
"There are some very interesting policy questions and I think everyone on the commission is going to work very hard, very conscientiously, to decide those issues," said Leone, who is among the three who donated to Hickenlooper's campaign.
The full hearing on the ethics complaint is scheduled for March 31. Both sides must give commissioners their evidence and witnesses my March 6, and the commission may use an investigator to research the facts presented.
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