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Ethics panel dismisses complaint against Hickenlooper

April 14, 2014 Updated: April 14, 2014 at 6:02 pm
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DENVER - An ethics complaint against Gov. John Hickenlooper was dismissed Monday in a 4-1 vote by the Independent Ethics Commission.

Commissioners ruled that Hickenlooper did not violate state ethics laws by using state employees to help prepare for a Democratic Governors Association conference held in Aspen. Hickenlooper also accepted a free hotel room and food during the conference from the association, and commissioners decided that didn't violate the state's gift ban for elected officials.

Compass Colorado, a non-profit 501(c)4 Denver-based group, filed a complaint on the matter in September 2013, asking the commission to decide whether Hickenlooper was out of line accepting the hotel room and allowing his staff to work on the partisan event.

Kelly Maher, executive director of Compass Colorado, said she was disappointed by the decision but not surprised.

"Three of the five commissioners donated to Gov. Hickenlooper's campaign," Maher said, after the ruling Monday afternoon. "This was like five wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner."

The commissioners previously had ruled that the campaign donations to Hickenlooper were not a conflict of interest for the three board members who gave.

Maher said there is an appeals process but her organization hasn't decided how to move forward yet.

Commissioner Bill Leone said the DGA event was a "highly and inherently partisan political event," but there was also a substantial policy component.

"The governor has a legitimate interest as the elected head of state to present, discuss, debate and hear about policy initiatives that he chooses to advance as the winner of an election, despite the fact that many may disagree with his positions," Leone said.

That interest extends to allowing state employees to help a governor plan and prepare for such events.

As for the hotel room and meals, which far exceeded the Amendment 41 ban on gifts over $53, Leone said those were given in consideration for the governor's time and expertise.

Three of the other commissioners on the board - Rosemary Marshall, Bob Bacon and Bill Pinkham - agreed with that ruling. But Commissioner Matt Smith, a former state representative from Grand Junction and a Republican, told commissioners a full evidentiary hearing was in order to clear up a few facts that he felt were disputed - including how much the estimated seven hours of staff time spent working on the event cost taxpayers and the governor's level of participation in the policy aspects of the event.

"Those are very limited facts that the commission could decide to hear and I don't think it would take an inordinate amount of time," Smith said. "The specifics of how much and who prepared what would make a difference in my determination."

But Smith was overruled by his colleagues and the complaint was dismissed.

A written opinion on the matter will be released shortly, Leone said.

Maher and her attorney, Geoff Blue, argued that there are substantial similarities between the complaint against Hickenlooper and a complaint against Secretary of State Scott Gessler, who used discretionary funds to travel to a Republican lawyers conference Florida.

In that case, the commission ruled against Gessler and made him pay back his travel expenses to the state fund. Gessler is a Republican candidate for governor in 2014 and could face Hickenlooper if he wins the four-way primary.

Blue said there is no difference between writing a check using state dollars and using state employees.

But Leone, who was not on the board during the Gessler ruling, said there is a clear difference, including statutory limitations on how discretionary fund dollars be spent.

The governor in Colorado enjoys special privileges and exemptions that come with having a job that is 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Leone said.

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