Colorado’s top candidates for governor have bet big on their campaigns — and they have the means to do so.
But while Democrat Jared Polis and Republican Walker Stapleton clearly are wealthy, thanks to their business successes, they have refused to tell voters how wealthy. And government rules don’t make them.
Stapleton, currently state treasurer, has put $1.05 million of his personal fortune into his race for governor. That would be impressive in most election years. But Polis, Boulder’s congressman, has astonished the political establishment by contributing $21.8 million to his campaign.
They’re both certainly comfortable, but how comfortable isn’t known. State law doesn’t require candidates to release tax returns or other disclosures that would tell voters more about a candidate’s wealth and the potential for conflicts of interest.
Both candidates have declined repeated requests by Colorado Politics to provide recent tax returns, each citing his opponent’s unwillingness to do so.
Colorado does require a bare-bones personal financial disclosure statement when a candidate files for statewide office. It summarizes a candidate’s assets (but not how much) and debts of more than $1,000 (but not precisely how much) and lists the candidate’s properties (but not their values).
That’s one reason Colorado consistently gets poor grades on transparency of public information. A 2015 report by the Center for Public Integrity noted that no one audits the personal financial disclosures, which are filed with the Secretary of State’s Office.
Colorado voters used to rely on tax returns to learn about the finances of top-tier candidates. Past candidates for governor voluntarily released them, including Democrat John Hickenlooper and Republican Bob Beauprez in 2014 and Hickenlooper, Republican Dan Maes and third-party candidate Tom Tancredo in 2010.
But in 2018, neither Polis nor Stapleton is sharing returns that might reveal more about their millions.
And millions they have. The list of assets on the state form, real estate holdings and filings with federal agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission show that Stapleton has done well as a scion of the Bush/Stapleton real estate groups. Polis’ fortune grew about the same time as the advent of e-commerce and entrepreneurship, starting with companies such as Blue Mountain Arts and ProFlowers.com.
Polis discloses more information, as required for a member of Congress. His federal disclosure runs 30 pages or more some years, although it contains estimates and dollar-figure ranges rather than precise numbers.
Stapleton and Polis have been questioned about their finances throughout the campaigns: Polis for not paying taxes for several years before entering Congress (in years when he had business losses and didn’t owe any taxes) and Stapleton for numerous errors in his personal finance disclosures. Those errors, which date to 2012, were pointed out in May by the Colorado Independent but weren’t corrected until September, when a letter “clarifying” Stapleton’s information was sent to the secretary of state by his attorneys at Denver’s Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.
Polis released tax returns when he ran for Congress in 2008. Stapleton hasn’t ever released his tax returns.
Polis made releasing tax returns an issue for then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has become the first president since Nixon not to do so. But Polis still won’t release his recent returns.
Both candidates have put their assets into blind trusts, under control of a trustee who has full discretion and keeps the holdings “blind” from the beneficiaries.
The notion of a blind trust is important to avoid conflicts of interest between elected officials’ holdings and their votes, experts say. Stapleton misidentified his trust for six years and corrected it only after questions were raised. Polis faced a campaign finance complaint in October related to a company he owned that was part of the trust and showed up on congressional disclosure forms but not his state forms.
So while there’s much we don’t know about their finances, here’s a look at what we do know.
Stapleton has been filing the personal financial disclosure statement since he first ran for state treasurer in 2009. (He was elected the next year.)
That first form listed 20 businesses in which he, his wife or both had an interest, including SonomaWest Holdings, a family-owned real estate business in California that he listed as a source of income with himself as chief executive officer and a board member.
He also noted unspecified assets with Wells Fargo & Co., the largest bank in Colorado. The 2009 disclosure and those that followed do not list income from Wells Fargo.
San Francisco-based Wells Fargo is one of three banks listed on the treasurer’s website as providing cash management services to the state, including checking accounts and investment services.
Stapleton’s 2011 disclosure shows he added substantially to his assets. That included income from an apparent new asset, Stapleton Baseball Partners, a Connecticut-registered company with his father, Craig, listed as CEO. The baseball partnership in January 2010 bought 3 percent of the St. Louis Cardinals. Craig Stapleton at one point also owned a stake in the Texas Rangers baseball team with cousin and former President George W. Bush.
The 2011 disclosure noted 12 other new assets, including investments in the car rental company Avis, hotel chain Wyndham Worldwide and a pharmaceutical company, Stapleton Pharma.
Stapleton set up the blind Rocky Mountain Trust in 2012, but a Sept. 25, 2018, letter from his attorneys to the Secretary of State’s Office said that name was inaccurate, and it should have been listed as the Walker R. Stapleton Blind Trust. That same error was made in personal financial disclosures for the next five years after 2012. A May 25, 2018, letter to the secretary of state signed by Stapleton said “all assets listed in my October 2017 candidate [form] are currently owned by Rocky Mountain Trust LLC, as noted in my 2012 disclosure …”
Rocky Mountain Trust is a real company he set up in 2010. But it wasn’t a trust, despite the name, he told the Aurora Sentinel and KCNC-CBS4. It’s a consulting company that appears to be largely based on a 2011 agreement with SonomaWest Holdings, which his father took over at the beginning of 2011. Under the agreement, the younger Stapleton would be paid $250 an hour, to a maximum of $150,000 per year, for consulting work, though he was state treasurer. Stapleton did consulting for the contract on weekdays at least three times in 2011, the Sentinel reported. That raised questions as to whether the trust, which listed Stapleton as its manager, was really blind.
The Sept. 25, 2018, letter also corrected other errors, such as failing to disclose income that Stapleton’s wife made from a foundation and income that does not derive from the trust, such as from SonomaWest Holdings and Denver Bank. How much? Unknown, because the state doesn’t require that level of disclosure.
Stapleton’s debt, as disclosed in the personal statement filed in 2017, consists of unspecified amounts owed to Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase.
The Sept. 25, 2018, letter lists four of his properties. One in Greenwood Village is owned by Stapleton and wife Jennifer, and one in Snowmass Village is owned by Stapleton and sister Wendy Stapleton Reyes.
Property taxes on the Greenwood Village home were paid three months late every year between 2013 and 2016, Westword reported in September. The Pitkin County home in Snowmass village also showed late tax payments, according to Westword.
Stapleton is also listed as an owner of 3822 Tenn, a commercial property in Denver’s Berkeley Park neighborhood, purchased for $325,000 in 2007. The current tenant is a drapery business, according to a Google Maps search.
The fourth property, in Douglas County, is owned by Stapleton and a long list of family members and trusts.
Unlike Stapleton, Polis has been subjected to federal disclosure rules that far exceed Colorado’s.
Polis was the second-wealthiest member of Congress in 2015, with an estimated net worth of $313.5 million, reported the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets.org. That was based on 401 listed assets, including three valued at $25 million to $50 million: Jovian Holdings, a venture capital firm; Jovian Capital Holdings; and Jove Equity Partners, a mutual fund.
Forbes reported this March that Polis is now third on the list but the wealthiest Democrat in Congress, though Forbes did not provide a fresh estimate of his net worth.
In his state filing as a gubernatorial candidate, Polis listed 10 income sources, including the Jared Polis Qualified Blind Trust, which he set up shortly after being elected to Congress in 2008. Members of Congress are not required to put assets into a blind trust, but those who don’t run the risk of being accused of conflicts of interest, as reported by Politico last year. Polis did so on the advice of the House Ethics Committee, with which he worked for a year to set up the trust.
In a 2012 statement refuting an opinion piece in The Denver Post, Polis said he had not purchased stock “in any publicly-traded company since entering Congress. … Additionally, when I was first elected in 2008, I decided to set up a blind trust to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, a step few members [of Congress] take and that is not required. But I believe elected officials should be held to a higher standard…”
The New York-based Jove Equity finances early-stage technology companies. Jovian Capital and Jovian Holdings are based in Littleton, along with other Polis companies and properties. The Jovian companies receive assets from various other investments, his disclosure shows, such as Goldman Sachs, Citibank and Bow River Capital, owned and co-founded by Blair Richardson. Bow River owns 45 residential properties in south Denver under the name Songbird Properties, as well as commercial properties. Those are listed individually on Polis’ congressional disclosures.
Richardson contributed $39,000 to Bold Colorado, the independent expenditure committee that supports Polis.
Jovian Holdings appears to be outside the Jared Polis Qualified Blind Trust, as it is listed as a separate source of income. According to his 2017 congressional disclosures, Polis received between $100,000 and $1 million in 2016 from the blind trust. He also received income from at least 30 other investments in the same dollar range.
Polis receives income from other trusts, including several set up for condos in Boulder and Vail and three properties in Berthoud that exceed 72 acres, all but 7 acres zoned agricultural. The Boulder condo is valued at $500,000 to $1 million; the Vail condo is worth $1 million to $5 million, his disclosures show. The Berthoud farm is worth at least $5 million.
Polis told the Aurora Sentinel he would maintain his blind trust if elected governor.
His 2017 state disclosure does not list his investment in Bridgehealth Medical, a company he founded in 2007. But his congressional disclosures do list BridgeHealth, including a “promissory note” purchase made in June 2017 for $500,000 to $1 million.
That prompted a campaign finance complaint in October over his failure to include BridgeHealth on the gubernatorial filing. Secretary of State Wayne Williams, a Republican, dismissed the complaint Oct. 19, citing a failure by the filers to cite a violation of the state’s campaign finance laws.
When Polis first ran for Congress in 2008, he released seven years worth of tax returns. They showed a “net loss of income” from 2001 to 2005 from his business activities, so he owed no income tax in those years. That’s not uncommon among entrepreneurs, who often sustain losses when starting a company and then profit from selling them.
The Denver Post reported in 2008 that in other tax years, Polis paid $18.4 million in taxes on $120 million in adjusted gross income.
The Democrat has fired back at the suggestion in a Republican Governors Association ad in September that he evaded paying taxes improperly, insisting he paid all taxes owed under federal law.
He also has denied using Cayman Island accounts to avoid paying taxes, saying he invested in a company that also maintained a fund in the Cayman Islands for international investors, but he never had any of his own money in the Cayman fund.
Ernest Luning of Colorado Politics contributed to this story.