Rick Palacio (copy)

Rick Palacio

Democratic political strategist and Gov. Jared Polis’ former chief of staff Rick Palacio in December pocketed an $85,000 contract to help the governor with COVID-related work just as he was leaving a state job he held just four months.

The contract — which monthly paid Palacio about $14,000 from December 2020 through May 2021 — is at the center of a state ethics complaint filed early Wednesday asserting it violated the law barring government employees from contracting with their former bosses for six months after they leave.

Former 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler filed the 29-page complaint with the state’s Independent Ethics Commission on behalf of Defend Colorado, calling the contract “a brazen disregard of Colorado’s ethics laws.”

“These are intentional and egregious ethical abuses at the highest level of government,” Brauchler said. “This is exactly why people distrust government right now.”

Palacio's firm — Palacio Strategies Group — was paid an additional $70,000 from the governor's office from June through October 2020, according to the state's online payment records, but it's unclear if that was part of the same contract.

Palacio, who had been the state’s Democratic Party chairman until 2017, was Polis’ interim chief of staff from August 2020 through Dec. 4, 2020, according to copies of his payroll stubs included with the ethics complaint.

Polis' office said keeping Palacio on the public checkbook broke no rules or laws. It was simply a matter of getting the right person to do the needed job.

"It was decided that the state needed added capacity to help ensure Colorado had an equitable vaccine rollout and enough executive leadership supporting the around-the-clock demands of the response and recovery from the pandemic," Polis spokesman Conor Cahill said in an email to The Denver Gazette. "Because of his experience throughout his career, Rick was uniquely positioned to help lead these new efforts in overseeing the COVID response focused on economic recovery and to get the safe and effective COVID vaccine to hard-to-reach communities and communities of color across our state."

The contract for Palacio Services Group to handle a number of COVID-related projects was inked on Dec. 1, 2020 — three days before Palacio's payroll records said he left the governor’s office — and approved by current chief of staff Lisa Kaufmann, who would also oversee the arrangement.

Kaufmann had taken a maternity leave in 2020 and Palacio was filling in for her during her absence, leaving a position with powerhouse law and lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck after just three months.

He had similarly helped out earlier in 2020, filling in for Eve Lieberman, Polis’ chief policy adviser, during her parental leave, but Palacio’s PSG was paid $7,812 through a purchase order for that work, records show.

Reached Monday, Palacio said the governor asked him to keep working once Kaufmann returned.

“I was basically asked to stay on as a consultant for the governor and help out with lots of the COVID operations,” Palacio told The Denver Gazette in a telephone interview. “To help lead it.”

Later, Palacio emphasized that he was proud of the work he did while with the governor: "Prior to my departure, our team vaccinated over a half of a million Coloradans through our vaccine equity efforts, which resulted in countless lives saved in our communities of color."

He did not address the contract further.

While PSG would provide the work to the governor’s office, Kaufmann would supervise it, according to a request Kaufmann filed to authorize the deal.

“This contract will utilize (PSG’s) federal and state government experience and in-depth relationships with federal, state, and local elected officials and stakeholders to provide strategic advice to the governor, chief of staff, and other executive staff focusing on reorienting the governor’s COVID response strategy toward economic recovery, and maximizing federal funds related to those issues,” according to the request.

Palacio said his recollection was he left the governor’s office on Oct. 1. Payroll records show he was paid for all of October and November and the first week of December 2020, as well as a week’s vacation when he officially left on Dec. 3.

Palacio, 46, is a founding partner of polling and political research firm Majority Institute and last year played a key role in Sen. John Hickenlooper’s presidential campaign.

Defend Colorado is a Colorado nonprofit that describes itself as an “action-based organization that opposes extreme special interest measures threatening our state,” according to its website, and “demands accountability, transparency, and honesty in government.”

Complaints to the Ethics Commission are kept confidential until it determines whether it is frivolous or merits attention. Most are deemed frivolous and are dismissed.

David Migoya can be reached at david.migoya@gazette.com

David is a Senior Investigative Reporter at The Gazette and has worked in Colorado for more than two decades. His work has been recognized by, among others, Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Scripps Howard Foundation, the Society of Business Editors and Writers, the National Association of Real Estate Editors, at the National Headliner Awards. He has worked at publications in New York City, St. Louis, Detroit and Denver over a journalism career that began in 1982.

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