In a complaint filed with the state’s Independent Ethics Commission, Gov. John Hickenlooper has been accused of traversing the globe in private jets and rooming in expensive hotels paid for by businesses in violation of the state’s ethics laws, a claim dismissed by the governor’s office as a “political stunt.”
The nonprofit Greenwood Village-based Public Trust Institute filed the complaint against Hickenlooper on Friday, according to a news release from Frank McNulty, director of the group and a former Republican Colorado House Speaker. Throughout his public career, McNulty was frequently critical of the Democratic governor’s policies.
Over the past year, McNulty says in the release, the governor “traveled on private jets owned by for-profit corporations both domestically and internationally and illegally accepted luxury hotel accommodations and expensive travel expenses from corporations.”
Under Amendment 41, a state constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2006, the governor and other elected officials are barred from accepting gifts worth more than $59, with limited exceptions. If Hickenlooper paid for the trips himself, before the trips took place, he does not have to report the trips and there is no ethics violation. If Hickenlooper reimbursed businesses for his travel after the trips, he is required to report those expenses.
The accusations come as Hickenlooper has been exploring a possible presidential run in 2020 and has been making a number of trips around the country for political appearances and to speak to groups.
Hickenlooper’s press secretary, Jacque Montgomery, issued a statement Friday denying any wrongdoing by the governor:
“It looks like the organization was created in the last few days to trump up frivolous accusations. They ignored the Independent Ethics Commission process by going straight to the media. This is clearly a political stunt aimed at influencing the upcoming election.”
McNulty formed the nonprofit Wednesday, filing articles of incorporation with the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office. He said the group aims to serve as an ethics watchdog for public officials and he wants the Ethics Commission to investigate the complaint.
“It is absolutely necessary to have someone out there calling balls and strikes and being an impartial observer,” McNulty said of the commission.
But the Ethics Commission could face significant hurdles on the complaint, especially as the term-limited governor prepares to leave office in January. Two of the commission’s five members were appointed by Hickenlooper, and both of them contributed to the governor’s political campaign funds in past years, along with a third member.
In June, Hickenlooper flew to Italy for the annual meeting of the Bilderberg Group, the Public Trust Institute’s 187-page complaint states.
“Requested public records do not disclose exactly how the governor traveled to Italy for the Bilderberg meetings, they only show that he departed the U.S. from Detroit, Michigan, on June 6th, and all flight information has been redacted,” the complaint says.
Regardless, the flight would have cost more than $59, the complaint says.
McNulty said he and several other “politicos” began investigating months ago. In all, up to six people were involved in the investigation, he said.
“We started just by asking questions about how he’s getting to all these conferences,” he said. “We noticed that certain flights were redacted and other flights weren’t redacted and at that point red flags started popping up.”
The complaint says that within the past year, Hickenlooper made similar trips to or from Connecticut, New Jersey and Wyoming. Again, flight details were largely redacted for those trips, the complaint says.
“This is an example of a sitting governor who was jet setting around the world on private jets and who attempted to hide it, attempted to cloak it and attempted to cover it by redacting these flights from his calendar,” McNulty said.
The complaint also says Hickenlooper violated the law by accepting meals, luxury activities, private tours and gift bags, among other things.
In addition, the complaint says Hickenlooper flew to Switzerland multiple times to attend the annual World Economic Forum. He flew on corporate jets owned by Liberty Media, a Colorado-based for-profit corporation, the complaint says.
Asked about the complaint’s potential to appear as a partisan attack on the Democratic governor, McNulty said the document and the Public Trust Institute’s actions stand on their own merits.
McNulty served as speaker from 2010 to 2012 and represented Highlands Ranch in the House from 2006 until 2014.
In 2012, before the Supreme Court recognized the rights of same-sex couples to marry, McNulty, as speaker of the Republican-led state House of Representatives, blocked a Hickenlooper-backed proposal to allow couples — gay and straight — to enter into civil unions. The standoff contributed to Democrats taking control of the House in the 2012 election.
Since leaving office, McNulty has been founder and principal of Square State Strategy Group, a political consulting and lobbying firm based in Denver.
Dino Ioannides, executive director of the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission, said he could neither confirm nor deny that a complaint was filed.
Speaking generally, Ioannides said the commission will discuss all complaints filed recently during an executive session Oct. 22. Then the group will vote publicly on whether the complaints will be investigated.
Frivolous complaints are dismissed while those found to be credible will be investigated after the subject of the complaint has had 30 days to comment on the matter, Ioannides said.
However, the timeline for the complaint against Hickenlooper is truncated because he will leave office in early January.
Asked whether the commission can investigate a private citizen, Ioannides said the group must discuss the matter and make a determination.
The timeline is further shortened by several calendar conflicts among commission members, Ioannides said. As such, the group will either need to call a special meeting or decide to push all recent business to Nov. 19, the next regularly scheduled meeting.
However, additional conflicts might also exist.
Two commissioners, William Leone and Elizabeth Espinosa Krupa, were appointed by Hickenlooper.
In addition, Leone, Krupa and a third commission member, April Jones, have donated to Hickenlooper’s political campaigns.
Krupa donated $250 to Hickenlooper’s gubernatorial campaign in 2014, according to contribution records filed with the secretary of state. Leone donated $1,000 to Hickenlooper’s gubernatorial campaign in 2011. And Jones made three separate donations to Hickenlooper’s gubernatorial campaigns, split between 2010 and 2014, totaling $275.
Ioannides said the commission’s jurisdiction only goes back one year. Alleged violations past that can still be taken into consideration in an investigation, however.
In general, if a public official is found to have violated the state’s gift law, Ioannides said that person can then be held liable for twice whatever the gift was worth.