Washington Democrats Recruited Colorado’s John Hickenlooper for Senate Nomination Despite Looming Ethics Investigation

An investigative report into Hickenlooper’s travel as governor was released this week.

Democratic presidential candidate former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks at the Presidential Gun Sense Forum, Saturday, Aug. 10, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks at the Presidential Gun Sense Forum in Des Moines, Iowa, on Aug. 10, 2019. Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP

The Colorado Independent Ethics Commission is expected to release an investigative report this week into allegations that John Hickenlooper, a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2020, violated state law by receiving free private jet rides and other gifts from corporations when he served as governor. While Hickenlooper has denied any wrongdoing, and last year the Denver Post editorial board said the complaint consisted of “politically motivated lies,” there are fears that the investigation stands to damage Hickenlooper’s chances in Colorado.

The ethics complaint, which was filed last year by former Republican state House Speaker Frank McNulty’s group Public Trust Institute, focuses on a number of trips the former governor made throughout his time in office. A one-year statute of limitations reduced the scope of the investigation to travel between September 2017 and September 2018, which included a high-profile trip to the Bilderberg Meeting in Turin, Italy, a secretive annual gathering of the global elite. The commission last Tuesday voted down requests from Hickenlooper’s attorney to dismiss the complaint and agreed to release the report.

Some progressives worry that Hickenlooper, the current frontrunner and the Democratic Party’s preferred candidate, could fumble the party’s chances of flipping the seat if he is found guilty of violating the state ethics law. Hickenlooper, who abandoned his lagging presidential campaign in order to run for Senate in August, is one of eight Democrats vying for the chance to take on Sen. Cory Gardner, one of the most vulnerable Republicans heading into 2020. And though he was a popular governor and leads Gardner in head-to-head polls, Hickenlooper’s pro-fracking record could also be a liability in the primary, especially as voters’ anxieties over the climate crisis rise.

Critics have already questioned the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s decision to throw its weight behind the most conservative Democratic candidate before the primary, especially as Colorado becomes increasingly progressive. National Democrats recruited Hickenlooper, despite the fact that he didn’t even want the job, at one point saying that he’s “not cut out to be a senator.”

In August, The Intercept reported that former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, a progressive candidate largely considered to be Hickenlooper’s main competition, called the DSCC’s intervention a “recipe for disaster.” He said that if voters are told that their voice doesn’t matter, “then why would they show up in November?”

The original complaint focused on travel including a trip to the Bilderberg Meeting in Italy and related luxury lodging and transportation costs, such as a ride in a chauffeured Maserati limousine; a flight from Dallas, Texas, to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to attend the American Enterprise Institute’s Jackson Hole Symposium; and a private jet from New Jersey to Colorado. (In 2006, Colorado voters passed a constitutional amendment that created additional restrictions on gifts to elected officials, including a ban on gifts exceeding $53 per year.)

Hickenlooper’s campaign did not provide comment for this story. In 2018, Hickenlooper’s office denied the allegations and called the ethics complaint a “political stunt.” In a legal response to the ethics commission that year, Hickenlooper’s lawyer argued that he paid for all the expenses related to the Bilderberg conference and that all other expenses were either gifts from personal friends or related to his role as governor.

Last year, the Denver Post’s editorial board said the complaint represents “lazy reporting or perhaps willful disregard of the truth,” adding that, at its worst, the allegations were “politically motivated lies.” And the website Colorado Politics has noted that Public Trust Institute was established just two days before the original complaint was filed.

But ethics complaints, regardless of their legitimacy, provide fuel to the opposing side. Andrew Gillum, who won the Democratic nomination for governor in Florida last year but lost the general election, was similarly hurt by an ethics complaint. In April, he agreed to pay a $5,000 fine to settle a complaint over accepting a gift from a lobbyist — but the complaint cast a long shadow over his political career.

Update: November 8, 2019
The Colorado Independent Ethics Commission released the investigative report on November 7. It includes interviews and receipts from Hickenlooper detailing travel to Italy, New Jersey, Connecticut, Texas, and Jackson Hole, Wyoming. While the report doesn’t draw any conclusions, the evidence presented by Hickenlooper seems to refute the appearance of an ethical violation.

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