DENVER — Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office released an outside report Monday investigating whether he violated the state’s ethics law — a report that isn’t being accepted by the Colorado Ethics Commission because of questions about the investigator’s fairness.
Compass Colorado, a conservative group charged with targeting Hickenlooper, a Democrat who faces reelection this fall, filed a complaint last year alleging that the governor violated the gift-ban provision of Amendment 41 by allowing the Democratic Governors Association to pick up his costs for a conference last summer in Aspen.
In March, the Ethics Commission hired Acclaim Investigations to find out what happened at the Aspen conference last July, where participants — mostly oil and gas industry executives — donated at least $10,000 to take part in discussions and private dinners with Hickenlooper and a few other governors, according to the report released Monday.
Bill McBean, an investigator employed by Acclaim and contracted by the commission to investigate, appears to have mis-characterized Hickenlooper’s own answers when interviewing his staffers, possibly in an effort to trip them up with a number of leading questions.
The governor and several staffers, including chief of staff Roxane White, chief strategist Alan Salazar and campaign finance director Laura Warren, all stayed at the Ritz-Carlton Club with the DGA picking up the tab.
Hickenlooper, who accepted the room in exchange for hosting the conference, argued that he didn’t violate the state’s constitution because his hosting activities constituted “lawful consideration of equal or greater value” than the gift he received (the total cost of the governor’s hotel room was $1,178.58).
In several interviews with Hickenlooper’s staff, McBean characterized the DGA summit as a “pay-to-play” session, despite explanations from those who were there that it wasn’t.
“I view it as an event where face time is traded off for cash contributions,” McBean told Ben Davis, a consultant to Hickenlooper’s campaign who staffed the governor at the DGA conference.
“Sounds very Hollywood,” Davis replied, explaining that DGA conferences are heavily focused on policy issues.
Hickenlooper, in his interview with McBean, explained that he hosted a number of panels about specific policy issues during the conference and discussed his administration’s push to subject the oil and gas industry to tougher clear air rules.
He also said that the conference itself was not about soliciting contributions for the DGA.
“There was no formal fundraising for the DGA,” said Hickenlooper, whose campaign did hold a separate fundraiser that Friday night in Grand Junction.
But in his interview with Salazar, McBean said: “The governor said in his disclosures that he was up there being a fund raiser for DGA.”
David Spector, an attorney for the governor who sat in on the interview with Salazar, clarified that Hickenlooper had in fact said: “I also help the DGA raise funds that it uses to put on these types of policy conferences which provide a forum for governors and private citizens to engage in robust dialog on governance and core policy issues.”
“It never said that it happened up in Aspen,” Spector added.
When Salazar responded that he did not see fundraising taking place at the Aspen conference, McBean responded thusly: “You guys are a slippery lot; I’ll tell you, it’s tough.”
“What is that comment supposed to mean?” Salazar replied.
“That means I can’t get a straight answer,” McBean said.
McBean pursued the same line of questioning with Lisa Carpenter, Salazar’s assistant, asking: “Has anybody suggested to you that the policy part was window dressing for the fund raiser?”
The Ethics Commission, which meets again on April 14, said in March that it won’t be considering McBean’s report but that it will examine the transcripts of the nine interviews he conducted with Hickenlooper and staff.
The panel is likely to deliberate at that meeting next week on a motion to dismiss the complaint.
“The investigator’s interviews are only one piece of the work being done by the Independent Ethics Commission,” said Eric Brown, the governor’s spokesman. “This case won’t be decided solely on these transcripts.
“The complete picture of what happened in Aspen last summer shows the governor did nothing inappropriate, nor did he or any staff in the Governor’s Office violate any law or do anything unethical.”
Hickenlooper’s office was forced to release the interview transcripts and McBean’s report Monday because of a Colorado Open Records Act request made by the Denver Post.
The administration obtained the report when McBean emailed it to them, according to Brown.