Aspen trip at heart of Gov. Hickenlooper complaint
November 22, 2013
A conservative group is claiming that Gov. John Hickenlooper unlawfully benefited by attending a conference in Aspen this summer and allowing the Democratic Governors Association to pay for it.
In a complaint filed with the state Independent Ethics Commission, Compass Colorado contends Hickenlooper was in violation of a gift ban in the Colorado Constitution. Attendance for the conference — which included a panel discussion at the Aspen Institute and a closing reception at the home of prominent Aspenite Michael Goldberg — cost $350 per person. Room rates were $425 per night for two nights.
Governors attending the event stayed at the St. Regis Aspen Resort hotel, where Hickenlooper spoke on July 12 and 13. Rooms also were booked at the Sky Hotel, the Limelight Lodge, the Hotel Jerome and the Molly Gibson Lodge.
The governor's office regards the claim as baseless, arguing that participation in the Democratic Governors Association and Republican Governors Association is routine practice for Colorado governors, citing similar involvement by former governors Bill Ritter, Roy Romer and Bill Owens.
"One of the many important roles of the DGA and RGA is to provide expert advice in policy areas to sitting governors and their staff by hosting educational policy conferences throughout the year," reads a letter from Jack Finlaw, Hickenlooper's chief legal counsel. Finlaw further states that because Compass Colorado's claim has no basis in law or fact, the ethics commission should dismiss it as "frivolous."
However, in a 5-0 vote Monday, the commission deemed the complaint to be "non-frivolous," meaning the item's review will proceed a step further to Attorney General John Suthers, the state's top Republican.
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The complaint claims that because the Democratic Governors Association accepts more than 5 percent of its funding from for-profit groups, the trip did not qualify for an exemption from the $53 gift-ban provision found in Amendment 41. The group calls for the governor to repay double the amount of benefit "he received in violation of the gift ban."
"We look forward to further review of this complaint," said Kelly Maher, executive director of Compass Colorado. "There is certainly a need for additional clarification and precedent when it comes to Amendment 41."
The complaint argues that Hickenlooper misused state funds by allowing his staff to coordinate time and travel associated with the trip. It also claims that the governor's attendance at corporate-sponsored dinners and receptions violated the gift ban.
Finlaw states that conference fees do not constitute an unlawful gift because the DGA received "lawful consideration of equal or greater value in return from the governor for his active role in the" conference programming, including his participation as a keynote speaker at opening and closing receptions.