DENVER — Kelly Maher wasn’t surprised when the Independent Ethics Commission voted Monday to dismiss her complaint against Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Exasperated, yes. Frustrated, definitely. But surprised? Not really. She’s a conservative, and like other Colorado conservatives, she assumed that the panel would find a way to clear the Democratic governor of any ethical lapse.
“I’m certainly disappointed by it, but frankly not particularly surprised,” Maher told reporters afterward. “You know, we had three out of five commissioners who were actually donors to Gov. Hickenlooper. And therefore, this was a lot like having five wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner.”
The commission voted 4-1 to dismiss the complaint filed by Compass Colorado, which Maher heads. The lone dissenting vote came from Commissioner Matt Smith, who said he didn’t necessarily disagree with the outcome but needed more information on the facts of the case.
Hickenlooper was accused of violating the state’s gift ban by accepting meals, lodging and registration fees last year for a Democratic Governors Association (DGA) conference in Aspen. He also admitted to using about seven hours of state staff time in having his aides prepare him for the event.
To Republicans, it sounded a lot like the complaint filed against Secretary of State Scott Gessler, who was found to have violated “the public trust” by using state funds to attend a Republican National Lawyers Association (RNLA) event in Florida.
Hickenlooper’s attorneys left the hearing without comment, but Gessler issued a statement after the vote comparing the panel’s decision to the Internal Revenue Service’s singling out of tea party groups for extra scrutiny.
“We’ve seen the devastating effects of the IRS treating conservative groups more harshly because of their political viewpoint and now we’re seeing it close to home with the Ethics Commission saving its biggest attacks for Republicans,” Gessler said. “Unfortunately, today’s decision will have a chilling effect on Republican public officials and public servants, who now know that Hickenlooper plays by a different set of rules.”
As Republicans saw it, if the commission had found Gessler guilty of an ethical violation, then surely the panel would also ding Hickenlooper, given the similarities between the two complaints. Even Commissioner Bill Leone acknowledged Monday that the Gessler decision “has bothered me from the inception of this [Hickenlooper] case.”
“Although there may be other distinguishing characteristics that can explain and harmonize the decision we make in this case with the decision in Gessler, the language in the Gessler case in my opinion appears to be problematic,” said Leone.
“When we say that the problem in that decision is that Republican National Lawyers Association is a partisan event, we invite the kind of complaint that we see in this case. There’s no question in my mind that the DGA spring meeting is as partisan or more partisan an event than RNLA,” Leone said.
In certain respects, the case against Hickenlooper appeared stronger. Gessler was never accused of violating the Amendment 41 gift ban—he paid about $1,400 for his trip using his office’s discretionary account, which his attorneys argued that the secretary is free to use as he sees fit.
What’s more, the Republican event wasn’t a fundraiser. In fact, the RNLA offered court-approved continuing legal education credit, unlike the DGA conference, which liberally mixed policy and politics.
But commissioners found that Hickenlooper had given sufficient consideration for an exemption from the gift ban by serving as host and speaker at the Aspen event. The panel also found that the staff time used to prepare the governor for the DGA was minimal.
In addition, Colorado law carves out a unique role for the governor that gives him “certain special privileges related to travel that are unavailable to other elected officials,” said Leone.
Shortly after the commission’s vote, attorney Mike Davis asked the panel to reopen the complaint against Gessler in light of the Hickenlooper ruling but they declined.
The seven-year-old commission has been criticized as a vehicle for partisan attacks on political figures. The Gessler complaint, filed by the liberal Colorado Ethics Watch, drew headlines for nearly two years, and the decision against him will undoubtedly become fodder for campaign ads in this year’s election.
Hickenlooper is running for reelection in November, while Gessler is seeking the Republican gubernatorial nomination in the June 24 primary.
“I took great pains to comply with the state’s gift ban by using my discretionary account rather than accepting a gift over the allowed amount. Instead, the Ethics Commission now says that Democrats can accept gifts seven times the amount I used,” said Gessler.
“The people of Colorado have no faith in this partisan commission. The commissioners are already financially invested in Hickenlooper’s success and so people shouldn’t be surprised with today’s decision—just saddened by it,” Gessler said.
Several commissioners suggested that the lesson of the Gessler and Hickenlooper complaints is that elected officials should be more careful and pay for their own expenses at conferences with a political tilt.
“I think that if anything, I as a former official would like to warn public officials to make sure that even though it comports with the letter of the constitution and the law, that those of us who are in those positions need to be mindful of the public perception,” said Commissioner Bob Bacon.