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Opinion: Hickenlooper shoots himself in the foot

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Now that Colorado ethics commissioners have found against John Hickenlooper in two of six cases, the question is how bad the political fallout will be for the former governor who is running for the U.S. Senate.

If you watched the Webex hearings — and I’m proud/sorry to say I watched every minute of them — you would have seen the discussion was mostly about Amendment 41 rules and not nearly as much about actual ethics. That’s the nature of the beast, I guess. I thought the commissioners were more than fair despite Hickenlooper’s refusal to appear as scheduled on Thursday, thereby blowing off a subpoena.

They were right to allow him to testify Friday anyway. If he hadn’t testified, the ruling would have carried far less weight, and many would have just given the commission’s report an incomplete. They were also right to have held him in contempt.

I believe Hick broke some rules, most of them technical. He got dinged for his two-day trip to Turin in which he took a Maserati limo to the airport and some free meals from a sponsor. He paid $1,500 for the trip, which he said he thought was all inclusive. It turned out that Fiat Chrysler, a sponsor, paid for transportation and meals. The commissioners said Hickenlooper should have made a better effort to know what exactly he was paying for.

I know I speak from privilege here — and from many, many frequent flier miles collected over the years — but I’ve gone to Italy a number of times and have hit, I think, most of the high spots. I never got to, or considered, Turin. And making the long flight there and the long flight back for a two-day visit can’t be anyone’s idea of a luxury jaunt.



And one of the other cases was about a free airplane ride from Larry Mizel and the face time Hick allowed a very influential donor. The funny thing is, Mizel could call Hickenlooper in any of a day’s 24 hours, and Hick would get back to him immediately. So would a lot of other Colorado politicians, from both parties. The last thing that Mizel needed from Hick was more access.

That said, I know Hick spends a lot of time with a lot of rich people, that many of them have private jets, and that Hick is probably way too comfortable in that world. And it looks as if he basically thought he didn’t always have to give Amendment 41 restrictions the attention they required.

I’m all for the spirit of Amendment 41. Many have criticized the details and called the Jared Polis-backed initiative poorly worded — much of that is true — but, hell, my rules as a reporter are far tougher. I mean, I’ve known Hick for about two decades, and I wouldn’t let him treat me to a beer.

But there are other considerations here. One, that this was a political hit job. Yes, the hearing was fair. The commissioners, in the main, were thoughtful. And Hick, who can stumble in similar situations, did a pretty good job when he finally testified over Webex. If he’d had such concerns about Webex, he could have asked the commission for a run-through to see how it was working.

If Hick was reluctant to testify — and he was — it’s because the allegations were made solely to harm Hickenlooper. Frank McNulty and his Republican-allied team expect Hick to be Cory Gardner’s opponent in the November Senate race. And it so happens that Gardner, who is considered the most vulnerable Republican incumbent senator in the country, is the poster senator for donor support from oil and gas and the NRA and whatever other bogeypersons Democrats can imagine.



There will be campaign ads that come from this, of course. That’s politics. There will be ads about Gardner donors, too. And I’m also sure that Hickenlooper hasn’t yet won the Democratic primary. So there’s that. This is a gift for Andrew Romanoff, and one that he’s not even required to register.

And in a further gift to Democrats, Donald Trump has been tweeting about the ethics hearing, praising Cory Gardner and blasting Hickenlooper for being “caught big time with his hand in the cookie jar,” which is pretty rich coming from Trump, whose small hands are often found in off-limits jars of all descriptions. Gardner’s greatest reelection problem is in running on the same ticket with Trump, whom he has fully embraced.

As far as I’m concerned, the worst thing Hickenlooper did was to blow off the hearing Thursday, defying a subpoena in the process. I have no idea what Hick could have been thinking. He turned a minor problem — which was mostly technical; most Coloradans, I’m sure, don’t think of Hick as corrupt — into genuine headline material.

You don’t just ignore a subpoena, not unless you work for the Trump administration. Hick had gone to court to try to postpone the hearing and been turned down by a judge. You don’t just ignore a judge’s ruling unless, well, see above.

Do I also think the allegations brought against Hickenlooper were hypocritical? Sure. The truth is that the Republicans who brought these charges couldn’t care less about Hickenlooper and rich people and whether he got plane rides he failed to report or reimburse — and avoided some rides in coach.

But even if this was a political hit job, it was Hick who shot himself in the foot.

And, as I mentioned, if there’s a beneficiary here, it’s Romanoff, who people sometimes fail to remember is still running against Hickenlooper in the Democratic primary. He’s got clean hands — he didn’t make the allegations — and he’s running as a Bernie Sanders-like, clean-of-dirty-money candidate. As a severe underdog, Romanoff can only be helped by this.

When the back-to-back Democratic Senate primary debates finally arrive — yes, one sponsored by The Colorado Sun, along with CBS4 and PBS12, on June 10 — the moderators will definitely call on Hick to answer both for his ethics violations and for the fact that commissioners voted to hold him in contempt.

At the close of his testimony June 5, as Hickenlooper turned off his Webex connection, he let out a large sigh. Whatever happens next, I’m guessing it won’t be his last one.

Mike Littwin’s column was produced for The Colorado Sun, a reader-supported news organization committed to covering the people, places and policies of Colorado. Learn more at coloradosun.com.

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