The Colorado Observer
Valerie Richardson

DENVER—The Independent Ethics Commission agreed Monday to proceed with an ethics complaint against Gov. John Hickenlooper, then raised more questions by punting the political hot potato to the Attorney General’s office.

The commission agreed that Kyle Dumler, the Attorney General’s representative to the commission, will conduct the investigation into the complaint regarding Hickenlooper’s trip in July for the Democratic Governors Association meeting in Aspen.

Hickenlooper’s two-night stay at the St. Regis Aspen and registration fee of $350 were covered by the DGA. In its complaint, the conservative group Compass Colorado said the comps violate Amendment 41, which prohibits public officials from accepting gifts in excess of $50.
This may be the first time the IEC has referred an investigation to the Attorney General, which creates another host of issues. For one, Hickenlooper is currently represented in the complaint by Deputy Attorney General Bernie Buescher.

In addition, the Denver Post has reported that Suthers may have committed a similar violation by attending the Republican Attorneys General Association. No ethics complaint is known to have been filed against Suthers.

Kelly Maher, executive director of Compass Colorado, said she was surprised by the commission’s decision to farm out the investigation.

“We’re looking forward to figuring out what the next steps are regarding the complaint,” said Maher. “It’s clear that we need additional clarification on Amendment 41 as we move forward.”

The complaint places the IEC in the middle of another political battle with ramifications for the 2014 gubernatorial race. In June, the commission dinged Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler for an ethics violation, then in August dismissed as “frivolous” a complaint filed against Hickenlooper for giving a ride in the state airplane to a campaign contributor.

Hickenlooper is running for reelection in 2014, while Gessler is seeking the Republican nomination for governor.

Republicans have long accused the IEC of doing the bidding of pro-Democrat attack groups, while Hickenlooper spokesman Eric Brown recently blasted Compass Colorado for filing what he described as a meritless complaint motivated by gamesmanship.

Elena Nunez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, said the involvement of the Attorney General’s office shows that the commission needs a larger staff. The IEC is now staffed by one executive director.

“It is surprising that the Attorney General’s office agreed to take the investigation on. It highlights the need for the Commission to have investigative staff and independent outside counsel to represent them,” said Nunez in an email. “Given that Attorney General John Suthers accepted travel from a similar organization, the Republican Attorneys General Association, the potential conflict of interest certainly raises the question as to whether the Attorney General’s office should be handling this investigation.”

Suthers spokeswoman Carolyn Tyler declined to comment, saying the office has not yet received any communication from the IEC.

Republican elections lawyer Mario Nicolais said the decision to use the Attorney General’s office was typical of what he called the IEC’s tendency to “make stuff up as they go along.”

“They’re kind of a fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants organization,” said Nicolais, who’s running for the GOP nomination for a state Senate seat in 2014. “They don’t have many set rules. It’s literally a star chamber. It would be a joke if it weren’t so dangerous.”

Luis Toro, executive director of Colorado Ethics Watch, which filed the Gessler complaint, echoed Common Cause’s call for a larger IEC staff. An independent investigator was brought in to probe the Gessler complaint.

“Ethics Watch has long advocated for the IEC to be represented by independent counsel instead of the AG’s office,” said Toro in an email. “We have also advocated for the IEC to hire a full-time staff investigator. Colorado’s Ethics Commission has the smallest staff of all 41 states with ethics commissions and this is another illustration of why that needs to change.”

On the other hand, a larger IEC staff is the last thing many Republicans would want, given that pro-Democrat groups like CEW have typically been more active in filing complaints.

IEC executive director Jane Feldman said a report on the complaint is not expected in time for the commission’s next meeting Dec. 2.