By Conrad Swanson

A complaint over Gov. John Hickenlooper's travels has merit and will be investigated, Colorado's Independent Ethics Commission has decided.

The commission reviewed the complaint, filed by the nonprofit Greenwood Village-based Public Trust Institute, during an executive session Monday. Aside from one commissioner who was absent, the group unanimously found the allegations to be "non-frivolous."

The complaint, filed earlier this month, accused Hickenlooper of traveling the globe in private jets and rooming in expensive hotels paid for by businesses in violation of state ethics laws.

Hickenlooper reiterated Tuesday the comment he made the day the complaint was filed.

"This is a political stunt aimed at influencing the upcoming election," he said in a statement. "Given the legal nature of the issue, we will not be commenting on the specifics of the allegations, but we're confident this will be resolved quickly and in our favor. We remain focused on doing the work that advances Colorado and improves our way of life."

The Public Trust Institute was established two days before the complaint was filed by Republican Frank McNulty, a former state House speaker who has often criticized the Democratic governor's policies.

Hickenlooper now has 30 days to comment on the allegations, commission Executive Director Dino Ioannides said. The commission will take those comments into consideration for its investigation.

People being investigated often ask for more time to comment, Ioannides said. The investigation will begin as soon as the commission receives that comment.

Colorado voters passed Amendment 41 in 2006, prohibiting the governor and other elected officials from accepting gifts worth more than $59, with limited exceptions.

The complaint says Hickenlooper violated that law multiple times over the past year with flights to Italy, Connecticut, New Jersey and Wyoming. It also says he accepted meals, luxury activities, private tours and gift bags, among other things.

The commission's jurisdiction only spans one year. Violations alleged afterward still can be considered, though. A public official found to have violated the gift law can be held liable for twice the gift's value, Ioannides said.

The investigation is complicated, though, by Hickenlooper's departure from office in January. The commission will determine later, if the issue arises, whether it can investigate him after he leaves the governor's office, Ioannides said.

The matter is complicated further by potential conflicts of interest on the commission. Hickenlooper appointed two of the five members, and both contributed to his campaigns in past years, as did a third member.

One of them did not participate in the executive session discussion about the complaint.

The commission's code of conduct defines conflicts of interest as "a situation in which an individual's personal or financial interest conflicts with the individual's official responsibilities."

Ioannides said the commissioners "are very good at recusing themselves when it's necessary. It happens all the time." The group will discuss later whether one or more might need to recuse themselves, he said.

McNulty said the potential conflicts do raise a concern, but "the commission appears to be doing its job, which is the most we can expect."

The accusations also come as Hickenlooper explores a possible presidential run in 2020. He has traveled around the country for political appearances and to speak to groups.

McNulty said the commission's unanimous decision to investigate the complaint is a "direct rebuttal" of Hickenlooper's claim that the complaint was "frivolous and partisan. The commission spoke loud and clear that it isn't."

If Hickenlooper paid for the trips out of his own pocket beforehand, he does not have to report them and did not violate ethics. But if he reimbursed businesses after the trips, he is required to report those expenses.

This is the second complaint filed against Hickenlooper since he first took office in 2011. In 2014, the commission dismissed, on a 4-1 vote, a complaint filed against Hickenlooper in 2013 by Compass Colorado over his travel to the Democratic Governors Association meeting in Aspen.

But three of the five commissioners -- all of whom voted to dismiss -- had given money to Hickenlooper's campaigns and one, then-Mayor Bill Pinkham of Estes Park, joined him nine days after the dismissal at a campaign event.

McNulty said that during his days in the Statehouse, he and Hickenlooper often were at odds over policy.

In 2012, before the Supreme Court recognized the right of same-sex couples to marry, McNulty, as speaker of the Republican-led state House, blocked a Hickenlooper-backed proposal to let gay and straight couples enter civil unions. The standoff contributed to Democrats taking control of the House in the fall 2012 election.

In a 2013 profile of Hickenlooper by The New Yorker magazine, McNulty is quoted as saying, "The critique that many in Colorado have, particularly the ones who have worked with him, is there's a lack of leadership."

McNulty was speaker from 2010 to 2012, and he represented Highlands Ranch in the House from 2006 until 2014.

He now is founder and principal of Square State Strategy Group, a political consulting and lobbying firm based in Denver.

(c)2018 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)