One nice thing about living in the internet age is that TV news network affiliates such as Denver’s CBS4 post their stories on it – otherwise, we might never have realized the Colorado governor’s office has been playing a dangerous game that seemed to surge under John Hickenlooper and sadly continues under his Democratic successor, Jared Polis.
It is the sort of thing that defies the tenets of transparency and ought to be stopped.
The CBS4 investigation of donations to the governor’s office, published last week, found millions of dollars given by corporations and foundations to fund governor’s office programs and positions, a practice that dates back at least 20 years – with little record-keeping, oversight or disclosure. (The story was followed the next day by a more extensive report at the Colorado Sun, co-bylined with CBS4 reporter Shaun Boyd.)
Among the biggest donors, CBS4 reported, was the former Anadarko Oil and Gas company, which donated $25,000 to the governor’s office in 2017, “just days after a deadly explosion in Firestone was tied to a leaking underground pipeline owned by the company. Over the course of four years, it gave the governor’s office more than $330,000, money for which there is little accounting.”
Hickenlooper told the station his administration tried to be transparent about it. “We issued press releases,” he said. But for some reason, no one cared to put two and two together or question the practice. CBS4 said it found the Anadarko information by combing the state’s Transparency Online Project, after “a time-consuming, multi-step search ... under a tab titled ‘Combining Special Revenue,’ along with money from other private companies and foundations.”
The TOP website was created by Gov. Bill Ritter, Hickenlooper’s Democratic predecessor, by executive order in 2009 and adopted by statute that year. It was upgraded in 2015, supposedly to provide even more transparency – but to the untrained eye it remains inscrutable. There is a lesson: As with open records laws, transparency and disclosure have indeterminate meanings unless and until reporters and others can and do vigorously use the tools provided.
Hickenlooper, who is in the Democratic U.S. Senate primary, gave CBS4 documents that detailed these public-private partnerships. But in most cases, the station found, “the private donors aren’t listed and CBS4 could find no public database for how individual donations were spent. According to former staff, there was also no written policy to avoid conflicts of interest and no formal vetting process.” For example, “Safeway gave $10,000 the year the governor signed a law allowing full strength alcohol in grocery stores.” (The company says it was for One Book, One Colorado.) CBS4 says some foundations told the station they paid for “policy positions in the (governor’s) office that aligned with their agenda.”
Hickenlooper’s explanation: “We didn’t blackball any industries, we tried to look at this as a frame of reference that a good company that wanted to make the state better, that that was a ... that they should have the opportunity, that was a good thing that they should have. If there was sniff of politics in it, then we walked away.”
That’s not good enough.
State Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Democrat from Commerce City, says he plans to bring a bill next year requiring disclosure of such partnerships and donations to the governor’s office and that he hopes the Legislature’s joint budget committee will have oversight of them. We hope to see every Democrat and Republican on that bill – and the backing of Polis.
Ultimately, these donations must be better regulated and curtailed, or banned. In politics, it is not enough to be clean. One must also take care to look pristine.