John Hickenlooper’s attorney has been paid $43,390 — at a rate of $525 per hour — in taxpayer money to defend him before the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission as part of an arrangement that dates back to the former governor’s time in office.
It’s common for Colorado elected officials to be represented by government lawyers, or by private attorneys enlisted by the government, but in this case, the recipient of the money was hidden and the money came from a federal fund meant to help the state after 9/11.
Mark Grueskin, a high-powered private lawyer in Denver, was appointed “special assistant attorney general” in October 2018, when Hickenlooper first faced an ethics complaint into private flights that critics say violated a government gift ban.
On Oct. 29, 2018, the then-Republican state attorney general’s office sent a letter to Grueskin’s office, appointing him to the new role. That allowed Grueskin to be compensated by the governor’s office for as long as he was representing Hickenlooper, including the time after Hickenlooper left office.
The letter was obtained by The Denver Post from two state agencies via Colorado Open Records Act requests. It states the arrangement will continue until the ethics case is resolved or until it is revoked in writing. The attorney general’s office says there’s no evidence it has been revoked, suggesting Grueskin is still being paid by the state. He did not respond to a request for comment.
On Nov. 7, 2018, the governor’s office entered into a fee agreement with Grueskin, promising to pay him $525 per hour for his work on the case and pay a paralegal $150 per hour. A copy of that agreement was also obtained by The Post through CORA requests.RELATED:Ethics report on John Hickenlooper’s private jet travel is released
In 2018, Grueskin was paid $29,762 by taxpayers for less than three months of work on the case — the ethics complaint was filed Oct. 12 of that year — according to heavily redacted invoices. Because of the redactions, it’s unclear what work was done for that money, at what hourly rate, by whom and exactly when.
Between January and September of this year, when there was little movement in the ethics case, Grueskin was paid $13,628 by the government, according to the governor’s office.
Those payments do not appear to include Grueskin’s work in October and thus far in November, busier months in the ethics investigation. Grueskin did not respond to an email asking how much he has been paid by the state for his work on the case.
“It’s disappointing that a partisan, dark money group initiated this process with what the Denver Post editorial board has called an ‘error-filled’ complaint,” said Melissa Miller, Hickenlooper’s spokeswoman. “They put political attacks ahead of the facts, and it’s at taxpayers’ expense.”
The 2018 and 2019 payments appear in the state government’s transparency database, but Grueskin’s name is entirely redacted, some of only a few expenditures by the governor’s office to not list the recipient of taxpayer money. The Post corroborated those payments were to Grueskin by comparing the dates and dollar amounts on invoices to expenditures in the online database.
The practice of redacting Grueskin’s name from the public database for payments in the ethics case began when Hickenlooper was governor and has continued during the tenure of Gov. Jared Polis, a fellow Democrat. The governor’s office said names are redacted to protect confidentiality, such as attorney-client privilege, in accordance with state law.
According to the transparency database, money paid by the state to Grueskin comes from the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003, a bundle of federal dollars allocated as part of a President George W. Bush-era plan to jump-start the post-9/11 economy.
Then-Gov. Bill Owens signed an executive order in 2003 accepting the federal money and clarifying it should be used “to provide essential government services or to cover the costs of certain federal unfunded mandates.”
Sixteen years later, leftover taxpayer money appears to also be covering Hickenlooper’s legal costs. When asked about this, the governor’s office emailed a copy of the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003 but did not explain why its federal funds are being used in this way. Hickenlooper’s campaign said he did not decide where the money came from or whether to redact payments to Grueskin.
It is common for high-ranking state officials to receive government-paid legal counsel when facing ethics complaints. Former Secretaries of State Wayne Williams and Scott Gessler were both represented by the Colorado Attorney General’s Office as they defended against ethics complaints, in Gessler’s case for several years and at a significant cost to taxpayers.
In March, Colorado Politics reported that Hickenlooper was being represented by the state, but later updated its story after the attorney general’s office told the news outlet it was not paying for Hickenlooper’s outside counsel. A spokesman for the attorney general’s office said this week that his claim then was accurate, since Grueskin is being paid with tax dollars from the governor’s office, not tax dollars from the attorney general’s office.
That spokesman, Lawrence Pacheco, also said it’s common for the attorney general’s office to give private attorneys the title of special assistant attorney general, as it did with Grueskin, when they’re performing work for the government. There were 49 such designations in 2018, and more than 200 in the past decade, he said.
Hickenlooper, a Democrat, is running for U.S. Senate in a crowded primary and is the leading Democratic contender to take on Sen. Cory Gardner, a Yuma Republican, next year. With the ethics case still pending, his opponents on both sides of the aisle have largely refrained from remarking on it publicly in recent weeks.
This story has been changed to clarify that Mark Grueskin is not John Hickenlooper’s personal attorney but rather represents him in his former role as governor.
[via the Denver Post]