DENVER (CBS4)- A CBS4 investigation has uncovered millions of dollars in donations from corporations and private foundations to the governor's office. The under-the-radar donations, that not even the budget office knows the extent of, date back at least 20 years.
The offices of Gov. Bill Owens and Gov. Bill Ritter accepted some donations and Gov. Jared Polis' office admits he has five positions paid for with private dollars, including one funded by an anonymous donor who funneled $135,000 through the Silicone Valley Foundation.
But the donations to past and current administrations pale in comparison to those Gov. John Hickenlooper accepted. Hickenlooper admits he took the public-private model to a new level, funding programs and even positions in his administration with no oversight.
Among the biggest donors was the former Anadarko Oil and Gas. The company 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.
"We tried to be as transparent as we could be, we issued press releases," said Hickenlooper.
He said the donations were for a variety of initiatives and provided flyers for some of them, showing Anadarko as one of many sponsors for Pedal the Plains and One Book Colorado, but there's no way of verifying any of it.
The only other public accounting of the donations is on a little-known website called the Transparency Online Project. After a time-consuming, multi-step search, CBS4 found the Anadarko donation under a tab titled "Combining Special Revenue" along with money from other private companies and foundations.
The donations ran in the millions of dollars over the course of Hickenlooper's 8 years in office.
Hickenlooper said he doesn't remember soliciting any of the money himself, "I would sometimes speak to the chamber of commerce or I would speak to the Colorado Association of Nonprofits."
When asked if he approached certain organizations or private companies directly, Hickenlooper responded, "I can't think of anything offhand."
He said the donations were handled by the governor's Community Partnerships Program and he provided annual reports that detail various public-private partnerships. In most cases, 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. 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.
Some foundations told CBS4 they paid for policy positions in the office that aligned with their agenda. There were also anonymous donations.
"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," said Hickenlooper. "If there was sniff of politics in it, then we walked away."
Frank Lamonte, Director of the Brechner Center for the Freedom of Information, said he's never heard of direct donations to a governor's office without oversight. "Big dollar presents like that are the exact kind of things that ethics laws seek to prohibit and regulate."
While CBS4 found no evidence of a quid pro quo, Lamonte said the potential is certainly there. Lamonte calls the donations an end-run around campaign finance laws that come with limits and public disclosure, "Even if it's well-intentioned and there is no influence buying going on, it just raises all sorts of red flags that it could influence the direction of policy and it could influence what legislation is prioritized, it could give, at least if not influence, it could give preferred access to the governor."
State Sen. Dominic Moreno, Vice Chair of the Joint Budget Committee, plans to bring a bill next year requiring disclosure of all gifts, grants, and donations to the governor's office.
"These are funds that the Joint Budget Committee has no discretion or appropriation authority over," he said.
Moreno says the committee should at least have oversight authority.
"We have received a number of budget requests that seek to continue some of these positions that were originally seeded with private dollars. Ultimately it's the governor's office that's going to have to explain to voters what they use those funds for and they're going to be held accountable to voters."
Hickenlooper defends the donations.
"I looked at it as a way to try to make the community better, especially at times when you are short funds."
But he admits, in hindsight, there should have been more disclosure and oversight.
"You have appearances that aren't really justified in reality but people see it, it gets presented in such a way that that's what people come away with."
Hickenlooper says the current and future administrations should have to report the donations and "hundreds of grants" that the office receives and that the legislature doesn't know about. He says the Governor's office will seek private donations even more now with the state in a recession.
The Colorado Sun contributed the information about the Silicone Valley Foundation to this report.
for more features.