August 1, 2010; Source: Denver Post | Appearances are everything. Even though it was technically OK for Colorado Governor Bill Ritter and his entourage to let a nonprofit underwrite a trade mission to Israel, critics say he probably shouldn’t have allowed the group to pick up the tab.
The problem? While the nonprofit, Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado, contributed a yet undisclosed amount to pay for the junket, the trip was funded with donations from for-profit firms that do business with the state. Critics say that by letting the nonprofit pay for the trip, the governor was able to bypass rules voters approved in 2006 that limit lobbyists from giving anything of value to public officeholders and prevents other public officials from accepting gifts worth more than $50.
Yet, according to the Denver Post, the trip was subsidized by donations to the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado from corporations that the newspaper says, “regularly hire lobbyists to sway policy and legislation at the Capitol.” The trip had been approved by the state’s Ethics Commission, but Denver lawyer Doug Friednash said that the panel’s decision of the pass-through funding method “opens the door, possibly the floodgate, to illegitimate gifts and travel.”
A spokesman for the Ethics Commission defended the panel, saying that at the time the decision was made, funders for the trip hadn’t been determined yet. Instead, the commission based its decisions “on the facts that were available to it,” said Doug Platt. Ironically, the governor’s office came under fire in 2008 for a trade mission to Japan and China that cost taxpayers $81,000.
While clearly an effort to save the public money this time, the head of a watchdog group said the governor’s office could have insisted that none of the contributions come from firms with lobbying interests. “Trips like these do provide the type of access to decision-makers that the average Coloradan just doesn’t have,” said Jenny Flanagan, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, the group that backed the gift ban.—Bruce Trachtenberg