All told, Denver’s elected officials only reported getting 296 gifts from January until June of this year. It’s not a lot, which makes each little detail all the more interesting.
Like if you’re going to take Mayor Michael Hancock out for a meal, better make it a steakhouse. He reported going to Ocean Prime the most, five times, and going to STK Denver three times in his gift report.
Or if you’re Councilman Rafael Espinoza, one detail, one single reported gift, can make the value of all your gifts over 100 times bigger than every other elected official. Let me explain in this chart of the week.
So, this is the first time that Denver’s elected officials filed gift reports after a rule change this year. Essentially, the new rules made it so city officials report their gifts bi-annually and in more detail. Multiple officials noted this change as a source of confusion.
That meant that some elected officials reported as little as $59 in gifts over the past six months and some reported much more. Here’s the breakdown:
You may notice that one bar is much, much bigger than the others. It’s because Espinoza reported getting a $550,000 gift from Rhys Duggan, who is a part of the ownership group of Elitch Gardens.
The May 26 gift is reported as a “donation to the HUNI foundation to benefit North High School. Donated 10,000 single-day admission tickets. If all are sold value would be $550,000.”
And here’s how Espinoza explained it: This gift is to be distributed over the course of five years — so 2,000 single-admission tickets go to the HUNI Foundation each year for them to sell for fundraising. Ultimately the money should go to North High. The office chose to report it as a lump sum, rather than divide it into 6 month chunks.
Another factor: Espinoza’s office chose to value a single admission ticket for as much as possible — $55 each. That price varies over the course of the season. When I checked Elitch Gardens, for example, a single admission ticket cost $34.
The Denver Code of Ethics, which has all the fine print for gift rules, doesn’t appear to expressly prohibit such a donation either:
“It shall not be a violation of this article for an officer, official, or employee to solicit or accept donations to the city or to solicit, accept or redirect donations for charitable purposes to a 501(c) or other charitable organization or to provide assistance to individuals affected by illness, crime or disaster or who have educational or other charitable needs …”
Espinoza says generally, he tried to err of the side of over-reporting rather than under-reporting gifts. In the case of the tickets, Espinoza said that he wasn’t soliciting Rhys Duggan to donate tickets, but rather was “connecting the dots.”
“We were having a conversation that was related to something else that I’m very proud of that I’m doing [work to enhance and preserve North High School] and he expressed interest in it, so we did make the connection,” Espinoza said.
“Obviously I’m making that connection with the hopes that it maybe benefits the group that is doing something,” he said. “At that point, it’s out of my hands whether there’s any donation, whether there’s a small donation or whether it’s a substantial donation.”
“The way I interpreted the law is because Rhys would have never known about what those people are doing and without me explaining the synergy of all this stuff, to me, that donation was a direct consequence of an action that I took,” Espinoza said.
In a conversation Friday, Duggan explained the gift in a similar way — it started when Espinoza mentioned work with North High and Duggan asked if there was anything he could do to help.
Duggan also explained that the scale of the gift, though large on a bar chart, isn’t disproportionate for an organization like Elitch Gardens:
“It wasn’t an outright cash donation, which lessens the blow to us on our cash flow and so it’s easier to be a bit more generous,” he said. “And also, the scale of the operation that we run, with 1.4 million visitors a year, the gift on paper looks really large, but in the scope of what we do is pretty reasonable.”
Another thing that doesn’t show on paper is that the gift is part of a larger programming effort that hopes to connect teens to jobs and other opportunities, Duggan said. It’s part of being a “good corporate citizen” and in the long term, an investment.
“East has been so successful as a high school, and as a result it’s done great things for the neighborhood there, in terms of property values and it really appeals to people who want a more urban life instead of a suburban one. I think if we can do the same thing at North or give them a good head start, I think everyone’s a winner,” he said.
Excluding the Elitch Garden gift, Mayor Michael Hancock received the most gifts and the most valuable gifts, which you might expect from the city’s top elected official. The most valuable gifts he reported were for events that involved travel: $1,775 in costs associated with the Progressive Policy Institute and United States Conference of Mayors.
By contrast, Councilman Paul Lopez, the elected official with the third-most valuable gifts, didn’t have any big ticket items. Instead, he had a lot more gifts reported than most elected officials. Again, Hancock got the most gifts, 70, but Lopez had 42. The average number of gifts reported per City Council member was 16.
Lopez says the reason he had so many gifts is because he’s trying to be as transparent as possible. But the purpose of all those gifts is to be out in the community.
“My job requires me to be present as much as possible, especially given the district I represent and the challenges we have,” Lopez said “We’ve been invisible for such a long time. I made it my point to be at everything I can so that people understand what we’re working for.”
And that’s true even if he gets two tickets and parking from Xcel Energy to go to the Jan. 5 Nuggets-Spurs game, estimated to be worth $300.
“I’m not a big basketball fan man, I’m a baseball guy. So that’s the number one thing, right?” he said.
“But the second thing is Xcel Energy just had a shift change in terms of who their point people are for Xcel on the community side. Xcel Energy is a huge partner in our district,” Lopez said. “We have so much business together, whether it’s the transmission lines that go through our district, whether it’s the decommissioned substations that we want to turn into parks.
“For me, it’s absolutely critical that I have a good relationship with Xcel Energy. Here are partners that we can potentially get park land out of. Here are folks that have a lot of volunteer events in our district. So I go to them. If they say, ‘Hey, we want to introduce you to our new person, we’re going to have something at our suite at the Nuggets game,’ I’m there.”
There’s also the matter of who’s doing the donating and what they think they’re getting from the experience. Here’s whose gifts were valued the most:
Let’s look at that again, sans Elitch Gardens since we already talked about them. Computer, zoom and enhance:
For the National Western Stock Show, the 20 or gifts reported are part of a long-standing tradition. CEO and President Paul Andrews said that goes back to show’s inception in 1906.
“This has been an annual tradition since 1906 for City Council and other elected officials to both attend the Stock Show and an annual dinner before the show starts. And it’s an honor to have them here,” he said.
In the case of the Denver Zoo, there were fewer gifts, only 11 gifts total. But they had higher reported values than some other events, pushing them to the top.
For example, multiple elected officials went to the Do at the Zoo fundraiser, where tickets were valued at $1,000 each. Other organizations, such as the Downtown Denver Partnership, also had events with high values that contributed to larger overall totals.
But value is subjective, explained Denver Zoo’s Chief External Relations Officer Tamra Ward.
“The ticket price for that event was calculated at $1,000. The fair market value of that ticket was $134,” said Ward. “So it appears that it was reported at the $1,000 level, but I suppose it could be reported at $134.”
While no one reported going to Do at the Zoo for only $134, Christopher Herndon and Mary Beth Susman both reported the value of their attendance as less than $1,000. Herndon valued two tickets at $175 each and Susman valued the event at $500. Wayne New, Deborah Ortega and Espinoza also went and reported the value as $1,000.
Because the zoo is the beneficiary of bond projects supported by city leaders — like the new tiger exhibit, The Edge — and paid for by city taxpayers, zoo officials said it’s important to have those leaders see the zoo in action and meet with top managers.
“Of course we want to have our elected leaders out to see an amazing exhibit but also there are public funds at work,” Ward said.
Can’t get enough gifts? Go through all the gifts on your own in the table below. If you find one that you’d like to see another story on, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This piece has been updated to include comment from Rhys Duggan.
Denverite’s high school intern Shemar Magee contributed to this report.