A Republican TV ad strongly implies — without proof — that former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper accepted donations in exchange for not penalizing an oil and gas company involved in a fatal home explosion in 2017.
“A community devastated, but no one went to jail. No fines under Hickenlooper,” the narrator in the National Republican Senatorial Committee ad says. “John Hickenlooper. He took the money and let them get away with it.”
That’s not the whole story.
Anadarko Petroleum Corp., the company that owned the well and pipeline that leaked gas into the home, did donate more than $330,000 to Hickenlooper’s administration, as the ad states. But a Denver news station’s report about those and other donations — which the NRSC cited in defense of its ad — actually said: “CBS4 found no evidence of a quid pro quo.”
In addition, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission told us the state agency waited for a federal report on the explosion before imposing a record fine against the company in March 2020. The National Transportation Safety Board released its report in October 2019 — more than two years after the incident and 10 months after Hickenlooper was no longer governor.
Also, the state attorney general is responsible for prosecutions — not the governor.
According to Advertising Analytics, the NRSC, since the ad was released July 16, has already spent more than $262,000 airing the attack on Hickenlooper, a Democrat, who is running to unseat Republican Sen. Cory Gardner in Colorado.
The ad starts with footage of a destroyed home in flames and a news anchor saying: “Well after a deadly home explosion in Firestone, neighbors say not enough has been done to prevent a similar tragedy.” The ad’s narrator adds: “That’s because John Hickenlooper took a secret donation from the company who caused it.” That’s followed by the voice of a news reporter who says: “More than $330,000 over four years.”
At the end, the ad’s narrator concludes: “A community devastated, but no one went to jail. No fines under Hickenlooper. John Hickenlooper. He took the money and let them get away with it.”
But the NRSC provided no actual proof that the donations influenced any decisions that Hickenlooper made after the accident. The ad’s other claims lack important context, as well.
The NRSC sent us the research in support of its ad, including a June 11 CBS4 Denver article about the news station’s investigation of millions of dollars in donations from corporations and private foundations to past and current administrations in Colorado. The donations for public-private partnerships — which are allowed in several states — were used to fund government programs and positions, according to the story.
“Among the biggest donors,” the article said, “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.”
The donations, however, were not “secret,” as the ad claims. They were disclosed on the Transparency Online Project, which the CBS4 article called a “little-known” — and not user-friendly — state website. The article also quoted Hickenlooper saying that at least some of the partnerships were mentioned in press releases. Portions of some of those documents are shown on screen in the video package accompanying the story.
Furthermore, there’s no proof that the contributions from Anadarko — particularly the $25,000 in May 2017 — were some form of payoff.
Notably, an article by the Colorado Sun, which assisted CBS4 in a months-long investigation, said: “The analysis found no evidence that the donations were connected to official action taken by Hickenlooper’s administration.”
The CBS4 article similarly said the news station “found no evidence of a quid pro quo.”
A Hickenlooper campaign spokesperson told us the company had already contributed nearly $219,000 to Hickenlooper’s administration prior to the Firestone accident.
The ad also claims Hickenlooper “took the money and let them get away with it,” referring to the April 2017 explosion caused by an uncapped underground flowline — a type of pipeline that was connected to an Anadarko gas well — that leaked an odorless gas into the basement of the home in Firestone. Brothers-in-law Mark Martinez and Joey Irwin were installing a hot water heater when they were killed in the blast.
“A community devastated, but no one went to jail. No fines under Hickenlooper,” the ad’s narrator says. That’s true, but the ad leaves out key details.
For one, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state regulator, has said it waited for the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency that investigates fatal pipeline accidents, to complete its report before pursuing any fines against Anadarko.
A COGCC spokeswoman, Megan Castle, told us in email that “the NTSB was the lead in the investigation” and “the COGCC needed the final report from the NTSB before completing its enforcement actions.”
The NTSB, which started its investigation in 2017, didn’t release its final report until October 2019. That was 10 months after Hickenlooper — who was governor from January 2011 to January 2019 — had finished his second and last term. In March 2019, a spokesman for the agency told reporters its investigation, which was originally projected to take 12 to 18 months, was delayed when the lead investigator retired and when the federal government partially shut down in early 2019.
In April 2020, under Hickenlooper’s successor, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, the COGCC approved a record $18.25 million fine — the largest ever issued by COGCC — against Kerr-McGee, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, which acquired Anadarko in August 2019. The company was fined for violating four rules, the COGCC said in its press release.
As for no Anadarko officials being prosecuted, Sharon Jacobs, an associate professor at the University of Colorado School of Law, told us that would have been up to the state attorney general at the time — not Hickenlooper.
The attorney general “is a separately elected official in Colorado and makes independent prosecutorial decisions,” Jacobs said in an email. “The Governor does not make these choices.”
In 2018, Anadarko reached an undisclosed settlement with the families of Mark Martinez and Joey Irwin, including Erin Martinez — Mark’s wife and Irwin’s sister. Erin Martinez, who survived the explosion but was badly burned, has called on the NRSC — to no avail — to stop airing the ad, saying it “uses my story in a negative light and disgraces the memory of Mark and Joey.”
After speaking with Erin Martinez, Gardner also has called for the ad to come down. “If I had the power to take down the ad, I would,” he said in a statement.
The Hickenlooper campaign also noted that, after the explosion, Hickenlooper ordered companies to identify and test pipelines within 1,000 feet of occupied buildings.
But the NRSC pointed to an October 2019 Denver Post article that said some promises Colorado leaders made after the Firestone incident, such as providing a comprehensive, public map of all pipelines, hadn’t been fulfilled.
That may be, but there’s no evidence that contributions from Anadarko had anything to do with it.
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