Campaign finance violations alleged against Gardner by Colorado lawmaker

FEC complaint targets ‘decadent banquet’ at GOP megadonor’s Palm Beach mansion

Sen. Cory Gardner speaks before the arrival of President Donald Trump at a Keep America Great rally on Feb. 20, 2020, in Colorado Springs. (Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner is facing new accusations of campaign-finance violations over his attendance earlier this year at a Palm Beach soirée hosted by Republican megadonors and a luxury champagne brand.

State Rep. Tom Sullivan, a Democrat from Aurora, told Newsline in an interview that he filed a formal complaint against Gardner with the Federal Election Commission last month, alleging that a campaign expenditure made in connection with the senator’s appearance at a Feb. 26 promotional event for Krug Champagne violated the Federal Election Campaign Act.

“Senator Gardner and the Campaign appear to have violated the Act and Commission regulations by converting campaign funds to personal use, or in the alternative, unlawfully accepting a corporate and possibly foreign-national contribution,” Sullivan’s complaint states. “As such, we respectfully request that the Commission immediately investigate these violations.”

Gardner’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment. By law, FEC enforcement matters are kept confidential until a case is resolved.

State Rep. Tom Sullivan represents the 37th district in the Colorado Legislature. (leg.colorado.gov)

Sullivan’s allegations stem from Gardner’s attendance at the Krug Champagne party held at the Palm Beach mansion of Amy and John Phelan, a Republican donor and managing partner of private-equity firm MSD Capital. High-society magazine Town & Country described the event as a “decadent banquet” that “put most VIP club sections to shame,” part of a series of globe-spanning “Krug Encounters” presented by the company, a subsidiary of French conglomerate LVMH.

In April, Sullivan filed an initial complaint with the U.S. Senate Ethics Committee, alleging that Gardner’s attendance at the event violated congressional rules banning gifts worth more than $50 from lobbyists and corporations. A spokesman for Gardner later told the Denver Post that the campaign had paid the senator’s attendance with a $350 payment to LaForce, a New York-based public relations firm whose clients include Krug, on March 15.

But far from clearing the matter up, Sullivan said, that expenditure — formally disclosed in Gardner’s quarterly FEC campaign filing on April 15 — raised a host of new questions.

“So, wait a minute, are you using your campaign money to go to lavish parties down in Florida?” Sullivan said. “Or are you going and campaigning with foreign companies?”

‘Both of these scenarios are illegal’

In effect, Sullivan’s FEC complaint argues that the Gardner campaign’s explanation created an ethical Catch-22 — implicating the senator either in one set of campaign-finance violations or another.

On one hand, if Gardner didn’t fundraise or engage in other campaign activities at the Krug party, the complaint alleges, then the $350 payment to LaForce violates FEC rules prohibiting spending campaign funds for “personal use.”

“The Champagne Event involved expensive champagne, decadent food, and musical entertainment, and Senator Gardner has not made any statements indicating that he was conducting campaign or officeholder activities at the event,” the complaint states. “Rather, it appears that Senator Gardner was on a personal outing for pleasure and that his attendance had nothing to do with his role as a candidate or officeholder.”

If, on the other hand, Gardner’s attendance was campaign-related, the party constituted a wide range of violations by both Gardner and Krug, the complaint alleges. Candidates for federal office are barred from accepting contributions of any kind directly from corporations, and FEC rules also prohibit corporations from “facilitating the making of contributions” to federal candidates. If Krug, which is headquartered in France, paid for such an event itself, it would further violate rules prohibiting contributions from foreign nationals.

“As such, if Senator Gardner and the Campaign did not violate the personal-use prohibition, then they violated the Act by accepting a corporate contribution, possibly from a foreign national,” the complaint states. “Both of these scenarios are illegal and warrant immediate investigation.”

FEC disclosures show that Gardner’s 2014 Senate campaign received maximum contributions of $2,600 from both John and Amy Phelan, who reside part-time in an Aspen chalet described by Architectural Digest as “the ultimate art-world party pad.” John Phelan also contributed $33,900 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2018, when Gardner chaired the group.

Other guests at the Phelans’ mansion on Feb. 26, according to Town & Country, included Cuban-American billionaire Pepe Fanjul, a longtime conservative donor and heir to the Fanjul sugar fortune, and Steve Wynn, the billionaire casino magnate who resigned as the Republican Party’s national finance chair following sexual harassment allegations in 2018.

Sullivan, who was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives in 2018, is a longtime Gardner critic. Sullivan’s son Alex was fatally shot in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, and he has frequently criticized the Republican senator for failing to meet with him and for continuing to oppose gun-control legislation.

“I know how difficult it is to get people to write you a check, and I know what they expect when they send money to you,” Sullivan said. “They’re expecting you to go out there and work to get yourself re-elected and listen to their ideals — not to go to Florida to hobnob with millionaires and billionaires, drinking thousand-dollar glasses of wine.”