In the middle of the current economic crisis, Gov. Bill Ritter and nine other state employees spent more than $78,000 to conduct a trade mission to Asia that included taxpayers paying for business-class flights and five-star hotels, a CALL7 investigation found.
Ritter defended the trip and the expenses, saying it is important to market the state overseas so that foreign businesses will bring investment and jobs into the Colorado.
"It's important for us to continue to economically develop this state, Ritter told CALL7 Investigator Tony Kovaleski. And to have a strategy for doing that.
But before and after the trip, Ritter and his staff knew the state was facing a large budget shortfall.
We think our first order of business should be to prudently manage the budget, Ritter said during his State of the State address less than two months after the Asia trip.
Colorado Ethics Watch and Republican lawmakers criticized the timing and the spending on the trip.
"This was a very costly trip and it doesn't seem to be the most prudent time to be taking it, said Chantell Taylor, director of Colorado Ethics Watch. It's hard to justify spending over $70,000 on a trip to Asia when most Coloradoans are struggling to meet their basic, pay their basic bills and meet their basic needs."
Travel documents show that taxpayers paid $6,615 each for three business class tickets that Ritter and two other top state officials used to fly ANA Airlines from Los Angeles to Tokyo and back. That was a total of nearly $20,000.
ANAs commercial describes the accommodations.
Aboard ANA luxury takes flight, the commercial says. Relax in soothing comfort of our business-class seats; savor the pleasures of the finest cuisine.
State Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, called the spending a luxury trip and said it would never be appropriate for taxpayers to pay for business-class flights and five-star hotels.
When you add up the fact that it was business class, they stayed in the Ritz, that he had 10 people with him that they spent all of this extra money along the way to make sure it was a first class trip for the governor, that's when you start to have a question about whether it was an appropriate use of taxpayers' money, Harvey said.
All 10 state employees stayed at the Ritz Carlton in Beijing and while the state obtained a discounted rate of about $230 a night per room, a search on travel Web sites shows that four- and five-star rooms could be found for about $150 a night.
Don Elliman, head of the state Office of Economic Development and International Trade, said there were discussions about cancelling or scaling back the trip but state officials decided to go forward.
Could it have been canceled? Kovaleski asked
We talked about it -- discussed it. I think the governor and I came to the same conclusion," Elliman said.
Is this trip justifiable? Kovaleski asked.
Oh, I believe it was yes," he said.
In trying to justify the expense, Ritters spokesman put together a memo right before the trip.
(W)e need a pretty solid accounting of how much the trip will cost, who is paying, what sort of discounts we are getting, and if we can compare this trip to Asia trip (s) that Owens did, the e-mail said.
Sources say Owens never flew business-class at taxpayers expense but was at times given upgrades. That would not be possible now because of the ethics Amendment 41 that voters passed in 2006.
Ritter justified the trip, saying 10 other governors had been to Asia in the past year to drum up business. Specifically, he said the governor of Oregon was there just the day before.
But the comparison to Oregon's trip shows how Colorados trip could have been done for less money.
Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski spent less than $51,000 for the trade trip, taking seven people for nine days. Colorados trip cost 35 percent more with its 10 state delegates traveling for 11 days.
Kulongoski also paid $2,900 for economy class while Ritter flew business class at $3,700 more than Oregon taxpayers paid.
Oregon's governor made the same trip a week before you, Kovaleski said. He flew coach, why the difference?
Ritter said: I've explained why we did what we did. If you ask anybody on this trip, this isn't the people who were on the Oregon trip, the people on this trip with us, how aggressive I was in all that I did in making remarks, in marketing this state, and marketing our new energy economy.
Essential? Kovaleski asked.
I just, I believe I've said what I'm going to say about this, Tony, Ritter said.
The trips goal was to secure a direct flight between Japan and Denver, attract Asian businesses and develop contacts between scientists in Asia and Colorado. But there are questions about how many tangible accomplishments of the mission.
Elliman conceded that it is often impossible to directly connect trade missions and benefits to a state. And despite spending nearly $80,000 in state money on the trip, Elliman said he didnt go over the mission afterward to determine what, if anything, was accomplished.
Did I sit down and essentially had a debrief that tried to over the entire mission that said did we achieve everything we set out to do? Elliman said. The answer to that is no, I did not.
In fact, Ellimans spokesman referred to the trip as a dog and pony show in an e-mail obtained by the CALL7 investigators.
(W)ill be coming on wednesday to advance Govs trip. Would love to catch you prior to the dog and pony show arriving, the e-mail said.
Elliman said his spokesman was just being flip writing in the e-mail.
It was anything but a dog and pony show, Elliman said. I'm sorry that's as that's as far from the truth as you can get.
Tune in Tuesday at 10 p.m. to learn about whether the state violated ethics laws when paying for the trade mission.
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