Judge: Pinnacol Must Release 'Golf Junket' Records

Pinnacol Asks For Stay Of Order Pending Appeal

A Denver District judge has ordered Pinnacol Assurance to immediately turn over documents requested by 7News under state open records laws, but Pinnacol is asking the appeals court to stay that order pending the company's appeal.

Judge Morris B. Hoffman, who in August ruled that Pinnacol is subject to open records law as a political subdivision, wrote last week that the damage would be greater for 7News to not immediately receive the documents.

“I recognize that in the absence of such a stay, Plaintiff will lose the practical benefits of the appeal. But the same is true of Defendants,” Hoffman wrote. “Their right to access these public documents will, for all practical purposes, be destroyed if they must wait many months, and perhaps years, for a final appellate resolution.”

Hoffman wrote his decision is based on the fact that the documents will not damage Pinnacol.

“These were not documents whose release will compromise national security, or even Plaintiff’s competitiveness,” he wrote. “They were documents about the details of a golf junket to California that Plaintiff put on for its independent sales agents. The only damage the release of these documents will cause is some fleeting, and arguably healthy, embarrassment.

“On the other hand, there is a strong public interest in having these public records aired,” Hoffman wrote. “Plaintiff is a political subdivision of the state, and even though it is a strange amalgam of public and private entity, the public still has a profoundly important interest in its operations.”

7News asked for travel records after a trip Pinnacol executives, agents and board members took to Pebble Beach earlier this year. Instead of releasing the documents, Pinnacol asked the state appellate court to stay Hoffman’s order until their appeal is heard.

Pinnacol argued that releasing the documents would make their appeal pointless.

“First, Pinnacol’s appeal could be rendered moot if Pinnacol is required to release the records at this time,” Pinnacol attorney Timothy G. O’Neill wrote. “When failure to grant a stay could moot a case, the court should stay the case pending appeal.”

Releasing the records would also cause irreparable harm to the privacy of the individuals whose activities are detailed in the case, O'Neill wrote in his filing.

Hoffman said Pinnacol's argument is not valid in light of the facts of the case and the likelihood the appeal will be successful.

“I think Plaintiff’s chances of success on appeal are small,” he said. “With all due respect to Plaintiff and its right to appeal, without at all meaning to invade the province of the court of appeals, and with the humility of doing this job for 20 years and being reversed a healthy number of times, I think it is very unlikely this ruling will be reversed.”

For more than a year, CALL7 Investigators have looked into the finances of Pinnacol Assurance – the worker’s compensation insurance agency set up by the state. The board of the agency is appointed by the governor and the board members' job is to set policy over the expenses of the company and review compensation for the executives.

Upon hearing that board members were accompanying the executives and independent agents on a trip to the luxury Pebble Beach golf resort, CALL7 Investigator Tony Kovaleski and photojournalist Jason Foster went to Pebble Beach. CALL7 Investigators used hidden cameras to capture board members golfing, attending wine tours and eating catered dinners at Pinnacol’s expense. Board Chairman Gary Johnson, ethics chairwoman Debra Lovejoy and Ryan Hettich attended the golf trip.

7News sought the records to determine, in part, if Pinnacol also paid for spa treatments, travel and lodging and gifts to the board members.

After seeing video of the trip, Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, who headed a committee investigating Pinnacol, said it is a conflict of interest for the board members to accept the travel, and Gov. Bill Ritter called the trip "ill-advised."

After the trip, CALL7 Investigators asked for the expense records for the trip, but instead of turning over the documents as agency officials did previously, Pinnacol went to court. Pinnacol had asked the district court to rule that detailed records of their golf trip to Pebble Beach in May were not subject to open records laws.

In August, Morris ruled that the records should be available under the Colorado Open Records Act and ordered Pinnacol to pay the station’s legal fees. Pinnacol appealed the ruling and a lawyer for 7News asked that the records be turned over immediately because a delay would affect the newsworthiness of the documents.

After Morris ruled in favor of turning over the records, Pinnacol asked the appeals court for a stay.