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For Sale: Top Post in Ritter Administration

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A little lesson in political philosophy from Gov. Bill Ritter: When a corporation attempts to inject itself into public policy by writing big checks, it's evil. When a liberal foundation does the same, however, the move marks an essential step forward in our efforts to save the world.

This is the dichotomy playing out this week in response to Senate Republican leader Josh Penry's tactful questioning of Ritter's management of the state's taxpayer-funded Governor's Energy Office. Penry, now vying for the Republican nomination to challenge Ritter in next year' gubernatorial election, questions not only the fiscal utility of such a department, but also charges that the department is staffed with Ritter's friends and cronies.

While the allegations, if true, are certainly upsetting (Ritter adamantly denies them), they're practically benign in comparison to the undisputed fact that the GEO's agenda is directly influenced -- and in part funded -- by private entities devoted to aggressive positions on energy issues.

Alice Madden, a Boulder Democrat and former Speaker of the Colorado House, now serves as the state's climate change coordinator. While her desk is stationed in the office's headquarters, she's quick to point out that her $80,000 annual salary is actually funded through private grants coming from the Hewlett, Denver and Energy foundations. She thinks this is a good thing.

In a January press release, Ritter and Madden both praised the arrangement, with Madden proclaiming, "One of the most exciting aspects to this challenge is that almost every solution has the added benefit of creating jobs. In these tough economic times, I can't think of a better win-win for us all."

But a win-win for who?

At first glance, the arrangement may seem to ease the burden on drained public coffers, but with three powerful foundations writing the checks, Madden's decisions should be, at minimum, tainted by the appearance of bias.

On its Web site, the San Francisco-based Energy Foundation doesn't hide the ball when it comes to its agenda, pledging a commitment "to reduc[ing] carbon emissions from the electric and gas utility industry by advancing energy efficiency and renewable energy. The primary focus is on state and regional opportunities."

The $6 billion Hewlett Foundation, also based out of San Francisco, is committed not only to funding alternative energy programs, but also to "helping to reduce global poverty, limiting the risk of climate change, improving education for students in California and elsewhere, improving reproductive health and rights worldwide, supporting vibrant performing arts in our community, advancing the field of philanthropy, and supporting disadvantaged communities in the San Francisco Bay Area."

Finally, the Denver Foundation, a fine organization that gives more than $5 million in grants every year to worthy causes Colorado, appears at first non-ideological. But with a board of trustees that includes some of Denver's most powerful political voices, its involvement in funding Madden's position also suggests the potential for -- at minimum -- a conflict of interest down the road.

With the exception of Madden's salary, the 43 other people heading to the GEO's headquarters for work each day have their salaries funded almost exclusively through federal stimulus funds. While it remains debatable which, if any, of these jobs were payback for political support of Ritter, the damage is already done.

By accepting private funding for Madden's salary, not a single energy-related decision Ritter makes during his tenure should be immune from the legitimate inference that it could have been improperly influenced.

Jessica Peck Corry (www.JessicaCorry.com) is a Denver attorney and public policy analyst with the Independence Institute.