[dropcap]O[/dropcap]FFICIALLY, U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner’s campaign for U.S. Senate started in March at a Denver lumberyard with a promise “to begin the hard work of rebuilding our great nation.”
Unofficially it began in D.C. nearly two months earlier with a political bluff.
While actively but covertly planning his surprise candidacy against U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, Gardner was leveraging his congressional clout in an attempt to smear his soon-to-be opponent.
Seven weeks before formally launching his Senate bid, Gardner was using his pull as a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee to call for a congressional investigation into inquiries made by Udall about health insurance enrollment in Colorado. A review of news reports from the first half of January show that Gardner — who at the time was running for re-election to his 4th Congressional District seat — was brokering political deals to switch races and launch his Senate bid while trumpeting the need for a federal probe of the senator he was fixing to unseat.
The timing of Gardner’s allegations that Udall made “inappropriate use of government power” calls into question the motivation behind his threat of a congressional investigation and suggests it was less a serious inquiry into wrongdoing than a stunt in a campaign he had yet to announce.
“This is yet another instance where Congressman Gardner has been caught trying to score political points at the expense of Colorado families,” Udall’s campaign spokesman James Owens said Wednesday. “Instead of working to make the health law work for Colorado, Gardner is showing that the only interests he’s looking out for are his own.”
The flap in January pivoted on the approaching March 31 deadline for open enrollment in Obamacare – a key wedge issue in political races in Colorado and nationwide.
The timeline went as follows:
On January 9, The Denver Post quoted internal emails from Jo Donlin, then director of external affairs for the Colorado Division of Insurance, who told colleagues that Udall’s office was making false accusations about her office’s tally of Coloradans whose health insurance policies had been cancelled.
Udall’s staff strongly denied accusations of intimidation, saying it was seeking clarification of statistics that seemed “wildly inaccurate.” In the months leading up to the enrollment deadline, it was in fact difficult to tell from the state insurance division how many policies had been cancelled and how many had been picked up.
Gardner sent a letter to the state insurance division asking for clarification about the cancellation numbers. “I raise these questions in the midst of news reports regarding political pressure placed on your division to alter numbers,” he wrote Commissioner of Insurance Marguerite Salazar.
In stories dated January 14 and January 15, Gardner amped up his accusations by asking the House Oversight Committee and its Energy and Commerce Committee to investigate his accusation that Udall was “cooking the books” regarding insurance enrollment in Colorado.
“I think anytime you have an office that is caught red-handed in a hostile phone call where they are trying to change what is recognized as legitimate numbers for political purposes, that’s an inappropriate use of government power,” Gardner was quoted in The Daily Caller
On January 17, the National Republican Senatorial Committee weighed in on Gardner’s behalf, widely disseminating its own letter to Udall accusing him of bullying insurance officials and alleging that his staff “sought to pressure state employees to manipulate data.”
In the meantime, it was reported that in January Gardner was consulting with the NRSC about running for Senate Politico, 3/27/14. The group fielded a poll on his viability while Gardner, presumably seeking re-election to his House seat, lobbed attacks on the Senator he was quietly calculating whether he could beat.
Four months later, the investigation Gardner said was “likely” never happened. Emily Hytha, the Congressman’s spokeswoman, said Wednesday she had “no knowledge” of an inquest into Udall, and did not follow up when she told The Independent she would “look into it.”
Congressional committee staffers say no investigation into Udall is scheduled or being considered.
Gardner and his office didn’t respond to the question of whether he used his congressional seat to target his would-be opponent.
Threats of congressional probes are nothing new.
“Members of Congress have been using the power of investigation to advance their political agendas probably as long as the power of investigation has existed,” said Luis Toro, director of Colorado Ethics Watch.
What’s noteworthy about Gardner’s threat isn’t ethics as much as political bluster. His first move in his run for Senate came in January with a bluff intended not only to smear Udall but also the Obama administration health care reforms that, even after early signs of success, he lambastes almost daily.
During a hearing on Wednesday of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Gardner grilled health insurance executives about the effects of Obamacare and, specifically, the number of insurance policies that have been cancelled because of it. Hardly any of the witnesses offered up the answers Gardner was looking for. Some, in fact, gave answers vastly different than Gardner and his fellow House Republicans seemed intent to unearth. Some said their numbers have increased, not decreased, during the implementation of Obamacare.
Four months after accusing Udall of “cooking the books” about health insurance enrollment, Gardner used his five minutes of committee time Wednesday slamming Obama’s health care initiative and asking how many health care policies each company represented at the hearing had to cancel under the law.
“Um, We don’t have that information,” said Frank Coyne, a vice president with the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association.
Gardner, apparently dissatisfied with the executive’s answers, continued his grilling by repeating his question.
Responded Coyne: “We haven’t asked for that information.”