On a late February night in Palm Beach, a mansion owned by billionaire art collectors was teeming with activity. Pianist Chloe Flower played Chopin, a four-course meal was served and, most importantly for the hosts, $1,000 bottles of some of the world’s best champagne were poured.
Seated somewhere near the middle of this “by-invitation bacchanal,” in the words of one attendee, was U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, according to news reports, an Instagram video and a promotional photo of the party.
The party was put on by Krug Champagne, a French company owned by a multinational conglomerate of luxury brands called LVMH. For the past 20 years, LVMH has lobbied the U.S. Senate on a range of issues related to its brands, such as Louis Vuitton, Hennessy and Krug Champagne, disclosure reports show.
State Rep. Tom Sullivan, a Centennial Democrat and outspoken critic of Gardner, says Gardner’s appearance at the champagne party is an ethics violation. Sullivan claimed in a complaint to the Senate Ethics Committee this week that Gardner violated a ban on gifts of more than $50, as well as a ban on gifts from companies that hire lobbyists.
Gardner’s campaign says he didn’t take a gift from Krug Champagne or anyone else on that February night. The campaign says it fully paid for Gardner’s evening when, weeks later, it sent $350 from a campaign account to LaForce, a New York City public relations firm that represents Krug. LaForce did not respond to a request for confirmation that the check covered the cost of Gardner’s night.
“In compliance with Federal Election Commission regulations, the Gardner campaign paid for Senator Gardner’s attendance at the event,” said Jerrod Dobkin, a spokesman for the Gardner campaign.
“To be clear, the senator’s compliance with law here is in stark contrast with John Hickenlooper, who broke the law every time he failed to reimburse billionaires for the private jet flights he took as an elected official,” Dobkin added, referring to a top Gardner opponent, whom Sullivan has endorsed.
The U.S. Senate Ethics Committee, which is chaired by Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, did not respond to questions about whether it had received Sullivan’s complaint. And Krug Champagne did not respond to multiple requests for comment about why it invited Gardner to its exclusive party in Palm Beach.
Whether Gardner, a Yuma Republican up for re-election in November, violated Senate ethics rules will likely depend on whether his payment to LaForce covered the cost of his champagne, food and entertainment in south Florida, experts say.
“Reimbursing the donor for an ‘inadvertent’ gift remedies the violation under Senate ethics rules,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the liberal think tank Public Citizen who helped write the Senate’s gift rules. “Whether the gift was in fact inadvertent is very difficult to prove otherwise.”
The Krug Champagne event was held at the mansion of two wealthy Gardner donors, John and Amy Phelan. Both contributed the maximum amount allowed under law to Gardner’s 2014 Senate campaign. The Phelans are part-time Colorado residents and prominent figures in the Aspen arts scene.
“This raises even more questions,” Sullivan said of the Gardner campaign’s payment to LaForce. “Does Senator Gardner use his campaign as a personal slush fund to pay for lavish events? Is Senator Gardner doing PR for a champagne company on the side?”
An Instagram video of the event, posted to the pianist’s account and cited in the ethics complaint, appears to show Gardner seated near the center of a long table, watching intently in a dark suit. A promotional photo released by Krug also shows Gardner near the center of the table, seated across from Amy Phelan and Steve Wynn, a billionaire casino magnate and GOP mega-donor who resigned from his role with the Republican National Committee due to sexual misconduct allegations.
“I just don’t see why he needed to go down to Florida when there’s constituents right here in Colorado who have been waiting to talk to him,” Sullivan said.
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