DENVER | A skirmish over Sen. Mark Udall’s efforts to pressure state insurance regulators into reworking their Obamacare cancellation figures has entangled another prominent Colorado Democrat: Gov. John Hickenlooper.
The Hickenlooper administration is accused of covering for Mr. Udall by claiming his staff was cleared of bullying accusations by a “neutral and objective panel” that turned out to be three administration Democrats.
Now state Republicans are calling for the resignation of a top Hickenlooper appointee, as well as for joint legislative hearings into accusations that Mr. Udall’s staff tried to intimidate state Division of Insurance employees for political gain.
The dust-up is emerging as a campaign issue for the two Colorado Democrats, who once were viewed as sure re-election bets this year but whose poll numbers have been slipping amid widespread dissatisfaction with President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
“This is one of those unique double-header situations,” said Republican strategist Dick Wadhams. “They’re both getting deeper and deeper into this cover-up. It’s amazing the collusion that has occurred here.”
At the center of the controversy is Barbara Kelley, executive director of the Department of Regulatory Affairs, who said in a Jan. 14 letter that a panel had exonerated Mr. Udall’s staff of pressuring state regulators to lower their insurance cancellation figures by subtracting those who were offered new policies.
About 335,000 Coloradans have had their policies canceled as a result of Obamacare’s elevated benefits requirements. Until late Monday, Ms. Kelley resisted releasing the names of those on the panel who cleared Mr. Udall’s staff of inappropriate intimidation.
Republicans were stunned to find that the “neutral and objective panel” consisted of Ms. Kelley, a Hickenlooper appointee; her deputy, Michelle Pederson; and John Cevette, a legislative liaison and former chief of staff to Brandon Shaffer, a Democratic Senate president.
State Rep. Amy Stephens, who requested the investigation, said the Hickenlooper administration “deliberately misled the public” in its effort to “run interference for Sen. Udall and thwart any attempt to impartially review his troubling behavior.”
“It’s obvious that Hickenlooper staffers vigorously fought to keep this panel secret because they knew that it would be exposed as nothing more than a shameful farce if its members were publicly identified,” said a statement by Ms. Stephens, who is seeking the Republican nomination for Mr. Udall’s U.S. Senate seat.
Ms. Kelley said in her letter identifying the panel members that she resisted identifying them to protect them from “potential politically motivated challenges of inquisitions.”
“It’s clear to me, not only from the manner in which the request for an inquiry was initiated, but also from subsequent comments in social media and by bloggers, that publishing the names of the employees involved would only subject them to scurrilous accusations of partisanship or worse,” Ms. Kelley said.
But those concerns don’t excuse her from deflecting requests by media outlets seeking information about the investigation through the state’s open-records law, critics say.
Former Rep. Tom Tancredo, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, has called for Ms. Kelley’s resignation, but he and other Republicans say the ultimate responsibility lies with Mr. Hickenlooper.
“Does anyone really think that she’s doing this without his knowledge?” said Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler, who also is running for the GOP gubernatorial nod. “Either he’s absolutely approving of what she’s doing or he is so clueless and so absent that he’s not even involved in one of the most scandalous acts of Colorado state government.”
Udall spokesman James Owens could not be reached for comment immediately Tuesday, but he has said the staff members were only trying to help state regulators “arrive at a number that has more relevance for health care consumers.”
So far, the only reaction from the governor’s office has come via Twitter from top Hickenlooper aide Alan Salazar, who defended Ms. Kelley’s “accountability/integrity.”
Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli said it’s unclear whether the uproar will dog Mr. Hickenlooper or Mr. Udall into the campaign season, but that it has the potential to become a “breakout issue” for Republican candidates.
“You couldn’t have a better issue for Republicans,” said Mr. Ciruli. “It’s about the one thing most problematic for Democrats, which is Obamacare. One of the main issues in 2014 for Udall is, ‘Did he vote for Obamacare? Was he responsible for Obamacare?’ And this fits nicely into that.”