by Logan M. Davis and Amber Carlson
(This article was originally published in the Colorado Times Recorder)
The top Republican in the Colorado House of Representatives worked to conceal his involvement with a political consulting firm from his colleagues in the legislature, according to hundreds of pages of never-before-published sworn testimony. The documents, which stem from Minority Leader Hugh McKean’s divorce proceedings in September 2020, include firsthand testimony from McKean regarding his work with a number of Republican candidates, including at least one primary within his own caucus, his rationale for attempting to keep this work out of the public record for ethical reasons, and the outline of a campaign finance scheme which may violate Colorado law.
The documents were released to the Times Recorder with the approval of a Larimer County judge, and are reported here for the first time. The existence of the consulting firm, AhHa Strategies, which McKean created in large part to influence primary elections within his own party, is also reported here for the first time.
The transcripts, amounting to 389 pages of testimony given over the course of two days, provide a rare glimpse inside a political operation which the Minority Leader attempted to hide from his colleagues, and raise significant ethical and legal questions about the nature of the services McKean has provided to clients. All testimony was provided under oath.
The revelations from the court documents are the latest in a string of unusual happenings involving McKean this year. The legislator came under scrutiny in February for apparently being registered to vote at a vacant plot of land after his primary opponent, Austin Hein, filed a complaint against him with the Colorado Secretary of State’s office. The complaint has since been dismissed, and all available evidence suggests McKean is in the process of building a house on the lot.
But how McKean acquired that land is still an open question. In May, the Times Recorder reported that he had gotten the land from William Coulson, a former campaign donor of his, through an unorthodox $1 quit claim transaction in September 2021. No public records existed of any money being exchanged, which raised questions over how much McKean paid for the lot — or whether he paid for it at all.
When questioned about the transaction, McKean initially agreed to share the amount he paid for the property, then later stopped responding after the Times Recorder asked to see documentation of his payment. If he paid below fair market value, he may have violated a Colorado law that says elected officials can accept gifts worth no more than $50 in a calendar year.
After that story ran, GOP consultant Sage Naumann Tweeted a partial photo of a check and alleged it was McKean’s payment for the property. The check lacked identifying information such as a payer name or date, but McKean affirmed that the check was his and invited the Times Recorder to come see it in person. When a reporter tried to schedule a meeting with him, McKean once again went silent. Only when seeking comment for this story did McKean ultimately agree to a meeting to show a reporter the check. That meeting is scheduled for next week.
Although McKean has been largely unresponsive to the Times Recorder’s attempts to contact him, he publicly scoffed at the complaint Hein brought against him several months ago. On his Facebook page, McKean shared a news article covering the allegations, writing that “Loveland residents deserve better than gotcha-type politics and smear tactics.”
The statement, while hardly surprising coming from a politician, ignited the ire of one commenter, Eliza Smith.
In response to McKean’s post, Smith bluntly questioned him on how he got the property, claiming that the lawmaker had been going through a divorce when his “friend and contractor,” Coulson, bought the land in April 2020. Smith further stated, “My bet is, you asked Bill [Coulson] to buy it for you to hide it from your wife.”
Smith, whose connection with McKean is unknown, could not be reached for comment on this story. Nonetheless, the Times Recorder obtained McKean’s divorce records — including several days’ worth of testimony from witnesses — to investigate Smith’s claims about the Loveland property.
The property, which McKean did not own at the time, isn’t mentioned in the transcripts at all. But McKean had filed for divorce in November 2019, and the proceedings were not finalized until September 2020, meaning Coulson’s April 2020 purchase of the property fell during the window of time when McKean’s divorce was in progress. And, notably, Coulson only owned the property for a year and five months before transferring it into McKean’s trust.
Although the circumstances around McKean’s purchase of the Loveland property remain mysterious, testimony from the divorce records sheds light on other aspects of his life and business dealings. The legislator’s work with AhHa Strategies, which he co-founded with his campaign manager, Amy Parks, is of particular interest because of McKean’s admission under oath that he attempted to hide his involvement in it.
The nature of McKean’s involvement with the consulting company became surprisingly relevant in his September 2020 divorce trial. Though most divorce proceedings avoid going to trial, McKean’s request for alimony from his now-ex-wife, Kristin Vollstad, triggered a dispute regarding the division of assets, which led the parties to a two-day court appearance. As part of opposing counsel’s attempt to ascertain the extent of McKean’s ability to support himself financially, she pressed him on the matter of his private consulting work with AhHa Strategies.
What could have been a straightforward line of inquiry proved to be anything but, as McKean’s testimony about the company raised more questions than it answered. Despite admitting to co-founding the company with Parks, McKean was adamant in denying that he was a co-owner of AhHa Strategies, that he received any salary from his work there, or that he had any access to company funds.
Unfortunately for McKean, his denials were contrary to other facts in evidence, as opposing counsel – Cynthia Ciancio, a Denver-based divorce attorney – repeatedly pointed out.
“On your first financial statement, you listed [the company] as an asset, didn’t you?” Ms. Ciancio pressed McKean.
“I had listed it only because my name was on the bank account,” he replied.
“So you agree,” Ciancio followed up, “that, as a joint owner of the bank account, then, at least half of the money is yours?”
“No I do not,” McKean replied.
In other words, McKean admits to being the co-owner of the company’s bank account, and admits that he had a debit card to draw funds from that account, but denies that he had ownership of the funds in the account.
The exchange was not the only time during the trial when McKean seemed to dismiss the facts placed in front of him.
For instance, McKean’s denial that he owns the company is complicated by his admission that the company is actually named after him: McKean and Parks both testified that the name “AhHa Strategies” combines the initials of their first names. Amy, Hugh; Hugh, Amy. The company was launched in 2017 with Parks as the officially designated owner and Loveland attorney Troy Krenning as the registered agent. McKean’s name does not appear on the official documentation, but the registered mailing address for the business is a UPS mailbox known to belong to him. McKean also acknowledged under oath that, though his name does not appear on the business registration document, he is the one who filed the document.
“I believe I filed it after talking to Mr. Krenning and — just because I know the process to go through,” he testified.
McKean’s claim that he was not an owner of AhHa Strategies was further strained by another piece of evidence in the trial: a consulting contract listing him as an owner of AhHa Strategies.
“You’re not an owner of AhHa as a business?” Ciancio asked McKean during cross-examination, after introducing the contract into evidence for the record.
“No,” McKean replied.
“But you indicate, when you are entering into a contract with somebody else as — you’re holding yourself out,” she indicated the signature lines on the contract, “Party providing services, AhHa Strategies, by Hugh McKean, owner; Amy Parks, owner, right?”
“That’s what it says, yes,” McKean answered, not disputing the contradiction
Other sources, too, said they were under the impression that McKean was a co-owner of AhHa Strategies. Nancy Pflughoeft, a former neighbor of McKean’s, said she believed McKean and Parks owned the business together.
“[McKean] told me he and his campaign manager had started this company to help Republicans with their campaigns. I talked to him quite a bit about it,” Pflughoeft said. “At that point in time, to my knowledge, yeah, it was his and Amy’s business.”
Though multiple witnesses testified to their understanding that the two were partners in the business, the exact nature of the relationship between McKean and Parks is unclear. When Ciancio asked McKean about his relationship to Parks, McKean’s attorney, Thomas Ridgely, promptly objected.
The matter of who owns AhHa Strategies may ultimately have consequences beyond McKean’s divorce: during cross-examination, Parks testified that the company has never paid taxes and has retained no financial records.
Despite his continued denials of ownership, McKean and his business partner were clear about their reasons for wanting to conceal McKean’s involvement with the company. “We were concerned about a conflict of interest, given his position in the legislature,” Parks answered under cross-examination.
Nonetheless, by the time of the divorce proceedings in September 2020, McKean was not just running for reelection to his seat in the House, he was also running to be elected as Minority Leader in an internal election by his fellow members of the Republican caucus. Given his pursuit of a leadership position, it is not unusual that McKean would seek to intervene in Republican primaries: by getting more of his allies through primaries and elected in November, he could expect to earn more votes in the caucus leadership election.
What is unusual, though, is McKean’s explanation that he attempted to hide those efforts for what he termed “ethical” reasons.
“There are sort of ethical boundaries to what elected – and especially the position that I’m seeking, and that I’m tacitly in, in leadership – to be able to work with other candidates,” McKean says in the court transcript. “Politics is a field full of people who are vying for the same thing…and so to participate in elections where you insert yourself in that role of an elected leader or a person in leadership, it does not work, and it’s not done.”
One of AhHa Strategies’ former clients, Michael Thuener, found McKean’s ethical argument confusing.
“I did not see anything unethical with the work I did with Hugh McKean,” said Thuener when reached for comment. Thuener retained AhHa’s services when running for a Greeley-based statehouse seat in 2018. “I don’t know what he believes would be unethical. I don’t believe it was unethical in any way, shape, or form.”
But Thuener never faced a Republican primary, and involvement in his race did not pit McKean against his colleagues. The same cannot be said of AhHa’s work for now-State Rep. Tonya Van Beber in her 2020 primary against Graydon Nouis, one of the year’s hardest-fought internecine squabbles.
In that race, Nouis had the backing of a titan in arch-conservative Colorado politics: Rocky Mountain Gun Owners. Van Beber, on the other hand, was supported by the more establishment-minded Ready Colorado Action Fund — and McKean, as the transcripts reveal. The race was something of a proxy battle between McKean and then-Minority Leader Patrick Neville, and it’s a battle McKean ultimately won when Van Beber bested Nouis by 12 points.
When reached for comment about the revelations of McKean’s involvement in the Van Beber-Nouis primary, Rocky Mountain Gun Owners executive director Taylor Rhodes did not hold back. “Hugh McKean is nothing more than another sleazy establishment politician,” Rhodes said. “Hugh and his friends preach a message of unity, but when the rubber hits the road, he does everything in his power to push his own agenda regardless of the cost.”
As Ciancio noted during her cross-examination, McKean’s moral compass did not draw the line at intervening in Republican primaries, but at being on-record as doing so.
“I thought that it would be an ethical line that I didn’t want to cross, and it didn’t change the work that I was doing with the candidates, whether or not I was an owner of the company,” McKean said.
“So let me see if I understand,” the attorney replied. “It’s okay for you to do the work, consulting and helping as a campaign manager, so to speak, these candidates, but it’s not okay to be on paper as receiving money for it?”
When asked by the Times Recorder what McKean saw as the ethical difference between owning the company and simply doing work for the company, McKean framed it as being about his caucus members’ access to him, and not wanting anyone to feel as though they needed to be a client of the company in order to have that access. “It doesn’t matter if someone’s a client of [AhHa] or a client of a different organization — it means that, as their Minority Leader, they have open access to me, no matter what.”
Indeed, as Parks’ testimony makes clear, the pair never intended to hide McKean’s role in the company from everyone – hence the contract listing McKean as an owner – but from some of McKean’s colleagues in the legislature.
“It just wouldn’t be right for him to be engaged to that degree or be running a company against his colleagues,” she testified, lending credence to McKean’s claim that he did not want his work with the company to alienate him from other members of his caucus.
When reached for comment on this story, Parks declined to engage, saying that AhHa Strategies “is not an active business and everything that there is to be seen is available in public records.” As the Times Recorder‘s reporting found, though, a comparison of the public record and the court transcripts shows that public records only tell part of the story.
The matter of who owns AhHa Strategies is significantly less confusing than how the firm purportedly operates. There are discrepancies between sworn testimony given during the divorce and payments appearing in the state’s campaign finance database, and the manner in which McKean and Parks described the company as functioning is unconventional to say the least.
Most political consulting firms operate on a fee-for-services basis, in which the company provides a variety of consulting services in exchange for a fee paid by the campaign. In Colorado, the campaign’s side of that transaction is required by law to be reported in the state’s campaign finance database, TRACER. When a campaign pays AhHa Strategies for their services, for instance, the date and amount of that payment should be recorded in the TRACER system.
And, in fact, TRACER shows tens of thousands of dollars worth of payments made to AhHa between 2018 and 2020, indicating that the firm’s clients have been following at least some of the state’s reporting laws.
Interestingly, though, the existence of some of these payments is directly contradicted by sworn testimony. During cross-examination by Vollstad’s attorney, Amy Parks testified that AhHa works for certain clients free of charge, and listed State Rep. Tonya Van Beber as one of those clients. TRACER, however, shows that Van Beber had paid AhHa Strategies thousands of dollars in the year before Parks’ testimony, during her primary against Nouis – a revelation which not only suggests Parks’ testimony was false, but which raises additional questions about why the company denied receiving those specific funds.
Similarly, the transcripts reveal that the contract entered into evidence during the trial, between AhHa Strategies and Scott James’ campaign for Weld County Commission, was for the amount of $17,500. TRACER, however, only shows $9,800 worth of payments from James to AhHa.
The disconnect — between the records in TRACER and the claims McKean made under oath — makes it impossible to provide an exhaustive list of the races in which the company participated. TRACER does, however, identify some of AhHa Strategies’ clients. In 2018, the company was paid by Aislinn Kottwitz’s race for Larimer County Commission. Kottwitz had previously run as a Republican for House District 52, and last year served on the state’s redistricting commission. AhHa Strategies also provided services to the campaign of Sen. Rob Woodward, who was called to testify in the divorce proceedings on behalf of McKean’s now-ex as to the nature of his relationship with the company. Woodward testified that he worked with AhHa, and that he “presumed Hugh and Amy were partners in that venture.”
The strangest thing about the company’s operations is that McKean claims in his sworn testimony that AhHa Strategies was not only receiving payments from campaigns, but also making payments to campaigns — and doing so in order to supplement struggling fundraising efforts. Though it’s uncommon for for-profit companies to pay their clients, that is exactly the arrangement McKean testified to in the September 2020 court proceedings.
“AhHa was an entity that allowed us to be able to afford candidates, the things they needed before their fundraising really kicked off,” the House Minority Leader testified. “Quite literally, it is a – an ability to bankroll early parts of campaigns and help candidates get elected.”
The problem with this testimony is that what McKean is describing is only legal under certain circumstances – and in this case, those circumstances do not appear to have been met.
Candidates in Colorado can receive money in two ways: through contributions, and through loans. Both forms of campaign income are required to be reported in TRACER. Contributions are subject to limits ($400 per individual for a state legislative race), and loans must be repaid. Neither one allows a private company to open a spigot of money for a candidate until their fundraising kicks off, leaving it unclear exactly what McKean is describing in his testimony.
It is possible that AhHa Strategies loaned clients money to help their campaigns get off the ground, but no such loans have been reported in TRACER, nor have any subsequent repayments. Similarly, AhHa does not appear in TRACER to have made contributions to any candidates. Reporting the receipt of funds is the job of each individual campaign, and failing to report loans or contributions from AhHa Strategies would be a violation of campaign finance law on the part of AhHa’s clients. In fact, Amy Parks testified as much, saying, “The candidates have to keep track. I don’t.”
While it’s possible that the absence of any loans or contributions from AhHa Strategies to their clients in TRACER is a simple clerical error made identically by several campaigns over the course of two years, the available evidence suggests two other possibilities are more likely: either McKean provided false testimony under oath, or he is in fact bankrolling Republican primary candidates, and doing it under-the-table.
When reached for comment, McKean firmly denied having used the term “bankroll,” but relented when the quote from the transcript was read to him, saying the word “has a certain meaning in a certain context.” When pressed for detail on how he meant the word, McKean explained that he was attempting to refer to a situation in which a client’s payments to AhHa may be staggered to accommodate the campaign’s financial situation.
“So a candidate starting out for city council needs to get some campaign signs up,” McKean said, “So they can either order those signs directly, but have to wait until they fundraise to pay for them, or they can order them through AhHa. AhHa, would then procure the signs or whatever and then [the candidate] can just pay AhHa at a time when they’re invoiced for that.”
Despite two months of reporting and research, there are still more questions than answers surrounding Hugh McKean, Amy Parks, and AhHa Strategies. Despite hundreds of pages of sworn testimony, it remains unclear who owns the company, how the company operates, or why the testimony of the company’s principals so thoroughly contradicts the public record. It’s unclear how the company has gotten away without ever paying taxes, despite tens of thousands of dollars in earnings, and it’s unclear where the money comes from in the first place, if the company truly is “bankrolling” candidates as McKean claimed under oath.
Perhaps the truth of the matter lies in the context. The perplexing testimony was provided during divorce proceedings regarding the division of marital assets. Given that context, it does not require much creative thinking to imagine potential motivations for downplaying the company’s value – something which could easily be accomplished by claiming the company provides services for free and gives its surplus funds away to clients. You cannot split what does not exist.
Finally, it is unclear how the judge ruled in the case regarding the division of assets. The documents in the Times Recorder’s possession are from the hearings on September 24-25, 2020, and do not include the case’s final disposition, leaving the public to guess whether or not the court found McKean credible – or whether the judge ultimately believed him to be the owner of AhHa Strategies. Only the parties to the case – McKean and Vollstad, his ex-wife – have access to the documents containing the judge’s final rulings. When reached for comment, Vollstad declined to speak on the record about the matter. McKean, for his part, claimed to the Times Recorder that the judge in the case determined that he was not an owner of AhHa Strategies, but he did not provide any documentation to substantiate the claim.
There is one curious indicator pointing to the trial’s impact on McKean: On November 30, 2020, two months after the trial, McKean refunded to himself more than $27,000 that he had contributed to his own campaign committee over the preceding two years. Though nothing in the public record indicates a direct connection to either AhHa Strategies or McKean’s divorce, the windfall extracted from his own campaign coffers raises a flag for falling well outside the normal scale of such transactions. When reached for comment, McKean told the Times Recorder that the refund was of money he had put into his own campaign, which the judge ultimately ruled “should be shared between the two parties.”
It’s unlikely that the full truth of the case will ever emerge: AhHa Strategies is closed for business. No payments made to the company appear in TRACER since three months before the trial, and the company has lapsed into delinquency with the Secretary of State via failure to file the required annual report for the past two years in a row. McKean’s campaign has made thousands of dollars in payments to Parks so far in 2022, but it’s unclear if the pair are still participating in primaries elsewhere.
However the judge decided, and whatever McKean and Parks are doing now, it’s clear that McKean landed on his feet. He was elected Minority Leader, the position he was running for during the trial, and has led the House Republicans for the past two legislative sessions. He acquired a vacant lot from a campaign contributor and is building a new home on it. Just this summer, he fought-off a primary challenge and will likely win reelection in November.
What remains to be seen, though, is whether McKean will win a new term as Minority Leader, or whether the revelations of his political work will derail his plans to lead the caucus through another session.
Editor’s Note: Due to the level of personal and financial information contained in the documents, which does not have relevance to McKean’s political activity, the Times Recorder has decided not to publish the court transcripts in their entirety out of respect for the parties’ privacy.