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Politics and Government

Colorado political committees owe $2.3 million in fines. But the state collects little.

The limited enforcement measures hamper collections, and the Secretary of State’s Office often waives or reduces other penalties for late report filings

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Five years have passed since Pueblo voters ousted Democratic state Sen. Angela Giron in a recall election.

Yet her campaign committee, Friends of Angela Giron, still owes $192,500 in overdue fines for not filing timely finance reports with the Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams, records show.

Her committee is one of more than 1,000 in Colorado that racked up $2.4 million in automatic fines for late filings with the state since Jan. 1, 2017, according to a Colorado Sun analysis. Only $143,375 of those fines have been paid to date.

In most cases, the committees are inactive and don’t realize they must officially terminate the accounts or continue to file campaign finance reports. When they don’t, automatic fines are assessed and begin to accumulate.

Election officials struggle to collect the fines and often waive significant sums to settle outstanding legal violations.

“A lot of the groups that are small and maybe just popped up, they often immediately close their bank account,” Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert said.

The repayment rate for the 2018 election is lower than the previous two-year cycle. In the 2016 election cycle, the state assessed $2.8 million in automatic fines and received $240,410.

Giron said she didn’t realize she’d accumulated so many fines until a reporter from The Sun called to ask about them. But the secretary of state’s website indicates she’s received about 90 letters about the fines since Jan. 1, 2016.

To close her campaign, she said she donated the $10,000 left in her account to the now-defunct Colorado Progressive Coalition in 2013. Campaign finance records, however, don’t reflect that donation.

Instead, they indicate that $22,611 was left in her account, according to an April 2016 report filed nearly two months late. It’s the last report that Giron — who is listed as the contact for her committee — filed with the state.

Giron said she takes responsibility for the failure to address the outstanding fines, and expects to pay some portion of them. “I’m working with the secretary of state to get that resolved,” she told The Sun.

Republican Wayne Williams is the Colorado Secretary of State. (Jacob Paul, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Collecting overdue fines is difficult under current law

In another instance, three small donor committees listing conservative political strategist Mark Hotaling as their agent all were renamed to include the word “decommissioning” and an explanation was added to their listed purpose stating that they were no longer considered active.

But in the official record, they’re still listed as active, and have amassed a combined $200,550 in fines. Hotaling didn’t respond to phone or email messages seeking explanation.

“Once they get a fine, we work with them to close the committee,” Staiert said. “We do everything we can to get inactive committees off the books.”

That includes talking people through the process of terminating a committee if necessary.

In fact, recent regulations allow the secretary of state to automatically close down a committee after 18 months or six reporting periods with no activity, whichever occurs first. However, fines would still need to be paid or appealed.

The job of collecting overdue fines from non-candidate committees can be difficult, Staiert said.

“The only people who are personally liable for their campaign finance fines are the candidates,” she said. “The political committees — we don’t really have anybody we can go after for those.”

MORE: Read more politics and government coverage from The Colorado Sun.

Secretary of State officials often waive fines for violations

In other cases, some political committees request — and often receive — waivers or reductions in fines.

For example, Americans for Prosperity, a conservative nonprofit, formed an independent spending committee in August to support three Republican candidates. But the group failed to file required reports of independent spending within 48 hours of when the expenses were made. Instead, AFP filed the reports for spending between Oct. 10 and Oct. 23 on Nov. 1.

The group was fined $4,600, but applied for a waiver and the Republican secretary of state reduced the penalty to $400.

On Tuesday, Staiert and other elections officials reviewed 28 pages of recommendations on applications for fine waivers. It took less than 10 minutes to approve the recommendations with one minor change.

Among the fines waived: More than $22,000 assessed to Jonathan Lynch for his short-lived 2014 campaign for Yuma County sheriff.

Like many others seeking waivers, Lynch explained to the secretary of state officials that he thought he’d terminated his committee.

Meanwhile, the largest fine paid this year – without a waiver – is $21,000 by the Carter & Burgess Inc. Colorado PAC.

That PAC hasn’t been active since 2006, when it spent $1,000. And Jacobs Engineering Group purchased Carter & Burgess in 2007, so the company no longer exists under its former name. But according to Secretary of State filings, the PAC still has $5,000 in its account to “support pro-business candidates.”


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