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Larimer County Justice Center. (Handout)

Advocates for limiting contributions to political campaigns often cite the potential for large sums of money to influence decisions by public officials.

But rarely do allegations of conflict of interest related to campaign cash result in action against elected officials and their donors.

That changed in Colorado last week, when a judge ruled that Larimer County Commissioner Tom Donnelly should have recused himself from voting on a controversial plan to mine gravel near a residential development in Johnstown in 2018 because he received $10,000 in campaign cash from the owners of the mining company two years before.

Observers as well as lawyers on both sides of the case say such a decision is unusual.

Christopher Jackson, a Denver attorney who follows campaign finance law, said he can’t recollect a similar court decision involving campaign contributions to an elected official.

“It’s certainly extremely rare, and I think the judge’s decision makes clear that it’s rare,” Jackson said. “It’s such a difficult thing to prove.”

The ruling by Larimer County District Court Judge Juan Villaseñor concluded that the decision to allow the 50-acre gravel pit near the Thompson River Ranch and Thompson Crossing subdivisions violated the plaintiffs’ “due-process rights to an impartial decision-making body.” It orders the commissioners to reconsider the 2-1 decision with Donnelly recused from the rehearing.

Loveland-based Coulson Excavating bought the property on the southeast side of the intersection of Interstate 25 and U.S. 34 in 1993 and originally applied for a permit in 2002. By the time the paving contractor decided to go through the permit process in 2016, nearly 1,000 homes surrounded the site.

“This is a pretty unique case in Colorado,” said Mark Lacis, who represented the Thompson Area Against Stroh Quarry group and also serves as mayor pro tem of Superior. “Our system only functions when the public has confidence that our … officials are going to be fair and impartial.”

Larimer County Justice Center. (Handout)

Chip Schoneberger, who represented Coulson Excavating, agreed the case is rare.

“It’s highly unusual,” he said. “We think the judge got the decision wrong.”

Schoneberger said he believed the link between campaign contributions and decisions by elected officials is sometimes raised as a legal issue, though he couldn’t recall a specific case. “We’ve never seen it succeed.” 

It’s also a case that is unlikely to be made in the future. The legislature approved a bill this year limiting individual campaign contributions to county candidates to $2,500 total for the primary and general elections. Previously, those running for office at the county level could take unlimited contributions.

State lawmakers are limited to $400 maximum contributions from individuals, and rarely recuse themselves from votes on the floor.

Dick Coulson and his son Ken Coulson each gave $5,000 to Donnelly’s 2016 reelection campaign, when the Stroh gravel pit application was being considered by Larimer County. Donnelly, a Republican, raised about $54,000 during the campaign to his opponent’s $19,000. In 2012, the Coulsons each gave $500 to Donnelly’s campaign, and in 2008 they combined for $1,300 total.

Donnelly was a land surveyor before he was elected commissioner in 2008 and worked on several projects for Coulson Excavating, something Lacis said the Thompson Area group learned after bringing the court case.

Coulson Excavating expects to appeal the decision, Schoneberger said. 

Larimer County Commissioner Tom Donnelly (Handout photo)

Donnelly on Tuesday said the Larimer Board of County Commissioners will consider whether to appeal the decision next week. “My hope is that board will appeal,” he told The Colorado Sun in an interview. “I followed the campaign finance rules of the state, just like every other politician does. 

“Obviously I disagree with the decision,” he said. “I have a really long history of standing up for the people of Larimer County. I’ve been a strong advocate for property rights throughout my career.”

Donnelly noted that the town of Johnstown approved a permit for the excavation.

The makeup of the Larimer County board has changed since the 2018 decision. Commissioner Lew Gaiter III, a Republican who voted to allow the gravel mine, died of cancer in September. Former state Sen. John Kefalas, a Democrat, won the open seat in November. Commissioner Steve Johnson, a Republican, was the lone vote against allowing the mine, citing the residential development surrounding it.

Neighbors are heartened by the court decision. They brought the lawsuit through the nonprofit, Thompson Area Against Stroh Quarry, claiming Donnelly shouldn’t have voted under a state regulation on conflicts of interest.

“It was a stunning victory. It was most unexpected,” said Dani Korkegi, president of the Thompson nonprofit. She has since sold her home in Johnstown and moved to Windsor. “Given how easily it appeared that a Larimer County commissioner could be bought, we just didn’t know.”

Sandra Fish has covered government and politics in Iowa, Florida, New Mexico and Colorado. She was a full-time journalism instructor at the University of Colorado for eight years, and her work as appeared on CPR, KUNC, The Washington Post, Roll...