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Politics and Government

Colorado officials look to close 30 campaign committees in “never-ending spiral”

Even if the secretary of state's office closes the committees, it may never recover millions in penalties owed by organizations and candidates

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Every day, former Democratic Sen. Angela Giron’s campaign committee racks up hundreds of dollars in fines. And until recently, so did Sen. Owen Hill’s, even though the Republican is entering his final year before hitting term limits.

On Friday, that piling up of fines owed could end as the secretary of state considers shutting down more than 30 committees that haven’t filed disclosures for 18 months or failed to submit six straight reports, whichever is shorter. 

Those committees owe nearly $6.5 million in fines accumulated in $50-a-day increments for every day they fail to file a report. The daily fines increase exponentially for many of the committees. For example, a year ago, Friends of Angela Giron owed $192,500. Now, the committee owes nearly $660,000.

The state’s system presents a quandary. Often candidates who terminate their candidacy assumed the action also closed their campaign committee. Meanwhile, the secretary of state’s office is constitutionally required to collect the $50-per-day penalties.

Jena Griswold at an event with U.S Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat running in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, in northeast Denver on Dec. 6, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“They can accrue really quickly,” said Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat. “It becomes a thing where someone is not paying attention, do we try to collect a half million dollars? We’re trying to make a system that incentivizes compliance without being unnecessarily punitive.”

Griswold’s office oversees campaign finance law in Colorado and sends certified letters about the fines every month, as required. But since campaigns no longer exist, those letters sometimes end up being returned, so it’s difficult to collect the penalties owed. The office is looking for ways to improve the notification system.

In an interview, Hill said he didn’t realize that terminating his candidacy in one part of the campaign finance site after his 2016 election didn’t close down his candidate committee, Owen Hill for Senate. The campaign filed eight overdue reports Dec. 10, but he still owes about $150,000 in fines.

“My goal after the last campaign was not to take any more donations,” Hill said. “We terminated one of them, and never thought about it again until just recently. The intention all along was to shut down both committees.” 

Hill asked the secretary of state’s office to take his committee off the closure list, and said he plans to ask the office to waive his fines.

It isn’t unusual for candidates to believe that an end to their candidacy closes their campaign committee, said Steve Bouey, campaign finance manager for the secretary of state’s office. Many of the committees on Friday’s list are for local school board or county elections, he noted. “Anecdotally it tends to be sort of the lesser sophisticated committees that end up in this never-ending spiral,” he said.

The office administratively ends such committees every 18 months or so, Bouey said. Friday’s committee closures will stop the fines from exponentially increasing. “The administrative termination process, first and foremost, is just to stop … accumulating these fines,” he said. “It’s not dismissing the fines, it’s not making them go away.”

Ryan Call, a former state Republican Party chairman and specializes in elections law, said the system is frustrating. He’s the registered agent for a candidate committee and an independent expenditure committee on the list to be closed Friday. He said bank accounts for both committees closed long ago.

One of the committees on the list represented by Call, Sound Economy’s Colorado, said in its last report said it had more than $12,000 in the bank. Call said he understood Sound Economy ceased operations some time ago. It owes $3,200 in fines.

Asked about the balance appearing to remain in the account and what happened to the balance, Call replied, “That’s a good question.”

And once a committee incurs fines, it can’t be closed until the penalties are paid or waived.

“If you fail to continue to complete those filings, then more fines continue to rack up,” Call said But there’s really no one that’s obligated to pay them. You can’t compel a political committee or campaign to go out there and raise those funds from donors.”

Bouey said one solution would be sending fines to a collection agency, which may place a lien on a former candidate’s house. But that seems like “the crime didn’t fit the punishment sort of thing,” he said.

Giron was recalled from her Senate seat in 2013. She did not return calls from The Colorado Sun this week about her campaign committee fines. A year ago, she said she was working with the secretary of state’s office to resolve the issue. But Bouey, who’s worked in the office for 10 years, said he hasn’t heard from her. The last report Giron’s committee filed indicated more than $22,000 remained in its accounts. 

Bouey said committees that stop filing reports but still appear to have money, like the one Call represents, is a concern. The campaign finance system is aimed to provide information about where money for campaigns comes from and how it is spent.

“That’s not transparent to the public, for sure,” he said.

Once Friday’s action is complete, the office will work to resolve outstanding fines on a case-by-case basis.

Hill’s committee spent its final $14,000 on payments to two consultants in March 2017. He said he isn’t sure what the solution to the penalty conundrum should be. “I don’t know if it’s legislation or just rule-making,” Hill said. “You do your best to do everything right. Bureaucracy just makes it tough. It’s not that anyone’s trying to make it tough, but no one’s trying to make it easier.”