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Politics and Government

In record year for Colorado campaign finance complaints, Republicans cry foul over enforcement

A nonprofit fined $22,000 says it doesn’t have the money to pay the penalty or appeal the decision

Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold speaks to the state’s nine Democratic presidential electors before they cast votes for Joe Biden at the State Capitol on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, in downtown Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, Pool)
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Republicans are crying foul over campaign finance decisions by a deputy secretary of state who rejected recommendations by the Campaign Finance Enforcement team organized a year ago by Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat.

A record number of complaints were filed in 2020 along with the second highest fine issued in recent years. But it’s possible the system created in 2019 could be tested, as some Republicans challenge the claims filed against them.

In at least two instances, the office’s Campaign Finance Enforcement team recommended dismissing complaints but the deputy secretary of state reversed the recommendations. 

Nearly double the number of campaign-finance complaints were filed in 2020 compared with past years, although 58 of the 87 were dismissed.

Eight candidate campaigns and three organizations agreed to pay fines ranging from $50 to $700 for violating campaign finance laws. A few other complaints are still working their way through the system.

The first case filed by the office’s Campaign Finance Enforcement team in January 2020 accused the Colorado Stop the Wolf Coalition of failing to file as an issue committee. That resulted in a $22,000 fine the nonprofit’s leader said the group can’t afford. Nor can it afford to continue paying its lawyer, Republican former Secretary of State Scott Gessler, to appeal the case in court.

“I’m furious about it,” said Tom Bjorklund, a Grand Junction man who served as treasurer of the nonprofit. The group is asking the office to waive the fine. “We don’t have the money to pay the fine. I would like to appeal and I know the board would too, but we don’t have the funds.”

While Bjorklund’s group won’t go to court, other cases could end up there.

Griswold touted the new enforcement team as part of her efforts to target dark money in politics and to more rigorously enforce campaign finance laws. Her office said Griswold isn’t involved in the process.

“The decision whether to investigate and prosecute campaign finance complaints are made by civil servants on the Campaign Finance Enforcement team,” spokeswoman Betsy Hart said in a written statement. “The Secretary of State is firewalled from those decisions. All campaign finance violation complaints are taken seriously and receive equal consideration, regardless of political party.” 

Targeting nonprofit groups

The filing against Colorado Stop the Wolf Coalition noted that the nonprofit had a donation button on its website and appeared to be illegally soliciting money to fight a ballot initiative seeking to reintroduce gray wolves in the state. (The measure passed by a narrow margin.)

The original complaint said the group should have registered as an issue committee, which would have been required to report contributions and expenditures under state campaign finance laws.

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The coalition spent more than $143,000 from April 2019 through May, including donating $10,000 to the Stop the Wolf PAC, an issue committee created to oppose the ballot initiative. The group also hired a political consultant and produced a video and fliers opposing the ballot initiative, though the video was removed from the group’s website and the fliers weren’t widely distributed.

Administrative Law Judge Matthew Norwood determined last September that the group should file as an issue committee because its major purpose centered on the ballot issue, and recommended a $1,000 fine. But in early February, then-Deputy Secretary of State Ian Rayder increased the fine to $22,000, noting that late filings are subject to a $50-per-day penalty.

“While a $42,700 fine is within the parameters of the Secretary’s authority, the Deputy Secretary finds a $22,200 fine is both a strong and appropriate sanction under the circumstances,” Rayder wrote in his decision. “Respondent has steadfastly refused to register as an issue committee and failed to file reports of contributions and expenditures.”

Bjorklund said Stop the Wolf doesn’t have money to pay the fine or to appeal. 

“From a financial standpoint, my opinion is we’re bankrupt,” he said, adding that the group owes Gessler about $60,000.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife staff maintain watch over gray wolf M2101 after it was tranquilized and fitted with a GPS collar. M2101 has been spotted in north-central Colorado traveling with gray wolf M1084 from Wyoming’s Snake River Pack. (Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

Gessler, who is running for Colorado Republican Party chairman, is no longer on the case.

“If this case were to go forward I’m confident I would win,” Gessler said. “But obviously it won’t go forward.”

The fine against the wolf nonprofit is the second-largest fine in a campaign finance action since 2010. In 2017, an administrative law judge ordered nonprofit Citizens for a Reasonable Rational and Responsible Governance to pay more than $23,000. That group never paid the fine, which is listed as having been sent to a collections agency, and the nonprofit discontinued operations in 2018. Documents in that case indicate the group only raised about $24,000 to pay for campaign materials in a metropolitan district election. 

As secretary of state, Gessler reduced a nearly $50,000 fine against the Larimer County Republican Party to about $16,000, then helped with a fundraiser to pay the fine.

In another case last year, Rayder rejected the independent enforcement staff’s motion to dismiss allegations against nonprofit Unite for Colorado. That group spent at least $3.5 million in TV ads targeting Democrat John Hickenlooper in the U.S. Senate contest where he defeated Republican incumbent Cory Gardner. It spent nearly $1.6 million donating to a state-level super PAC working on GOP state Senate contests. 

But it’s the nearly $1.7 million Unite for Colorado spent to gather petition signatures for and support two ballot initiatives on taxes and fees is at issue in a complaint from two political activists.

In reviewing the nonprofit’s activities, the enforcement staff concluded the ballot initiatives weren’t Unite’s primary purpose and moved to dismiss the complaint in early December. Rayder, who left the Secretary of State’s office in February to work for a lobbying firm, rejected the motion to dismiss the case in early January. In his decision, Rayder said Unite’s “major, if not sole, reason for being was to influence Colorado’s 2020 election” including the ballot initiatives.

That complaint is now headed to an administrative law judge for a hearing. Rayder said he couldn’t discuss the decisions he made as deputy secretary of state.

Individuals also facing actions

Many of the 2020 complaints were filed by political opponents, in some cases by candidates opposing each other on the November ballot. Some targeted candidates, others committees and others complained about HOA involvement in a metropolitan district election.

In one instance, the Delta County Sheriff’s Office agreed to pay a $500 fine for using department resources to promote a local ballot measure. In another case, Wendall Koontz, who won his race for Delta County commissioner, paid a $700 fine for accepting contributions before creating a candidate committee and not including proper disclosures on campaign materials.

State Sen. Larry Liston, a Colorado Springs Republican, faced two complaints about failing to include proper disclosures about who paid for his campaign materials. An administrative law judge ruled in February that Liston should pay a $250 fine, but the Secretary of State’s Office hasn’t acted on the ruling.

Then-state Rep. Larry Liston joins other members and guests in the house chambers as the second regular session of the 72nd Colorado General Assembly convenes at the Colorado State Capitol on January 8, 2020 in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“I’m waiting to get a bill from whoever I’m supposed to get it from,” Liston said, blaming Colorado Springs Democrats who didn’t live in his district for bringing the complaints

Other cases are still dragging through the system.

Suzanne Taheri, a lawyer who served as deputy secretary of state under the past two Republicans elected to the office, is representing Unite for Colorado in its case, as well as a Republican candidate for Jefferson County Commissioner. She’s also representing herself.

Taheri faced a complaint because she filed a tax return instead of more detailed financial disclosure when she ran unsuccessfully for state Senate last year (when she was known as Suzanne Staiert; she’s since switched to her maiden name). That complaint was the subject of Democratic ads criticizing her during the campaign. 

The elections division at the Secretary of State’s Office recommended dismissing the complaint against Taheri because it was filed after the time limit set in the law, but Rayder refused.

Although she later filed a standard financial disclosure, a hearing officer ruled in October that Taheri should be fined $1,000. The fine was reduced to $850 in a ruling late last week from new Deputy Secretary of State Christopher Beall.

Taheri said she will appeal that decision.

Suzanne Taheri

“We are just seeing a pattern of them coming after Republicans,” she said. “The whole thing is just outrageous.”

But Martha Tierney, a lawyer representing the Colorado Democratic Party, said the new system will take getting used to. She represented the party when the Secretary of State’s Office levied a nearly $12,000 fine for overdue filings, which was reduced to $50 after an appeal to an administrative law judge.

“Some of what we’re seeing is a reaction to a change in how they’re operating, and that’s because the law changed and made them more of an enforcement body and not just a receiver of complaints by others,” Tierney said.

Colorado Sun staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.

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