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An influential, conservative dark-money political group doesn’t have to reveal its donors and pay a $40,000 campaign finance fine levied by state elections officials stemming from the $4 million it spent on 2020 ballot initiatives, a Denver District Court judge ruled Friday.

Judge David H. Goldberg found that Unite for Colorado, which has since disbanded, didn’t violate a state law requiring political nonprofits to register as issue committees and reveal their funders when their spending on a ballot initiative is their “major purpose.” 

The Colorado Sun refers to political nonprofits as dark-money groups because they don’t have to disclose their donors. 

Goldberg’s ruling resolves a lawsuit filed by Unite for Colorado against the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office, which issued the campaign finance sanctions.

What is a dark-money group?

The Colorado Sun refers to political nonprofits that don’t have to disclose their donors like other political spending committees as dark-money groups.

Unite for Colorado spent more than $17 million on policy matters in 2020. That means the $4 million it dedicated to supporting the passage of two ballot initiatives and opposing a third accounted for only about 24% of Unite’s overall spending that year.

Additionally, the group’s individual spending on none of the three initiatives surpassed 10.5%, far below the 30% and 50%  “major purpose” thresholds used by judges deciding previous similar cases. 

Unite’s spending on three successful 2020 ballot measures, according to the lawsuit, broke down like this:

  • $1.5 million in support of Proposition 117, which requires voter approval for some new fee-funded enterprises
  • $965,000 in support of Proposition 116, which lowered Colorado’s income tax rate
  • $1.5 million in opposition to Proposition 113, which signed Colorado onto the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact

Goldberg said it was clear that none of the spending on the initiatives individually constituted a “major purpose” and that the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office erred in ruling otherwise. 

Jason Dunn, a former U.S. attorney in Colorado who represented Unite in the case, called the decision by the Secretary of State’s Office to pursue campaign finance sanctions against Unite for Colorado an “attempt to create a new administrative standard.” Goldberg agreed.

“The secretary of state decided to waste time and money going after a conservative organization,” said Michael Fields, who led Unite for Colorado. He called the entire case “frivolous.”

The Secretary of State’s Office said Friday that it was weighing whether to appeal the decision.

“The Secretary of State’s Office is reviewing Judge Goldberg’s ruling and discussing the matter with the department’s legal counsel at the (Colorado Attorney General’s Office),” said Annie Orloff, a spokeswoman for Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat. 

Unite for Colorado, which was formed in 2019 and bankrolled almost every major Republican effort in Colorado in 2020, has since dissolved and transformed into Advance Colorado, another dark-money conservative political nonprofit that is also led by Fields. 

In 2022, the legislature passed Senate Bill 237, which changed the campaign finance rules for dark-money groups by requiring them to disclose their donors only when their spending on a  single ballot measure exceeds 20% of their total spending in a calendar year and as long as their spending on multiple measures doesn’t exceed 30%.

The law change wasn’t retroactive, however, so it didn’t affect the 2020 Unite for Colorado case.

The Colorado Sun —

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Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage.

A Colorado College graduate, Jesse worked at The Denver Post from June 2014 until July 2018, when he joined The Sun. He was also an intern at The Gazette in Colorado Springs and The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, his hometown.

Jesse has won awards for long form feature writing, public service reporting, sustained coverage and deadline news reporting.

Email: Twitter: @jesseapaul