ASPEN - A Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit focused on campaign finance reform is calling on Aspen's representative in the U.S. House to return $8,100 in contributions from an oil and gas company that wants to drill in Thompson Divide.
Public Campaign contends that Rep. Scott Tipton should return contributions from Houston-based SG Interests to ensure the trust of his constituents. SGI recently paid a $275,000 fine as part of a settlement of an antitrust lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The government claimed SGI worked with another oil and gas firm to keep bids low for leases on public lands in Gunnison County. SGI bid on the leases then allegedly split the acreage with Gunnison Energy Corp. As a result, the federal coffers didn't earn as much for the leases.
The two oil and gas companies each paid the fine without admitting liability. The agreement was reported last week.
David Donnelly, national campaigns director for Public Campaign, said Tipton should return contributions from SGI and its executives or give them to charity. Doing so, he said, would remove the "taint" of the funds.
"There's an opportunity for him to come clean on this," Donnelly said. The dollar figure of contributions from SGI isn't huge, so Tipton's campaign wouldn't feel a financial sting, Donnelly said, but surrendering the funds could be a wise symbolic gesture on Tipton's part.
Tipton's office didn't respond to messages from The Aspen Times seeking comment.
The Aspen Times reported in October that Tipton collected $10,600 - that's $2,500 less than the watchdog's total - from executives, investors and other people affiliated SGI through the third quarter of 2011, according to his campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Elections Commission. No new funds were collected by Tipton form SGI in the fourth quarter.
Public Campaign is a watchdog that criticizes members of both parties for accepting large donations from people or corporations trying to curry favor.
"We think big donors have too much influence in Washington," Donnelly said. "Our real focus is fixing our nation's campaign finance laws."
Tipton's 2011 contributions from SGI came at a time when Carbondale-area residents turned to him for help trying to prevent SGI from drilling for natural gas in the Thompson Divide area west of Carbondale. The Thompson Divide Coalition wants to preserve public lands stretching from Sunlight Mountain Resort near Glenwood Springs to McClure Pass. Gas companies have already leased 75,000 acres there.
The coalition - a collaboration between environmentalists and ranchers - wants to work with SGI to purchase, exchange or retire existing leases and it wants to prevent new leases from being offered.
SGI has applied to combine 18 leases comprising about 32,000 acres into one unit. That would help it create a coordinated plan for drilling, the company says. Critics contend that creating the unit is a way for SGI to prevent leases from expiring before the company is ready to drill.
Tipton was asked by the coalition to host meetings between the two sides. He hosted a meeting in Carbondale in October, but no settlement has been reached.