Common Sense Alliance not going to court
One of the valley’s most active political organizations will not face a legal challenge of its campaign tactics in last fall’s election.
Public Counsel of the Rockies attorney Karin Gustafson said Thursday that her organization has no plans to sue the Common Sense Alliance for alleged violations of the state’s election laws. The decision, made yesterday, means that only one of three potential lawsuits identified by Public Counsel last year will actually be pursued.
Earlier this year, Public Counsel dropped a complaint against the Pitkin County Builder’s Coalition for failing to file campaign spending reports during last summer’s recall election.
The Aspen-based public interest law firm is, however, pursuing a case against the Committee to Recall Mick Ireland.
“My guess is that the Common Sense Alliance is more in compliance with the Fair Campaign Practices Act than any other political organization in the state, because they’ve been watched so closely,” said Ed Ramey, Common Sense Alliance’s attorney.
Public Counsel threatened for months to file a complaint against the Common Sense Alliance because of its steadfast refusal to name the people who fund its election activities.
Public Counsel’s gripe centered around the alliance’s opposition to two transportation questions on the November ballot. The alliance, based in Redstone, set up two subcommittees, Common Sense Against the RTA and Common Sense Against the Bond, and then donated money to both organizations from its general fund.
When those subcommittees filed their campaign finance disclosure forms, the donations were reported as coming from the Common Sense Alliance. There was no hint as to who had made the initial contribution.
Gustafson says she still believes that method of financing a campaign violates the reporting rules of the Fair Campaign Practices Act. The act requires campaign committees to identify the source of their funds and how they spend the money. The subcommittees, in Gustafson’s view, were simply a way for donors to the campaign to remain anonymous.
But the Common Sense Alliance isn’t a campaign committee in the traditional sense. Under state law, it’s considered an issues committee with a broader purpose than a campaign committee that works to promote or oppose a single candidate or ballot question. The Common Sense Alliance’s decision to set up the subcommittees was based on an interpretation by the Colorado secretary of state’s office of recent amendments to the election law and their impact on issue committees.
In a four-page letter written last summer, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Hobb said the law could be interpreted as to allow the Common Sense Alliance to set up separate campaign committees and then make donations to those committees without revealing the initial source of the funds.
Gustafson said she believes Hobb’s opinion is better suited to organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or the Sierra Club. Those groups have large general funds that are spent in a variety of ways on both national and regional issues. She doesn’t think it applies to organizations like the Common Sense Alliance, which are local in their orientations and really only active during election campaigns.
“If the board of one of those large organizations decides to spend money from its general fund on an election issue in Pitkin County, how do you report that?” Gustafson wondered. “There may well be a situation where an individual donates to the general fund but does not want to be associated with a specific political campaign.”
But Gustafson said that after several months of reviewing the record, it appeared Common Sense Alliance was in compliance with the Hobb opinion.
“Common Sense Alliance made it clear that any adverse ruling by an administrative law judge would be appealed, all the way to the state Supreme Court,” Gustafson said. “They’ve certainly shown their propensity to litigate these matters in the past, spending thousands of dollars in attorney fees if necessary.”
Rather than take the issue before an administrative law judge, Gustafson said Public Counsel of the Rockies is going to pursue legislative remedies to prevent the same thing from happening in the future.
“Our goal is to develop legislation that has clear and explicit disclosure provisions that do not conflict with First Amendment concerns about association and free speech,” she said.
Both questions opposed by the Common Sense Alliance, one asking Pitkin County voters for permission to borrow $10.2 million for transit spending and another asking voters throughout the valley to support a regional transit system, passed.
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Posted: Friday, March 2, 2001
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