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CSA must name names by Friday

Allyn Harvey

A local nonprofit legal group set Friday as the deadline for the Common Sense Alliance to either name its contributors or face legal action.

Public Counsel of the Rockies, a nonprofit that has donated legal services for various political causes around the valley, announced yesterday that it expects to file complaints against the Common Sense Alliance and at least one other local campaign committee with the Colorado secretary of state’s office alleging violations of the state’s Fair Campaign Practice Act.

Public Counsel maintains that the Redstone-based issues committee has violated a section of the law that requires campaign organizations to report the names of their financial supporters, the amounts given and how the money is spent.

“The fact that Common Sense Alliance has gone to the extraordinary lengths it has to avoid disclosing its backers raises legitimate questions in the minds of voters as to what is motivating its message,” said Public Counsel spokeswoman Karin Gustafson in a press release announcing the group’s plans. “This is a disservice to the public and one that threatens to infect the Roaring Fork Valley with the cynicism and disinterest that accompanies back-room, money-corrupted politics.”

She pointed out that as of Oct. 13 the CSA had spent $4,380 on the campaign against a proposal on the ballot to form a valleywide taxing district known as a rural transportation authority without revealing its donors. The transportation authority, more familiarly known as an RTA, would pay for and operate bus service between Rifle and Aspen if enough support materializes on Nov. 7 among voters in seven jurisdictions.

The organization leading the fight against the RTA, Common Sense Against the RTA, is an offshoot of the Common Sense Alliance, which simply set up a separate bank account under a different name to manage the money it spends on the campaign. The Common Sense Alliance is by far the largest donor to Common Sense Against the RTA, accounting for more than two thirds of the $6,505 raised by Oct. 13, according to forms filed by Common Sense Against the RTA with the county clerk and recorder’s office.

Common Sense Alliance spokesman Jeffrey Evans speculated that the timing of the complaint was a political maneuver aimed at discrediting the campaign against the RTA. “They just want to get a negative-sounding headline in the paper before the election,” he said.

The dispute may nevertheless end up forcing lawmakers to reconsider a section of the law that was amended just a few months ago. “I think somebody could certainly file a Fair Campaign Practices Act and test the law in this case,” said Deputy Secretary of State Bill Hobb, an expert on election law.

The roots of the present dispute date to 1998, when County Attorney John Ely filed a complaint shortly before the November election charging the Common Sense Alliance with failing to comply with the Fair Campaign Practices Act, because it had not disclosed its contributions and expenditures on several rail-related issues on the ballot.

Last March, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that because the Common Sense Alliance has a demonstrated record of activism on more than one issue over a period of several years, it cannot be considered a campaign “issue committee” as defined in the law and therefore is not obligated to disclose the sources of its contributions or how it spends the money.

The state Legislature subsequently passed an amendment, sponsored by former state House Speaker Russell George, that attempted to bring the Common Sense Alliance and similar groups under the same laws that govern other organizations that work on campaigns.

George, who declined to comment directly on the pending case against the Common Sense Alliance, said the Legislature tried to protect the integrity of multi-purpose issue committees by allowing them to set up a separate division within the organization to work on a specific ballot question. The law, according to both George and Hobb, allows the CSA to donate to its campaign organizations from its general purpose fund without disclosing the names of the original contributors.

George said the law allows small contributions from the parent organization to the campaign accounts.

“The real problem is if they are just using the law as a subterfuge to get around the disclosure requirements,” he said. “If it’s just a few hundred dollars, it’s probably OK, but if they’re moving thousands of dollars, and clearly doing it to hide people’s political associations, then it’s a problem.”

The dispute between Public Counsel and Common Sense will likely center around the interpretation of the law written by Hobb.

His take on the law, outlined in a July 20 letter to Common Sense Alliance attorney Edward Ramey, allows for campaign committees like Common Sense Against the RTA to accept donations from the Common Sense Alliance. The campaign organization needs to only identify the parent organization as the donor, so long as the money that was originally donated to the parent organization wasn’t intended specifically for the election, Hobb said.

“It’s a tough one,” he admitted. “I can see how the law can be abused if you use an existing organization to funnel money to a campaign.” But he added that a group like Common Sense Alliance could conceivably remain within the law even if it diverted its entire general fund through one of its own divisions to a single campaign without identifying individual contributors.

Ramey said the CSA is in compliance with Hobb’s July 20 interpretation of the law.

“We don’t believe that is what the people of Colorado intended when they passed the Fair Campaign Practices Act by one of the largest margins in state history,” Gustafson countered.

Public Counsel’s press release hints at a portion of its disagreement with Hobb when it says, “It is important to emphasize that organizations like Common Sense Alliance – or the Sierra Club or the NAACP – need not disclose the names of those making general donations to their ongoing educational and other activities. They need only report names when they get involved in an election. Common Sense Alliance, by reporting contributions to its subcommittees as coming from `Common Sense Alliance’ rather than individual donors, has effectively evaded this reporting requirement.”

Gustafson said Public Counsel is likely to file a similar complaint against the Committee to Recall Mick Ireland.

A third complaint, against the Pitkin County Builder’s Association, is likely to be dropped because the group has expressed a willingness to name its contributors and outline its expenditures in last summer’s failed attempt to recall Ireland.


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