Election laws violated by recall group
Two possible violations of state and local election laws have surfaced from the latest round of financial disclosure forms filed by The Committee to Recall Mick Ireland, one involving fund raising and one involving expenditures.
An investigation by The Aspen Times revealed that the recall campaign recently accepted at least $1,000 from people who did not know money was being given in their names. In fact, neither of the two people named as contributors know who Mick Ireland is or that he is an elected official.
And the recallers have already exceeded the county’s legal limit on campaign spending. Recall spokesman Larry Winnerman declared the limits “unconstitutional” and said the campaign had knowingly spent more than is allowed and will continue spending through election day.
Ireland, a second term Pitkin County commissioner from District 2, is facing a recall election on Aug. 8.
The fund-raising discrepancy involves four members of the O’Donnell family, who live part-time in Woody Creek. According to the financial disclosure forms filed with county clerk and recorder’s office on Aug. 1, Beth, Billy, Christian and Ryan O’Donnell each donated $500 to the recall campaign. That $2,000 represents nearly half the $4,100 raised by the recall campaign since July 26.
When asked about the contributions yesterday, neither Billy nor Beth O’Donnell had any idea they had given money to boot Ireland from office.
“Mick who?” asked Billy when questioned about the contribution.
“I don’t know anything about that – what’s the name on the checks?” said Beth O’Donnell. “I don’t even know who you’re talking about, because I don’t live here full-time.”
Beth O’Donnell said she is the mother of Billy, Christian and Ryan, but declined to reveal their ages, only saying, “They’re not out of the house yet.” Christian and Ryan O’Donnell were not interviewed, so it could not be determined if they knew the money was being given in their names.
Beth and Billy O’Donnell both speculated that the money may have been donated in their names by Bill O’Donnell, her ex-husband and the father of all three boys. “Bill’s involved with water rights and land use and the donations might involve something political,” Beth said.
Bill O’Donnell did not return a phone call asking for comment. Nor did the recall campaign’s registered agent, Joshua Saslove. Recall spokesman Winnerman said he was not aware of the activities of individual donors. So it was not possible to confirm whether Bill O’Donnell is the actual donor.
The use of children or other people to knowingly bypass the county’s $500-per-person contribution limit is a violation of state and county election laws, said county attorney John Ely.
“I would say it is probably not within the intent of the law to just put names down next to contributions,” said county Clerk and Recorder Silvia Davis.
Such violations are classified as a misdemeanor, and if successfully prosecuted they carry a possible jail sentence of up to 10 days and fine of up to $100.
“The dilemma with election law violations is that they generally occur in the last week, which is always the hottest, and the remedy involves going to court long after the fact,” Ely said.
If the county is going to seek any remedy on either the fund-raising or spending-limit violations, it, too, will come long after the fact.
According to the recall campaign’s disclosure forms, $13,039.97 had been spent as of Aug. 1 on the effort to remove Ireland, about $500 more than is allowed in the county charter.
The county’s home rule charter bases spending limits for local elections on voter turnout in the last general election – each side on an issue or in an election is allowed to spend $1 per voter. In November 1998, Ireland’s last election, 12,547 people voted, so the limit for the recall election is $12,547 per side.
“The spending rules were imposed with specific limits to make it difficult to run a campaign like ours,” Winnerman said.
He said that the only way for a recall group like his to get its message out was advertising, and that costs money. Winnerman also pointed out that the recall has two stages. “First we had to collect signatures, then there’s the election campaign. It’s something that should be looked at as two different elections,” he said.
Winnerman said the Committee to Recall Mick Ireland isn’t going to stop campaigning and running advertisements because of the law.
“They’re breaking the law and it puts me at a disadvantage,” said Ireland. “It’s the closing stage of the campaign and they’re using children and other people who have never heard of me to funnel as much money as they can into ads.”
As of Aug. 1, Ireland had spent $7,990 on his campaign. He said he had no intention of violating the campaign spending law, which was approved by voters in the mid-1990s.
Ely would not speculate on whether the contributions of the O’Donnell family were a violation, or whether the recall campaign’s decision to exceed the county’s spending limits would end up in court. The final decision on whether to prosecute belongs to the county commissioners, he said.
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