Pence visit to Aspen underscores murky area of campaign finance law
While Vice President Mike Pence’s fundraising visit to Aspen has come and gone, a lingering question has been whether the anonymous donations made to cover expenses absorbed by supporting local law enforcement agencies were political contributions.
Those payments came from two individuals, Mark Horace Love and E. G. Kendrick, who cut checks to Pitkin County in the identical sums of $9,087.50, according to the county’s response to an open records request from The Aspen Times.
The checks covered the amount of $18,175 Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said was owed to local agencies — not including Aspen and Snowmass Village — for security detail they provided during Pence’s July 22 visit, which included a private fundraiser at the posh Caribou Club in downtown Aspen and an overnight stay for Pence and his entourage at the Aspen Skiing Co.-owned Limelight Hotel in Snowmass Village.
The Federal Election Commission’s limit for contributions is $2,800 per individual per federal election in 2019-20. The FEC, which oversees campaign finance law in national elections, also requires individual donors, either themselves or through their political party, to report the contributions.
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Yet the law isn’t definitive when it comes to the type of contributions Love and Kendrick made.
“I don’t think there are rules that address this situation,” said FEC spokesman Myles Martin, adding the issue has not come before the FEC in the past.
As is typical in party politics, one camp believes the payments were in-kind political contributions, while the other argues they were not.
The Pitkin County Republicans were not involved in Pence’s fundraising stop for the Republican National Committee and the re-election of President Trump, but they helped broker the payment to the Pitkin County government, which received the checks in August.
“I do not believe it is a political donation,” said Anna Zane, chair of the Pitkin GOP. “I believe it was two good Samaritans that stepped up to pay the security costs that Pitkin County and neighboring jurisdictions incurred when the sitting vice president visited our town.”
Yet Denver attorney Mark Grueskin, whose area of expertise includes campaign finance law, said the contributions should be reported and the donors’ identities should not be protected.
“This was clearly a payment to benefit a federal campaign and a national political party,” he said, adding “it must be reported by the candidate or the party or both to the FEC.”
Grueskin has ties to the Democratic party that include his serving as local counsel to the 2008 Democratic National Convention held in Denver, as well as Colorado counsel to Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns.
Another Denver attorney well versed in campaign finance law, this one with Republican allegiances, disagreed with Grueskin’s opinion.
According to Christopher O. Murray, who was deputy general counsel for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, Love and Kendrick’s payments were not political contributions because they did not cover expenses the Pence campaign or the RNC were legally obligated to pay, or had previously committed to pay.
Had the Pence campaign or the RNC agreed beforehand to pay local jurisdictions but then backed out of the deal, any contributions made to cover for them would be considered political donations, he said. Yet that wasn’t the case with Pence’s Aspen visit.
“What it comes down to,” Murray said, “is who is legally responsible for paying for that protection, and here the local law enforcement is providing assistance to the Secret Service. And unless they ask a third party to pay for that in advance, and the third party agrees, local law enforcement remains legally responsible for paying their share of the cost.”
The justice department makes clear that law enforcement agencies are obligated to provide support during presidential visits.
“Local law enforcement agencies continue to have the responsibility to assist in providing protection to the president while the president is visiting their localities, to conduct criminal investigations involving violations of state and local statutes which result from a presidential visit, and to furnish police officers in adequate numbers to control demonstrations and other disturbances occurring in close proximity to places where the president is visiting,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Criminal Resource Manual.
The same rule applies to others under Secret Service protection, Murray said.
Payments calmed down backlash
DiSalvo publicly voiced his frustration about the bill after Pence left, saying the visit strained resources of law enforcement agencies in the Roaring Fork Valley. The sheriff said he was particularly chafed because law enforcement provided support to the Secret Service though Pence was here strictly to drum up political donations while barely showing his face in public.
DiSalvo said he couldn’t identify who actually put on the Caribou Club event, which meant he didn’t know whom to bill.
“I was getting stonewalled like I’ve never been before,” he said, adding that “what made this case different for me is no one would tell me the name of the host, and I think I had eight days’ notice” about Pence’s Aspen stop.
Enter two Arizonans who were here when Pence made his visit. Love — a financial adviser from Phoenix — and Kendrick — part owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team — provided the payments to Zane some two weeks after Pence’s fundraiser. Zane, in turn, produced the checks to the county, saying they were donations made anonymously.
Because the payments to the county contained further public backlash over Pence’s visit, they should be considered political contributions, Grueskin said.
“This was clearly a payment to benefit a federal campaign and a national political party,” he said. “It was done in order to limit any public criticisms of the candidate of that party, and therefore it was done as a benefit to them. It has to be reported as an in-kind contribution by the two contributors.”
The fundraiser was held in the middle of the day. A small group of protesters gathered on East Hopkins Avenue in front of the venue, while supporters circulated in the area as well. Pence, under heavy guard, exited and entered the Caribou Club from its alley entrance and out of public view.
“If (Pence) had come out of that meeting (at the Caribou Club) shaking hands with protesters or supporters, or if he had just answered a few questions from the public, that would be worth picking up the bill,” DiSalvo said.
The amount owed covered expenses ranging from $200 for protection at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, as well as $6,187 absorbed by the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office. Police from Basalt ($937.50), Carbondale ($800) and Glenwood Springs ($1,200) also provided support, as did other agencies. DiSalvo said Pitkin County distributed funds from those two payments to the agencies.
Expenses assumed by police departments in Aspen and Snowmass Village, however, weren’t included in that bill, because both agencies declined to be reimbursed.
Brian Olson, the police chief in Snowmass, said his department took on “barely” $1,000 for its detail. Because Pence stayed overnight in Snowmass, Olson said “I felt a bit of an obligation to provide coverage for his protection. We were happy to step up and do that.”
He added, “The ask was minimum. I felt that when he was in the Village, it was our obligation and our responsibility.”
Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor could not be reached Thursday for comment.
Issue not unique to Pence visit
When she was seeking the Democratic nomination for the 2016 presidential race, Hillary Clinton made a fundraising stop at a private Aspen residence in August 2015 and received Secret Service protection because she was a former first lady.
Both DiSalvo and Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario expressed frustration for the costs and hassles that came with providing deputies to escort Clinton and her entourage to and from the Rifle airport, as well as other security details.
Fundraiser hosts Soledad and Robert Hurst declined to pay what DiSalvosaid was about $5,000 for Pitkin County’s staffing and time, citing concerns that it might be considered a political donation. DiSalvo also was denied by the Clinton campaign, which said it doesn’t pay for such costs. As a result, local agencies had to bear their own expenses.
It’s an issue that has become increasingly common in Aspen and Pitkin County. Some readers questioned why the same level of scrutiny wasn’t paid to Joe Biden’s private stop in Aspen — a quickie with no public appearances — for a fundraiser at the home of Jane and Marc Nathanson.
Yet Biden did not have Secret Service support because former vice presidents lose that protection six months after leaving office.
Major vice presidential and presidential candidates and their spouses — as identified by the secretary of Homeland Security — receive Secret Service protection within 120 days of the general presidential election. Barack Obama was an exception; Homeland Security gave him Secret Service protection in May 2007, more than a year and half ahead of the 2008 election, because of his candidacy’s historic nature and of the potential threats aimed at it. As vice president, Biden also popped into Aspen for less than 24 hours for an event put on by Forstmann Little & Co., a private equity firm, in September 2014.
Biden and his motorcade traveled from Eagle County Airport to Aspen, causing traffic snarls and increased staffing by police agencies. DiSalvo and Vallario at the time said local taxpayers shouldn’t shoulder the costs for such visits.
Ultimately they were paid, DiSalvo said.
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Aspen Skiing Co. and most of the Colorado ski industry were cruising along in a second strong season, until the coronavirus crisis forced their closure on March 14. Skier visits would typically be announced this week, but the ski industry is focused on forging ahead rather than looking back.