Nonprofit legal group holds
Threats of legal action against three local political groups for alleged violations of local and state election laws so far remain just that – threats.
Public Counsel of the Rockies, an Aspen-based nonprofit that donates legal services to local causes, announced, just a week before the election earlier this month, that it was planning to file complaints with the Colorado secretary of state alleging the Common Sense Alliance, the Pitkin County Builders Association and the Committee to Recall Mick Ireland violated the law that requires disclosure of campaign donations and expenditures.
But at least a few things have changed since the initial threat was made. “Litigation is not a step you take lightly,” said Public Counsel’s Karin Gustafson.
She said her organization is no longer concerned with the activities of the Builders Coalition, but after lengthy discussions with the attorney who represents the Common Sense Alliance, Gustafson said a formal complaint against that group is likely. In fact, Public Counsel recently retained the services of a Denver law firm to handle the case.
“We believe the intention of the Colorado Legislature in amending the law last spring was to require groups like the Common Sense Alliance, which is most active around elections, to disclose the source of their donations,” Gustafson said.
Public Counsel and the Common Sense Alliance continue to disagree about changes made by the state Legislature in June to the state’s Fair Campaign Practices Act. The amendments were made in direct response to a ruling in early spring from the state Supreme Court that said the law, as written, did not require the Common Sense Alliance to identify the source of its funding with campaign-related expenditures.
The changes, according to recently retired Speaker of the House Russell George, were meant to require disclosure when the money involved is used to campaign for or against a ballot question. But he said the Legislature wanted to ensure issue groups like the Common Sense Alliance could protect the privacy of donors who aren’t giving money specifically earmarked for a campaign.
“I should be able to sit down here in Denver and donate money to the Common Sense Alliance because I like its stance on rural and remote zoning, or because I like the independent voice they bring to Pitkin County politics,” said Ed Ramey, the group’s attorney. “If I want, I should be able to donate money that they can use however they want to.”
The Common Sense Alliance donated money to try and defeat two ballot issues in this month’s election: the proposal to form a Rural Transportation Authority and a proposal by Pitkin County to borrow $10.2 million to spend on new buses, safety-related upgrades and a new transportation center in Snowmass Village.
To comply with the new law, it set up two separate bank accounts under the names Common Sense Against the Bond and Common Sense Against the RTA and reportedly limited its campaign spending to money that was in those accounts. Common Sense Alliance secretary/treasurer Jeffrey Evans filed all of the paperwork required by state law, including disclosure forms that identify donors and expenditures, with the Pitkin County clerk and recorder’s office using the same names as those on the bank accounts.
Gustafson points out that, according to the disclosure forms, Common Sense Alliance is named as the donor of about 70 percent of the roughly $10,000 spent by Common Sense Against the RTA. “We don’t think there is any significant difference between the Common Sense Against the RTA and the Common Sense Alliance,” she said.
She said negotiations with Ramey appear unlikely to reach Public Counsel’s desired result – disclosure of donors to the mother group.
Ramey said the Common Sense Alliance has been meticulously following the law as it’s been interpreted by the Colorado secretary of state’s office. “I can assure that if there is any organization following the letter of the law, it’s the Common Sense Alliance, because it’s under the spotlight,” he said.
Gustafson said if legal action is going to be taken, it will begin sometime after Thanksgiving. The process requires the complaint be filed with the secretary of state’s office, which then refers it to an administrative judge.
She said that her group was also waiting for Larry Winnerman of the Committee to Recall Mick Ireland to return to town before deciding what to do. The complaint against the recall committee centers around two mailings sent out to voters in Pitkin County. One was a glossy ad picturing a baby in ear phones and another was a four-page filler that was sent out following a poll that attempted to identify likely opponents of County Commissioner Mick Ireland, the subject of the August recall election.
Gustafson said the recall campaign’s disclosure forms fail to account for the amounts needed to pay for the mailings and the telephone poll. The registered agent for the recall campaign, Joshua Saslove, has told Gustafson that he wasn’t aware of his group’s activities, and Winnerman may be able to provide more answers.
Gustafson subsequently sent a letter to Saslove that says if the discrepancies aren’t settled by Dec. 1, she’ll file a complaint under the Fair Campaign Practices Act. “We want to give the Committee to Recall Mick Ireland every opportunity to straighten out their records and amend their disclosure forms,” she said.
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