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Campaign Finance

Big money a factor in two Colorado Springs school board races

Maria St. Louis-Sanchez (The Colorado Springs Gazette)-

There was once a time when a school board election involved a couple of yard signs and some handshaking at PTA meetings.

Tuesday’s election shows that those kinds of campaigns are a thing of the past in Colorado Springs School District 11 and Lewis-Palmer School District 38… Click Here to read the full article >>

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Smoke screen of outside money, complex disclosure laws obscure spending in school board races

Todd Engdahl (Chalkbeat Colorado)-

Good luck if you’re trying to follow the money in Colorado’s increasingly expensive and contentious school board races.

Increased involvement by outside groups and inconsistencies in state law have made it harder for voters to track who’s supporting board candidates.

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Dark money, lies and disclosure in the JeffCo school board race

Marianne Goodland (The Colorado Independent)- Groups opposed to the recall of three conservative Jefferson County Board of Education members are doing their best to keep under wraps how much they’re spending on opposition mailers or TV time. And these groups are getting help in hiding that spending from an industry that normally advocates for the public’s right to know: Denver’s broadcast TV stations.

The Colorado Independent has so far been able to tie at least $261,000 in advertising to the groups that either directly advocate against the recall or in favor of actions taken by the board majority. All but $41,000 comes from groups that are not required by either state or federal law to disclose donations or how they spend their money. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

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Watchdog group files complaints against groups pushing recall

Gabrielle Porter (High Timber Times)- A Colorado Springs-based watchdog organization has accused groups involved in instigating the recall of three Jeffco school members of violating state campaign finance laws in two lawsuits that will go before Colorado’s Office of Administrative Courts.

Colorado Government Watch alleged in an Oct. 13 complaint that nonprofit groups Jeffco United and Support Jeffco Kids — both of which have ties to the organization that initiated the recall of conservative school board members John Newkirk, Ken Witt and Julie Williams — are acting as financial pass-throughs for campaign funds while their nonprofit status protects them from disclosing donors. Colorado Government Watch wants the state to require both groups to register as issue committees, which would force them to disclose their donors, said director Dede Laugesen.

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Attorney’s listicle shows horror of Colorado school board rules

Kyle Harris (The Colorado Independent)- Few organizations bust Colorado’s power brokers in court as regularly as Colorado Ethics Watch. So when the organization’s attorney Peg Perl speaks — especially in a Buzzfeed listicle — Coloradans would be wise to listen.

Check out her post: “6 Scary Things You Need to Know About Colorado School Boards,” in which she uses GIF’s of pop culture icons including Darth Vader, Jerry Maguire and Napoleon (of Napoleon Dynamite) to explain troubling facts about the state’s rules governing school boards.

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10th Circuit: Do Voters Really Need Political Spending Disclosure?

Peg Perl (Harvard Law & Policy Review)- Over the last 10 years, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly struck down campaign finance spending bans and contribution limits while keeping disclosure requirements intact. According to the Brennan Center, the Roberts Court has invalidated six different major provisions in federal and state laws and “significantly reshaped the legal landscape dictating how much big money can flow into political races.”

However, even the Citizens United case almost unanimously (8-1) reiterated the constitutionality of the public disclosure requirements when individuals or corporations run advertisements during the final weeks of the campaign season naming a candidate (“electioneering communications”). As Professor Rick Hasen notes in his 2011 analysis of Citizens United, the Court re-emphasized that the voting public has an “informational interest” in knowing who is speaking about candidates even when those ads avoid specific calls to vote for or against the candidate.

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Donors’ identities concealed in school board campaigns

Gabrielle Porter (Canyon Courier)- Groups on both sides of the contentious Jeffco school board recall election have employed funding methods that conceal donors’ identities.

Since efforts to recall conservative board members John Newkirk, Ken Witt and Julie Williams were launched in late June, Jeffco residents have been inundated with information from both sides.

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Court allows Williams to settle Ethics Watch’s suit against Citizens United

Yesterday, Administrative Law Judge Robert Spencer dismissed Ethics Watch’s lawsuit against Citizens United for failing to report its spending on television ads attacking Governor John Hickenlooper during the last weeks of the 2014 election campaign. Judge Spencer ruled that a settlement agreement between Citizens United and Secretary of State Wayne Williams in a federal lawsuit filed by Citizens United eliminated Ethics Watch’s ability to enforce Colorado campaign finance laws against Citizens United.

In October 2014, Citizens United filed a federal lawsuit against the Colorado Secretary of State, and won a partial injunction against enforcement of electioneering disclosure laws. The ruling by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals stated that Citizens United need not disclose spending on the film “Rocky Mountain Heist,” a “documentary” released just before the election, but may be required to disclose spending on television ads for the “documentary” that identified Governor Hickenlooper.

Ethics Watch later filed a complaint against CU for electioneering disclosure violations as to television advertisements that were not subject to the injunction. Then, the Secretary entered into a federal consent decree with Citizens United enjoining the enforcement of electioneering disclosure laws, not only as to the spending that the Tenth Circuit said need not be disclosed, but also to the television ads that were the subject matter of the complaint. Yesterday’s ruling concluded that the Secretary’s settlement with Citizens United prevents Ethics Watch from proceeding with its complaint.

Ethics Watch Director Luis Toro said: “We are disappointed that the Court accepted Secretary Williams’ grant of a one-time ‘get out of jail free’ card for Citizens United only. Even though the Supreme Court case that bears its name said corporations and people must be treated equally, Citizens United was happy to accept a special dispensation that allowed it to ignore the rules that apply to everyone else. Secretary Williams should be fighting to enforce campaign finance laws, not cutting special deals with his conservative allies.”

Helpful Links:

  • Click here to read the ALJ’s decision.
  • Click here to read the settlement between Citizens United and Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams.
  • Click here to read the federal district court’s order on the settlement agreement.
  • Click here to read Ethics Watch’s complaint (exhibits).
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Ethics Watch statement on federal coal program

Today, Ethics Watch Senior Counsel Peg Perl made the following public statement at the Bureau of Land Management public listening session regarding the federal coal program in Golden.

“When some coal companies use corporate subsidiaries to artificially lower royalties paid to the federal and state governments, they not only cheat the citizens, they also gain an unfair advantage over competitors. Regardless of where you stand on the proper standards for power plant emissions, we should all agree that the American people should get fair royalty payments for mining operations on our public land, and that companies who bend the rules should not get an unfair advantage over their competitors who aren’t gaming the system. Any losses the mining company may suffer from a lower priced transaction are more than made up for by profits of the marketing company that flow up the chain to the corporate parent. However, every dollar of royalty revenue that the government should be but isn’t collecting, adds to our deficit and shifts more of the cost of government on to hard-working taxpayers in Colorado.

There is little doubt that the current loophole exploited by some larger coal companies is subject to the influence of money in politics and lobbying. According to public disclosures analyzed by opensecrets.org, in the 2014 election cycle the coal mining industry spent $9.8 million on lobbying for favorable treatment under federal programs. The coal industry is also a major player in campaign contributions for members of Congress, giving over $26 million in candidate contributions in the 2012 and 2014 cycles alone (opensecrets.org). The public record in the coal valuation rulemaking includes a letter from fifteen members of Congress urging the DOI to slow down reform efforts – a position consistent with larger coal companies that benefit from the current loophole. Each of those legislators has received thousands of dollars in contributions from the coal industry since 2012, including all three of the Colorado delegation members who signed that letter. Such a large checkbook wields influence in Congress (opensecrets.org).

It is hard for smaller companies and the citizens who suffer the effects of lower royalty payments to be heard when big money is spent in politics and lobbying to enrich profits of large coal companies. We hope you use this listening session to hear the voices that cannot spend millions on campaign contributions and Washington lobbyists. The BLM should ignore the calls to go slow and fix the coal royalty loophole so that all coal companies pay fair market prices for using our public lands for their private profit.”

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RMGO suit against Ethics Watch dismissed

DENVER – Today, United States District Court Judge Robert Blackburn dismissed a lawsuit filed by Rocky Mountain Gun Owners (RMGO) and Colorado Campaign For Life (CCL) against Ethics Watch. RMGO and CCL filed the suit against Ethics Watch in response to Ethics Watch’s successful lawsuit against the two groups for failing to disclose electioneering spending in two Republican state Senate primaries in 2014.

The Court rejected RMGO and CCL’s argument that Ethics Watch’s complaint against them amounted to an invasion of their First Amendment rights because Ethics Watch allegedly has a pattern of targeting groups based on the content of their speech. From the order:

There is no basis to conclude that the complaint brought by CEW was frivolous or was undertaken without a reasonably objective hope of success. The complaint was found to be valid. The plaintiffs claim CEW targets only conservative political groups. If so, the plaintiffs appear to argue, the complaint of CEW against the plaintiff was motivated by retaliation for political speech. Based on the CEW website, the plaintiffs claim to show a record of CEW’s efforts to target Republicans with complaints and litigation.

As CEW notes, however, this record of the actions of CEW is incomplete. Notably, by the measure of the plaintiffs, each of the plaintiffs has been subject to a complaint initiated by CEW on only one occasion. The evidence cited by the plaintiffs is not sufficient to justify further discovery on the issue of bad faith or harassment of the plaintiffs by CEW. Notably, the plaintiffs did not raise contentions of bad faith or harassment in the state proceedings. The CEW complaint at issue here was found to be valid in the state proceeding. Nothing in the evidence cited by the parties shows that CEW pursues invalid complaints as a method of harassment and/or in retaliation for certain types of political speech. There is no evidence of unjustified and oppressive multiple complaints by CEW.

Ethics Watch Director Luis Toro said: “As a nonpartisan watchdog group, Ethics Watch files complaints for violations of the law on money in politics based on the evidence we can present in court to obtain a successful result. We are pleased that a federal judge has reviewed the evidence and confirmed that we do not target groups based on the content of their speech.”

Helpful Links:

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