Yesterday, the Denver Clerk and Recorder’s office submitted proposed language for an ordinance to update the City’s campaign finance disclosure system and improve enforcement. The language was the product of a working group that included Colorado Ethics Watch. Ethics Watch Executive Director Luis Toro released the following statement:
“We thank Clerk and Recorder Debra Johnson for devoting her office’s time and energy to the important task of modernizing and improving Denver’s campaign finance ordinance. We hope City Council will see that, with input from members of the working group, the proposal balances the burden on candidates and outside groups to correctly track and report their contributions and spending with the people’s right to cast an informed ballot.”
The American Legislative Exchange Council—more commonly known as ALEC—is holding their annual meeting in Denver from July 19 to 21, 2017. In response, a coalition of organizations held a teach-in on Saturday, July 15th in Denver to educate the public about ALEC’s negative impact on economic, environmental, and social issues. Ethics Watch Executive Director Luis Toro spoke as the expert on money in politics on the main panel at the event. He also partnered with Carla Castedo of Mi Familia Vota Colorado to teach a break-out session on efforts to make voting more difficult and to encourage more corporate money in politics.
Research by Colorado Ethics Watch shows that at least $1.9 million was spent on political ads during the gap between the date of the 2016 primary and the beginning of the 60-day electioneering communication disclosure window.
Ethics Watch reviewed political spending by groups that file disclosures with the Colorado Secretary of State for the period between June 29 and September 8, 2016. This period was chosen because groups were not required to report spending as electioneering in the gap right after the primary election and sixty days prior to the general election when spending on electioneering communications, defined as ads that name candidates without necessarily urging a vote for or against them (including so-called “call and tell” ads) must be disclosed pursuant to Colorado’s electioneering communications disclosure law.
The $1.9 million figure is almost certainly on the low end because Ethics Watch could only review spending by groups that must disclose all their spending to the Secretary of State under other laws. These include political parties, independent expenditure committees (Super PACs), PACs, and so-called “527” political organizations. During the gap, however, these reports can disclose lump sums for “advertising” but omit important information detailing which candidates were the targets or beneficiaries of the spending. 501(c)(4) organizations and other groups not required to file regular reports with the Secretary of State are not required to file any disclosures for candidate-specific spending during the summer gap, so it is not possible to know exactly how much political advertising was purchased during this time period.
Breaking the spending down by the parties groups traditionally support, Republican-supporting groups outspent Democratic groups by a slim margin. Democratic-supporting groups were more likely to label their spending as an electioneering communication despite the fact that such reporting is not required during this disclosure gap period.
“The traditional sixty-day window before the general election for electioneering disclosure is based on an outmoded belief that the election doesn’t really start until around Labor Day,” said Luis Toro, Executive Director of Colorado Ethics Watch. “We hope Colorado’s laws will be updated to reflect the reality that electioneering for the general election starts the day after the primary and continues through November.”
Click here to read a summary of Ethics Watch’s findings.
Yesterday, the Senate State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee considered a bill to modernize and update the Colorado Open Records Act, and the bill passed 4-1 with five amendments. It now goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee. Luis Toro issued the following statement:
“As we highlighted in our 2013 report, 21st Century Sunshine, CORA is in desperate need of modernization for the digital age. Ethics Watch has participated in a task force over the past year working to modernize CORA, specifically on the issue of digital records. Currently, data that exists in searchable formats like Excel is turned over in unsearchable format like paper copies or pdfs by records custodians, a process allowed by the current CORA law. The task force worked all year to craft a compromise bill that would address the concerns of requestors and records custodians.
Ethics Watch remains committed to the core concepts of CORA reform from the working group that would ensure digital records are accessible in a searchable format. We are still reviewing the amendments passed yesterday to make sure they will not have the effect of reducing public access to government records.”
Approximately one-third of all the outside spending on Colorado state candidate elections happened between October 24, when polls opened, and Election Day, according to a review of public records conducted by Colorado Ethics Watch.
Under Colorado law, outside groups that make independent expenditures to support or oppose candidates during the last days before a primary or general election must file reports of their spending within 48 hours. During the rest of the year, independent expenditures are disclosed in reports filed on a calendar that varies depending on how close it is to an election. By reviewing these reports, Ethics Watch was able to determine that approximately $11.5 million was spent on disclosed independent expenditures on Colorado state and local races during 2016. Of this total, just over $3.7 million was spent while polls were open.
Nearly a million dollars, or eight percent of all independent expenditures during 2016 occurred on a single day, October 28. This spending spike was largely due to a $439,855 expenditure made by a group called Colorado Safety & Justice, which in turn had just received a $420,000 donation from businessman George Soros. The expenditure was made to support Jake Lilly, a candidate for District Attorney in the First Judicial District (Jefferson and Gilpin Counties).
Colorado Ethics Watch has researched 177 Colorado school board websites to determine compliance with Senate Bill 14-182 and found that only 57% of school districts are clearly in compliance with the new law.
In June 2014, the law went into effect requiring school boards to post minutes of their meetings within 10 days of approving those minutes. While government entities in Colorado are generally expected to maintain meeting minutes as public documents, this was the first law that specifically directed public entities to post those minutes online.
To determine compliance with the posting requirements, Ethics Watch visited 177 Colorado school board websites to look for posted minutes from the period January through July, 2016. Ethics Watch discovered that 101 school districts (57% of the total) appear to be in full compliance with the posting requirement. These included large districts such as Denver Public Schools and Colorado Springs District 11 but also included numerous very small school districts.
Another 42 school districts, 24% of the total, appear to be out of compliance with the new law because the website reflects that meetings took place during the relevant time period, but minutes of those meetings are not posted on the website. The remaining 34 school districts (19% of the total), mostly very small districts, posted no information about meetings at all, perhaps indicating that no meetings were held during the relevant time period or that these districts may be out of compliance as well.
“We’re pleased that so many school districts are in full compliance, but the percentage is still too low,” said Luis Toro, executive director of Colorado Ethics Watch. “School board business is of great interest to those living and sending their children to school in that district, and those citizens have a right to easily access information about the decisions made by their elected representatives.”
The 101 school districts that appear to be in compliance include:
|Academy 20||Dolores RE-4a||Lamar RE-2||Salida R-32|
|Adams County 14||Douglas County RE-1||Lewis-Palmer 38||Sargent RE-33J|
|Adams-Arapahoe 28J||Durango 9-R||Limon Public Schools||School District 27J|
|Akron R-1||Eagle County RE 50||Littleton 6||South Conejos RE-10|
|Alamosa RE-11J||East Grand 2||Lone Star 101||South Routt RE 3|
|Archuleta County 50 JT||East Otero R-1||Mancos RE-6||Springfield RE-4|
|Aspen 1||Edison 54 JT||Mapleton 1||St Vrain Valley RE 1J|
|Bennet 29J||Elbert 200||Meeker RE1||Steamboat Springs RE-2|
|Big Sandy 100J||Elizabeth C-1||Miami/Yoder 60JT||Strasburg 31J|
|Boulder Valley RE 2||Falcon 49||Montezuma-Cortez RE-1||Stratton R-4|
|Branson RE 82||Fowler R-4J||Montrose County RE-1J||Summit RE-1|
|Briggsdale RE-10||Garfield RE-2||North Park R-1||Swink 33|
|Buena Vista R-31||Gilpin County RE-1||Norwood R-2J||Telluride R-1|
|Burlington RE-6J||Granada RE-1||Park (Estes Park) R-3||Thompson R-2J|
|Calhan RJ-1||Greeley 6||Peyton 23 JT||Valley RE-1|
|Canon City RE-1||Gunnison Watershed RE1J||Plateau RE-5||Walsh RE-1|
|Cherry Creek 5||Hanover 28||Platte Canyon 1||Weld County RE-1|
|Cheyenne Mountain 12||Hayden RE-1||Platte Valley RE-7||Weld County School District RE-3J|
|Clear Creek RE-1||Hindsdale county RE-1||Poudre R-1||West End RE-2|
|Colorado Springs 11||Huerfano RE-1||Prairie RE-11||West Grand 1-JT|
|Cotopaxi RE-3||Ignacio 11 JT||Primero Reorganized 2||Westminster Public Schools|
|Cripple Creek-Victor RE-1-J||Jefferson County R-1||Pueblo County 70||Widefield 3|
|Crowley Creek RE-1-J||Johnstown-Miliken RE-5J||Rangely RE-4||Wiggins RE-50(J)|
|Delta County 50(J)||Kiowa C-2||Ridgway R-2||Wiley RE-13 JT|
|Denver County 1||La Veta||Roaring Fork RE-1||Windsor RE-4|
|Woodland Park RE-2|
Today, the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission for the first time made its meetings open to the public via video livestream on the internet. The Ethics Commission made the move after Ethics Watch conducted a live demonstration of how easy it is to broadcast via internet at the Commission’s June 30 meeting. The Commission received a state grant over a year ago to broadcast its meetings live via the internet.
“We’re glad the Ethics Commission has finally joined the internet age by broadcasting its meetings on-line,” said Luis Toro, Executive Director of Colorado Ethics Watch. “The Ethics Commission’s meetings are of interest to people around the state, many of whom cannot travel to downtown Denver to watch the meetings in person. Today’s step is a victory for transparency and accountability.”
Colorado Ethics Watch has been monitoring the activities of the Independent Ethics Commission since its inception. It operates a website, Eye on the IEC, dedicated to providing information about the Commission’s activities.
The Independent Ethics Commission was created by Colorado voters in 2006 to hear complaints and issue advisory opinions on ethics laws. State elected officials and employees in the executive and legislative branches, and many county and municipal elected officials and employees, are under the jurisdiction of the Commission.
Watch the livestream of the August 10 meeting here.
Watch Ethics Watch’s demonstration at the June 30 meeting here.
Today, Colorado Ethics Watch submitted written comments to the Independent Ethics Commission on its draft position statement regarding the application of Article XXIX of the Colorado Constitution, the Ethics in Government Amendment, to home rule cities. Ethics Watch told the IEC that it went too far in requiring home rule cities, such as Denver and Colorado Springs, to enact laws at least as strict as those found in Article XXIX. Ethics Watch agreed with the IEC that in order to opt out of the ethics system set out by the Amendment, a home rule city must have some sort of enforcement authority for its ethics system.
Article XXIX provides that home rule jurisdictions may opt out of the Amendment’s coverage if they enact laws “that address the matters covered by this article.” Last month, the Commission released a draft position statement that would require home rule cities to submit their ethics codes for approval and have laws at least as stringent as those found in Article XXIX if they wished to opt out from Article XXIX and IEC jurisdiction. Ethics Watch disagrees and joins other commenters in arguing that a home rule jurisdiction can have different and even weaker ethics rules so long as they have a gift rule and an enforcement mechanism.
Ethics Watch also urged the Commission not to act until it is at full strength. The empty seat on the Commission happens to be the seat reserved for a representative of local government; Ethics Watch believes the views of the local government commissioner will be very helpful toward resolving this issue.
Ethics Watch submitted two sets of written comments during the discussion phase of this process. Ethics Watch’s comments today are the first submitted since the IEC published a written draft statement.
Click here to read Ethics Watch’s comments.
Click here to read all comments filed with the Commission on this topic.