An administrative judge has decided that one nonprofit group that contributed to efforts to recall three former Jeffco school board members violated state campaign finance law, and must pay a fine and disclose its donors.
Colorado Springs-based watchdog group Colorado Government Watch in October filed a complaint against the nonprofits Jeffco United and Support Jeffco Kids, both of which backed the recall of now-ousted conservative school board members John Newkirk, Ken Witt and Julie Williams. The complaint accused the groups of improperly acting as financial pass-throughs for campaign funds while their nonprofit status protected them from disclosing donors.
In a Dec. 11 decision, Administrative Law Judge Robert Spencer wrote that Jeffco United should be required to register as an issue committee and disclose its donors, since its “major purpose” was supporting the recall. Spencer pointed out in his decision that the group was incorporated six months before the election, and that there was no evidence that it “ever engaged in any other activity, other than supporting the recall election and the election of new board members.”
Spencer also wrote, however, that there wasn’t enough evidence to support the accusation that Support Jeffco Kids mainly existed to support the recall. He pointed to the fact that the group has existed since early 2014 — long before talk about a recall arose — and that it has been involved in many different educational causes.
Spencer has ordered that Jeffco United should:
• Register as an issue committee and file all required reports within 10 days.
• Pay a civil penalty of $1,000 to the secretary of state.
Jeffco United spokeswoman Lynea Hansen wrote Dec. 17 that organization members were reviewing Spencer’s decision.
Colorado Government Watch director Dede Laugesen said she was gratified by the ruling.
“It seems pretty clear that the group was set up to launder money so voters wouldn’t know the donors’ (identities) …,” she said. “Jeffco United essentially kick-started the recall to begin with, so we think it’s important that the voters have knowledge that they have not had. … The other groups that have questionable dark money didn’t play such a pivotal role.”
Anti-recall group not targeted
On the side that opposed the recall, a nonprofit with ties to free-market think tank the Independence Institute funded television and cable advertisements featuring Williams. The group, Colorado Independent Action, wasn’t required to disclose donors because of its nonprofit status, and also avoided disclosing the cost of the ads by not specifically mentioning the election.
In addition to the ads, Colorado Independent Action also donated $10,000 to Kids are First Jeffco, a group that opposed the recall.
When asked in earlier interviews why Colorado Government Watch hadn’t filed a similar complaint against Colorado Independent Action, Laugesen said groups like the Independence Institute are “already on everyone’s radar as to where they stand.”