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Jeffco’s recall free-for-all spurs call for campaign finance reform

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Watchdog group renews demand for stricter campaign finance laws

By Gabrielle Porter

An ethics watchdog group has called for state campaign finance reform in the wake of the release of contribution figures from the Jeffco school district’s contentious recall election.

While any change to the Colorado Constitution, which specifies how elections are conducted, would require a statewide vote, Peg Perl, senior counsel for Colorado Ethics Watch, said Colorado legislators can take several steps to bring more transparency to local elections, including:

• Approve a measure allowing recall elections to be treated like regular candidate elections, which would subject the groups involved to more stringent disclosure rules.

• Adjust campaign finance disclosure requirements to apply to odd-year elections. Currently, laws such as the electioneering communications laws — which require financial disclosure for any ad that mentions a candidate’s name in the last 60 days before an election — are in play only during even-year races.

In the recent Jeffco recall campaign, both sides used funding methods that concealed donors’ identities and allowed so-called “dark money” to pour in, sometimes from out-of-state groups. Perl said local elections are receiving more attention nationwide than they did in the past.

“(A local race) now, it’s really seen as a battleground, both on issues and in terms of parties and the people who (support them) …,” Perl said. “These are high profile.”

As a result, she said, it’s time for Colorado to re-examine the role school board elections play in statewide politics.

Recall elections in Colorado are governed by the same rules as for ballot measures, as opposed to the rules that apply to candidates for office — meaning that some limitations on the groups backing or opposing candidates aren’t in play.

In recall races, groups paying for ads aren’t bound by the electioneering communications laws that require financial disclosure for any ad that mentions a candidate’s name in the last 60 days before an election, Perl said.

Perl would like to see campaign finance laws applied to groups based on their actual functions.

“I think we all know that recalls are all about the people,” she said.

Electioneering communications laws also don’t apply to races in odd-number years, Perl said — when school board elections typically occur. This could also be changed by the General Assembly, she said.

‘Dark money’ funded both sides in recall

Both sides in Jeffco’s school board recall campaign used funding methods that allowed them to conceal donors.

On the incumbents’ side, several local television stations and Comcast aired ads featuring incumbent Julie Williams that were paid for by a 501(c)4 nonprofit called Colorado Independent Action. That group is affiliated with the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank that supported the school board’s conservative majority.

The state constitution requires any group of individuals that raises more than $200 for a ballot-issue campaign to form an issue committee and disclose finances; however, Colorado Independent Action avoided disclosure on the Williams ad by avoiding mention of the campaign itself in the ad.

According to figures released by the Colorado secretary of state, Colorado Independent Action also donated $170,000 in October to issue committee Kids are First Jeffco, which opposed the recall.

On the other side, recall organizers set up two organizations for fund-raising: Jeffco United for Action, which told Jeffco residents to vote “yes” on the recall; and Jeffco United Forward, which pushed the five-candidate slate the group endorsed, all of whom were elected.

But recall backers also formed a third group, a 501(c)4 — the same nonprofit structure as Colorado Independent Action — called Jeffco United that could direct funds to either organization. The group wasn’t required to disclose donors and gave $93,000 in cash and in-kind donations to Jeffco United for Action.

Issues surrounding ad-buy disclosures

According to public documents available through the Federal Communications Commission, Colorado Independent Action — the group that sponsored ads featuring former board member Williams — purchased air time on at least five local television stations:

• KUSA-Channel 9.

• KTVD-Channel 20.

• KMGH-Channel 7.

• KDVR-FOX31.

• KCNC-Channel 4.

While Colorado Independent Action isn’t required to disclose its expenditures, KUSA-Channel 9 filed a full invoice through the FCC website that showed the nonprofit paid the station $34,480 for 13 days of advertisements in August. The invoice was later removed from the website.

The group also purchased Comcast air time for the ads, according to Perl.

Cable operations such as Comcast are not required to post their agreements online at the FCC site, but they are required to make them available in person, Perl said.

The ad-buy records do not specifically mention what the ads’ content is, although they’re supposed to list the dollar amount and the media markets where the ads will air. However, funders in some instances have left some information blank on the forms.

“So, it doesn’t have much info, and they don’t really have to fill it out,” Perl said.

Colorado Ethics Watch found the following agreements that targeted Jeffco audiences, among others:

• $70,116 from Americans for Prosperity, an organization run by the well-known conservative billionaire Koch brothers, for 11 days of ad time in South Jeffco and other areas.

• $24,002 from Colorado Independent Action, an affiliate of the Independence Institute. The agreement says the ad would run for six days in “West, South Jeffco, North West” but offers no clarification. Another agreement lists $7,030 for 12 days of ads in the same areas.

• $24,000 from Kids are First Jeffco, a group that opposed the recall. The agreement says the ad would run in “West, South Jeffco, North West” but offers no clarification.

Colorado Ethics Watch has made Comcast ad-buy records available on its website here.

The new wave of advertising is through streaming services like Hulu and YouTube. These contracts are not required to be disclosed through the FCC, but Perl said candidates do have to disclose them in campaign expenditures — unless, of course, they are for some reason exempt or produced by an outside group, as in the case of Colorado Independent Action.

Perl said campaign finance reform measures seeking spending limits in school board races have failed in Colorado’s General Assembly in the past.

However, Perl said cited heightened awareness of the role local elections are playing statewide, which could create impetus to enact more transparency measures.

“Maybe enough attention has been drawn this year,” she said.

Contact Gabrielle Porter at Gabrielle@evergreenco.com or at 303-350-1042, or follow her on Twitter at @gabyreport.

Campaign contributions in recall race

In the school board recall races in Districts 1, 2 and 5, candidates received the following contributions:

• Candidate committee Friends of Brad Rupert, which supported new District 1 board member Brad Rupert: $48,360.

• Issue committee Williams for Jeffco Schools, which supported ousted District 1 board member Julie Williams: $1,545.

• Candidate committee Friends of Susan Harmon, which supported new District 2 board member Susan Harmon: $46,971.

• Issue committee Keep Newkirk for Jeffco Schools, which supported ousted District 2 board member John Newkirk: $1,650.

• Candidate committee Matthew Dhieux for Jeffco School Board, which supported District 2 successor candidate Dhieux: $269, plus $250 in non-monetary contributions.

• Candidate committee Friends of Ron Mitchell, which supported new District 5 board member Mitchell: $61,995.

• Issue committee Keep Witt for Jeffco Schools, which supported ousted District 5 board member Ken Witt: $6,835.

• Candidate committee PaulaNoonanforJeffcoSchools.org, which supported successor candidate Paula Noonan in District 5: $385, plus $678 in non-monetary contributions.

• Candidate committee Regan for Kids, which supported District 5 successor candidate Regan Benson, did not file an updated campaign finance report Dec. 3. Benson’s organization declared $200 of contributions.

Campaign contributions in Jeffco’s open races

In the open races in Districts 3 and 4, candidates received the following contributions:

• Candidate committee Citizens for Ali Lasell, which supported new District 3 board member Lasell: $74,968.

• Candidate committee Kim Johnson for Jeffco Schools, which supported District 3 candidate Johnson: $12,390.

• Candidate committee Amanda Stevens for Jeffco Schools 2015, which supported new District 4 board member Stevens: $61,499.

• Candidate committee Tori Merritts for Jeffco, which supported District 4 candidate Merritts: $7,100.