Democratic lawmakers take on dark money in elections communications
Last year, at least four campaign fliers showed up in voters’ mailboxes in the Front Range that didn’t disclose who paid for the mailers.
As The Colorado Independent reported, the mailers, all on behalf of Republican candidates for state House and Senate, contained information the Democratic candidates said was inaccurate. It’s against the law to make knowingly false claims, but there was no way to complain about it because the mailers didn’t identify who paid for them. State law requires a mailer contain a disclaimer saying who paid for it only if it comes from an independent expenditure committee, which cannot directly coordinate with candidates. Mailers, TV and radio and Internet ads that come from candidates and political parties do not have to include a disclaimer.
Democratic lawmakers announced Wednesday that they intend to close that disclaimer loophole and strengthen other campaign finance laws, which they say will improve transparency in election communications.
Rep. Jeff Bridges of Greenwood Village will carry the bill to address the mystery-flier problem raised by The Independent last October. Bridges’ bill would require all electioneering communications — no matter who or what kind of committee is doing the communicating — to disclose the person or organization that put up the money. All mailers, ads, etc. would carry disclaimers.
Bridge’s second bill would close a loophole having to do with when such communications are reported. Current law requires the reporting of electioneering communications that take place in the 30 days before a primary election and in the 60 days before the general election. But Bridges and others point out that campaign activity continues to take place after the primary election and up to the 60 days before the general election, and that communications spending should be reported, too.
Colorado Ethics Watch reported last week that at least $1.9 million in spending took place in the period between the primary election and the 60 days before the general election.
A third bill, offered by Rep. Chris Kennedy of Lakewood, would put county political contests under the same campaign finance limits already in place for state candidates. Current law caps contributions to state candidates at $400 per election cycle. But there are no limits on how much someone can give a candidate in a county race. If state candidates should be subject to contribution limits, so should county commissioners, sheriffs, and the like, Kennedy says.
Wednesday’s news conference did not include any Republicans, a sign that the bills may have a hard time passing muster in the state Senate. The lawmakers said they had not yet asked any Republicans about co-sponsoring the bills.
A somewhat easier road to passage is in store for a bill that’s awaiting final House approval that might reduce what some lawmakers see as nuisance campaign finance complaints.
Current state law leaves it up to citizens to file complaints when they see candidates misusing campaign money, or not reporting its use accurately. Those complaints must be filed within 180 days of the date of the alleged violation. That information is collected in an online system known as Tracer and is managed by the Secretary of State’s office. Once a complaint is filed, it must be sent to an administrative law judge for a hearing within three days, although a candidate can amend the report. According to the Secretary of State’s office, both the original report and the amended report would then become part of the hearing.
Under a bill proposed by Republican Rep. Dan Thurlow of Grand Junction and Republican Sen. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs, those who are targeted for campaign finance complaints would have 15 days to correct those campaign finance reports instead of being routed within three days to an administrative law judge. The bill requires the Secretary of State to notify the candidate or committee of the complaint by email. Once notified, the candidate or committee could ask for a delay on the hearing of up to 15 business days in order to correct the reports.
In some circles, the Thurlow/Gardner bill is being called the “anti-Matt Arnold” law.
Arnold runs Campaign Integrity Watchdog, which has filed 67 campaign finance complaints in the past three years, many of them against Republican candidates and committees.
Take the latest series of complaints. Earlier this month, Campaign Integrity Watchdog filed a complaint against Democratic Rep. Dan Pabon of Denver for 60 alleged violations related to failing to disclose the occupations or employers of his campaign contributors. Pabon told The Independent his campaign team underwent personnel changes during last year’s election cycle. The person responsible for compliance erred in not including that information, and Pabon said he intends to make sure those reports are corrected.
No matter. Under state law, Pabon’s campaign committee had little opportunity to correct the filings before it was sent on to the administrative law judge. Pabon’s committee could be liable for $50 per day per violation. The complaint also asks that all contributions received without proper information be returned to those donors. In Pabon’s case, 60 violations at fifty bucks per violation could add up quick.
All the fines collected go to the Secretary of State’s office. Candidates and political parties often try to negotiate lower amounts or seek to have them waived entirely by the Secretary of State. Of the 220 fines of more than $1,000 levied since Wayne Williams became Secretary of State in 2015, 48 were waived, 122 are still awaiting resolution, and 34 were paid, although Williams also substantially reduced many of those penalties as well.
The largest fine paid was $10,000 by the Colorado Republican Party in 2016, in a complaint filed by Campaign Integrity Watchdog.
The Thurlow/Gardner bill cleared the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee last week and is awaiting further action from the full House.
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