One Very Expensive Website
The Republican Senate Minority Office has come under fire in recent weeks for its potential involvement in partisan political activities through its Web site ColoradoSenateNews.com, and now it appears as though Republicans may be forced to reimburse the state for salaries and resources used in the maintenance of the Web site.Earlier this month Colorado Confidential revealed some curious connections between ColoradoSenateNews.com, the media relations hub for the Senate Minority Caucus, and FaceTheState.com, an “independent” online news site that has conducted investigations into Democratic legislators. That connection cast a spotlight on the mechanics of how ColoradoSenateNews.com operates and prompted further inquiries by the Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post. Senate Minority Leader Andy McElhany eventually revealed the funding source behind the creation of ColoradoSenateNews.com, which the Rocky Mountain News reported on April 11:
McElhany said Tuesday that he used $2,700 in private contributions from the Senate Majority Fund, a GOP campaign account, to pay Jones to design and build the Web site and run it from his computer server.
He stressed that Jones had no involvement in the Senate press Web site’s editorial content, which is provided by the Republicans’ press staff.
McElhany said the deal with Jones was a handshake agreement – no contract exists.
“I knew how we were paying for it was eventually going to be questioned,” McElhany said. “We decided we make a gift to the state out of the Colorado Senate Majority Fund in the interest of getting out the truth to Colorado citizens.”
Campaign finance reports available through the Colorado Secretary of State’s office confirm that Senate Majority Fund paid $2,500 to Brad Jones LLC on January 12, and another $281 on February 14. Both expenditures were designated for “consulting” and, as McElhany has indicated, were used to create ColoradoSenateNews.com. McElhany calls the funding “a gift to the state,” but the source of that money could end up making ColoradoSenateNews.com a much more expensive proposition than he bargained for.
Last week the watchdog group Colorado Citizens for Ethics in Government (CCEG) called on Gov. Bill Ritter and Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey to investigate ColoradoSenateNews.com. As stated in a press release dated April 16:
Colorado Citizens for Ethics in Government (CCEG), a non-partisan, non-profit legal watchdog organization, today called on Governor Bill Ritter and District Attorney Mitch Morrissey to initiate a full investigation of the Colorado Senate Minority Office (Minority Office) for using a gift of private partisan funds for official state functions and for using state time and property for political activities.
According to CCEG, Republicans involved with the creation and implementation of ColoradoSenateNews.com could be facing misdemeanor violations. But that may be only the tip of the political iceberg, and here’s why:
Senate Majority Fund is filed with the Colorado Secretary of State as a “political committee,” the definition of which is set by the Colorado Constitution, Article XXVIII, Section 2:
“Political committee” means any person, other than a natural person, or any group of two or more persons, including natural persons that have accepted or made contributions or expenditures in excess of $200 to support or oppose the nomination or election of one or more candidates.
That’s pretty straightforward, and so is the definition of a “candidate” (also from the Colorado Constitution, Article XXVIII, Section 2):
A person remains a candidate for the purposes of this article so long as the candidate maintains a registered candidate committee. A person who maintains a candidate committee after an election cycle, but who has not publicly announced an intention to seek election to public office in the next or any subsequent election cycle, is a candidate for purposes of this article.
In other words, funds from a “political committee” may only be used to “support or oppose the nomination or election of one or more candidates.” A “candidate” is anyone who “maintains a candidate committee,” which basically encompasses every member of the state legislature.
Now, because money from a political committee was used to create ColoradoSenateNews.com, by the very definition of a “political committee,” ColoradoSenateNews.com is now a partisan political tool. Anything it says in support of Colorado Republican Senators, or in opposition of Democratic Senators (all of whom, by definition, are “candidates), may now fall under the definition of a “political committee.”
But that’s not what ColoradoSenateNews.com purports itself to be. By its own definition, the Web site is the sole communications device of the Senate Minority Office, and it is maintained by a staff of state employees.
“It looks like campaign funds are being used to fund an official website, which suggests that the official Web site is being used improperly for campaign purposes,” says Ed Ramey, an election law attorney with the firm of Isaacson, Rosenbaum.
Much of this is already outlined in CCEG’s request for an investigation into ColoradoSenateNews.com, but Colorado Republicans may be facing more than just a misdemeanor fine. According to statute 1-45-117 of the Colorado Constitution:
If any candidate who is also an incumbent inadvertently or unavoidably makes any expenditure which involves campaign expenses and official expenses, such expenditures shall be deemed a campaign expense only, unless the candidate, not more than ten working days after the such expenditure, files with the appropriate officer such information as the secretary of state may by rule require in order to differentiate between campaign expenses and official expenses. Such information shall be set forth on a form provided by the appropriate officer. In the event that public moneys have been expended for campaign expenses and for official expenses, the candidate shall reimburse the state or political subdivision for the amount of money spent on campaign expenses. [Colorado Confidential emphasis]
Since ColoradoSenateNews.com was paid for by a “political committee,” by definition it is a partisan political tool. State resources cannot be used to partisan political activities, and ColoradoSenateNews.com is maintained by state employees utilizing state property at the Capitol building (neither McElhany or staffer Steve Grazier have ever denied that state employees operate ColoradoSenateNews.com).
“Campaign funds are being used, which suggests to me that the Web site is being used for campaign purposes, and that’s improper,” says Ramey. “Any public resources spent on electoral activities should be paid back to the state.”
McElhany and others may argue that ColoradoSenateNews.com does not engage in partisan electoral politics, but it’s difficult to maintain that stance when you have used a political committee to fund the Web site. It’s instructive to note the differences between ColoradoSenateNews.com and ColoradoHouse.org, the latter of which is maintained by the House Majority Caucus. ColoradoHouse.org was paid for by state funds, which means that there is no questioning its role as a non-political Web site.
According to the Colorado Confidential’s Cara DeGette, the Senate Minority Republican press office employs three full-time staffers and one staffer during the legislative session for a total salary cost of $161,610 (which is $60,000 more than the Senate Majority Office, curiously enough).
If Republicans are forced to reimburse the state for using state employees and resources on ColoradoSenateNews.com, a potential $1,000 misdemeanor fine will be pennies in comparison.