Douglas County schools candidate draws ethics complaint

In what some might see as a revealing small chapter of contemporary U.S. politics, an ugly school board election in Douglas County has seen the local Republican Party use hard-line ideological arguments to promote preferred “freedom loving” Republican candidates over teachers’ union-endorsed “liberal” Republican candidates. In a race that sees Republicans eating Republicans, the point seems to be less about the candidates than it is about the kind of school system a right-wing GOP would like to install in Douglas County.

dazed GOP

Over the past months, determined Republicans have worked to link the teachers union-endorsed Republican candidates to right-wing bugbears like “Government health care” and the Employee Free Choice Act and President Obama.

Monday, however, the Douglas County Federation, or local teachers union, returned fire in the form of a press release that makes a damning case that the local GOP has raised ideology over candidate qualifications. And Colorado Ethics Watch filed a complaint against GOP-endorsed candidate Meghann Silverthorn for violating Hatch Act campaign laws meant to keep partisan politics out of government business.

The underlying issues

Contributors at conservative blogsite Rocky Mountain Right argued that the teachers federation-supported candidates would ultimately demand unionization of charter schools. Observers at progressive blogsite Square State countered that the GOP-supported candidates planned to convert Douglas County to an all-charter school district, eliminate teacher contracts and appoint former U.S. Rep. Bob Schaffer, the failed 2008 Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, to the superintendent’s post.

Each side has also spilled ink accusing the other of unfair tactics.

On the “Moms Like Me” blog, candidate Kevin Leung — a longtime active Republican who did not earn the GOP nod — voiced his frustration with the Republican attempts to frame the race as a fight between the union liberals and GOP conservatives.

“My Party boss now has accused me to be a handpicked candidate by the union even though I have not received a dime of donation from the teachers’ union.”

Meanwhile conservative blogger and attorney Mike Robinson accused “the union and its cronies” of picking on Meghann Silverthorn because of her GOP endorsement.

“Meghann is a candidate for the Douglas County School board,” wrote Robinson. “She is endorsed by the Douglas County Republicans and shunned by the AFL-CIO and its AFT local branch. As such she has been insulted, branded and dissed by the union and its cronies. All this while preparing for her husband to go off and help defend this country.”

Hatch Act violation?

Colorado Ethics Watch asked the federal Office of the Special Counsel on Monday to investigate a possible Hatch Act violation by Silverthorn, whose website explains that she is a Department of Defense employee.

The Hatch Act — which seeks to ensure government offices are run fairly — prohibits federal employees from running for partisan office. While Douglas County School Board races have traditionally been nonpartisan affairs, Ethics Watch argues that the Douglas County race fails to meet that description.

“Even a nonpartisan election can become partisan if the candidate herself injects politics into the race,” said Chantell Taylor, director of the nonpartisan nonprofit watchdog group.

The move by the Douglas County Republican Party this summer to endorse candidates is unusual. The party endorsed Silverthorn as well as Dan Gerken, Doug Benevento and incumbent John Carson.

Material distributed this fall by the party has attempted to paint the election as a battle between four true “conservative” candidates and four union-tainted “liberals.”

The Ethics Watch complaint states that Silverthorn has also worked to “inject partisan affiliation into the race.”

“This is one of those clear cases, and those are rare, that’s for sure,” Taylor said.

Citing evidence from Silverthorn’s Twitter feed (pdf), Ethics Watch argues that Silverthorn publicized her GOP nomination, twittering that she was “honored to receive the endorsement of the Douglas County GOP for my candidacy for the Board of Education, District G.” She later twittered statements such as “Some R shocked that people 4 parent choice, transparency & accountability R organizing w/GOP help, but what about years of union organizing?” and “Can’t wait for R Block Party tonite: come meet my friends [other Douglas County Republican Party-endorsed candidates] Doug, Dan & John and support education reform!”

Ethics Watch also points out that her campaign filings show Silverthorn accepting $3242.25 in campaign contributions from the Douglas County Republicans.

For her part, Silverthorn — who is in consultation with attorneys and so kept her remarks brief — says some of the items contained in Ethics Watch’s letter to special counsel are inaccurate.

“What I can tell you,” she said, “is that I did not solicit the endorsement of the Republican Party. I was pleased that I got it but I did not solicit it.”

She also argued that the donation she listed on her campaign filing form documented the cost of a mailing sent out by the Republican party on behalf of their four endorsed candidates. Silverthorne said she listed the donation on the advice of an attorney, but that she had not asked the Republican party to send anything on her behalf.

“I didn’t see it until it landed on my doorstep with the mail,” she said.

Taylor said Ethics Watch had not heard yet whether the Office of Special Counsel would be investigating Silverthorn’s possible violation. If the office does find any wrongdoing, the minimum penalty is a 30-day suspension without pay. Regardless of whether she is found to have violated the Hatch Act, Silverthorn’s candidacy will not be affected.

Douglas County Federation alleges misinformation

Meanwhile, the Douglas County Federation, the local union affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, released a letter on Monday expressing concern about “misinformation being disseminated in newspapers, letters to the editor, editorial boards, and from Douglas County Republican Party Chairman John Ransom concerning this year’s school board election.”

Apparently countering accusations that the union was a liberal organization, the letter explained that the union’s membership consisted of almost equal parts Republicans and Democrats, with the remainder unaffiliated.

The letter went on to accuse the GOP-supported candidates of ignorance regarding school board issues.

“In July of this year, John Ransom, as the Douglas County Republican Party Chair, endorsed four candidates even though school board races are nonpartisan.

“These candidates currently refer to themselves as the ‘reform’ candidates. These reform candidates have repeatedly made statements indicating a complete lack of knowledge about our district and its current situation.”

The union alleges that two of the reform candidates have called for site-based budgeting even though such a system was put in place at the end of last year. The uniuon also claims the reform candidates have repeatedly mentioned the need for a “Pay for Performance” program in the district, though such a system has been in place since the mid 1990s.

The fall election in Douglas County will be held by mail-in ballot only, and it is already underway. Ballots were mailed to voters Oct. 13.

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Katie Redding

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