Criticism over potential criminal charges that could be filed against Trailhead Group director Alan Philp in El Paso County for false ads attacking a Democrat are premature — and has resulted in a sharp rebuke from District Attorney John Newsome, who has entered a potential political minefield.
On Thursday, Colorado GOP attorney Scott Gessler sent a pitch to Republicans seeking donations for legal fees for his “good friend” Philp, who he said was to be “criminally charged for political speech.”
Newsome, a conservative Republican District Attorney representing the 4th Judicial District, was clearly perturbed by Gessler’s claim that charges were to be filed today — and by his assertions that Newsome is giving “special courtesy” to state Senate candidate John Morse.
“It is a pending investigation; we’re not done investigating this and were working very hard to finish it,” Newsome said. “I have not made any final decision; I am trying to do my job and I’m being attacked by all sides — which means I’m doing my job.”
The criminal investigation was launched last month after Morse, who is challenging Republican incumbent state Sen. Ed Jones, filed a complaint with the DA’s office alleging the Trailhead Group broke the law by producing ads and mailers misstating the outcome of a criminal case that occurred while he was Chief of Police of Fountain.
As detailed on Sept. 13 by Colorado Confidential, the ads aired on several Colorado Springs radio stations, as well as in the form of glossy mailers sent to potential voters in state senate District 11, where Morse is running against Republican incumbent Ed Jones in one of the top targeted legislative races for both Republicans and Democrats in Colorado.
If Philp ultimately is charged, it would mark the first time that a district attorney in Colorado has applied a law, passed by the Legislature last year, and signed into law by Gov. Bill Owens, that makes it a Class 2 misdemeanor to recklessly publish or broadcast false statements relating to any candidate running for public office.
A Class 2 misdemeanor carries penalties of up to a year in jail and $1,000 in fines.
Notably, Gov. Owens is also the founder of the accused Trailhead Group, one of the wealthiest 527 groups in the country. Philp, who served as director of the Colorado Republican Party in 2002, later ran a think tank founded by Owens; he became Trailhead’s director last year.
Newsome, who was elected two years ago, clearly was angered over Gessler’s letter, dated Oct. 19, which included allegations that the district attorney is pursuing “unconstitutional” charges. Gessler also implied that Newsome is giving “special courtesy” to Morse, the former Fountain police chief who is currently on leave as director of Silver Key senior services while he is running for the Senate in one of the state’s most hotly contested contests.
In his letter, Gessler, himself the president of a 527 group that has produced ads attacking Democrats, expressed outrage that Philp would be charged for what he described as “political speech.”
“These charges are unconstitutional, and I believe the procedures and investigation have been timed to harm him,” Gessler wrote. “Whether you are Republican or not, this should worry you. Political campaigns can get nasty, but one side should not be able to throw the other in jail (or bankrupt him with attorney fees while destroying his reputation).
“I firmly believe this is a hack job,” Gessler continued. “Not a Republican-Democrat thing, but law enforcement professionals giving one another special “courtesy.” Alan’s behavior not was “willful,” and certainly not “reckless” (a conscious disregard of a known and unjustifiable risk). There have been far more egregious actions in the past, but no charges.”
To which Newsome responded:
“It shows a complete lack of understanding as to what my job is and what my oath of office is. I put my hand on the Bible and said I would enforce the law.
“I don’t write the laws; I enforce the laws as written by the Legislature,” Newsome said. “We had a criminal complaint filed, and there is a law that was passed by the Legislature, and signed by the governor. My job is to enforce that law, to see if the elements of the law are met. My job is not to look at the election calendars.”
Morse, meanwhile, expressed astonishment over Gessler’s claims.
“The relationship between John Newsome and I has been greatly exaggerated to benefit the Republicans,” he said. “I certainly respect [Newsome] and I trust him, that’s absolutely true.
“But as far as this ‘political speech’ thing, well, they lied. Maybe for the Republican Party it’s political speech, but for the rest of us, sorry, it’s bold-faced lies — and it’s against the law.”
Morse, as well as his campaign manager Kjersten Forseth, said that they have not had any direct contact with Newsome, or with the DA’s office outside of answering questions from the investigator working on the case, who has periodically called with questions.
C.R.S. 1-13-109(2)(a) establishes that it is a class 2 misdemeanor for any person to “…recklessly make, publish, broadcast, or circulate or cause to be made, published, broadcasted or circulated in any letter, circular, advertisement, or poster or any other communication any false statement designed to affect the vote on any issue submitted to the electors at any election or relating to any candidate for election to public office.” Recklessly is defined as acting “…in conscious disregard of the truth or falsity of the statement made, published, broadcasted, or circulated.”
Click here to read Colorado Confidential’s original Sept. 30 report, which includes the full text of the Trailhead Group’s ad attacking Morse for being “incompetent” and “mishandling” a case involving a Fountain man who was convicted of felony menacing — and Morse’s explanation of what actually happened.