The Colorado Secretary of State’s office has levied $1,950 in fines against Republican Ken Torres for accepting contributions before he officially declared himself a candidate for the state House of Representatives — far exceeding the reported $772.58 cash on hand that he has in his bid to challenge incumbent Rep. Wes McKinley. In addition, Torres has accepted a $1,000 contribution from a 527 political organization in violation of the state’s strict campaign contribution limitations.
Among the violations:
• Torres did not properly register with the secretary of state as a candidate before accepting contributions, resulting in $1,950 in fines.
• He accepted a $1,000 check from the Las Animas County Republican Women’s Club — which is registered as a 527 political committee based hundreds of miles away in Conifer, Colo. The contribution exceeds Colorado’s voter-approved law limiting contributions to $200 for primary races and $200 for general elections. Torres has 30 days to return the excess cash, said Rich Coolidge, communications director for the secretary of state.
• Torres did not list the occupation and/or employer of a small handful of other contributors to his campaign, as required by law.
• The names of Torres’ contributors have not been properly identified. Specifically, he listed married couples as contributors, rather than identifying them individually.
On Sunday, Torres said that he was aware of an initial outstanding penalty of $400, but has not yet received notification of an additional fine of $1,550. He also said he hasn’t yet received the letter sent by the secretary of state’s office last week, informing him that he must return the excess money given to him by the Conifer-based 527 political committee.
Torres, who is running for the Legislature for the first time, says he’s been frustrated by efforts to secure advice and assistance from the state Republican Party on campaign finance, filing and other issues. He vowed to pay any fines from mistakes his campaign has made, “even if I have to pay out of my own pocket.”
“I’m new at this and I need some help over here,” Torres said. “I’ve been running my campaign on my own; I went to state [GOP] headquarters and told them I need help. I want to make sure I’m on track — if I’m going to win I want to do it right.”
He says he plans to call the secretary of state’s office on Monday and try to straighten out his misfilings.
Torres’ troubles comes less than three months after Colorado Ethics Watch spanked his Democratic opponent, Rep. McKinley, as one of Colorado’s 10 “most corrupt public officials.” The April 17 designation came after the third-term legislator racked up $6,200 in fines for repeated failure to comply with campaign finance disclosure laws — significantly higher than any other candidate committee in the state.
The correlation between McKinley’s and Torres’ campaign reporting problems was not lost on Chantell Taylor, director of the nonprofit Colorado Ethics Watch.
“At the time we did our report [Rep. McKinley] had one of the most egregious records, and now here’s Torres doing the exact same thing,” Taylor said.
A claim by Torres of ignorance, she said, is “not an excuse.”
“He’s got to clean up his act — all of these candidates have to get it together. It’s not rocket science; it’s incumbent on the candidates to know what they’re doing," Taylor said.
Dozens of 527 ‘women’s clubs’
Meanwhile, a secondary issue has emerged in Torres’ campaign — specifically the $1,000 contribution from the Las Animas County Republican Women’s Club. Though Torres reported the $1,000 contribution to his campaign, the Las Animas County Republican Women’s Club has not filed a similar report with the secretary of state’s office detailing the contribution.
Torres said that to his knowledge, the organization is a local group organized by Kelly Weist, who he said he believes has a home in the area. Yet the club is actually registered with the secretary of state as a 527 political committee based in Conifer, in the mountains just west of Denver.
Such 527 committees — named for the federal tax code under which they are required to file — have popped up in recent years, providing deep pocket contributors a convenient way to advocate for or against a campaign or candidate. While 527 groups cannot contribute directly to candidates running for federal offices, the rules vary from state to state on whether 527 money can be donated directly to local candidates.
Most of Weist’s 527 political organizations were registered with the state within a two-day time span last October. None of them appear to be registered with the Internal Revenue Service.
In her filings with the secretary of state, Weist identified the same purpose for all 60 of her groups (note the statement cuts off at the end):
“To foster and encourage loyalty to the Republican Party and to the principles for which it stands; to promote an informed electorate through political education and activity; to increase the effective” (sic)
Weist did not return phone calls seeking further explanation.