Oil companies mum on Western Skies; millions pumped into Amendment 58

(Photo/kool_skatcat, Flickr)
(Photo/kool_skatcat, Flickr)

Oil and gas companies doing business in Colorado have dropped a mind-blowing $10 million into fighting Amendment 58 — a statewide initiative that would eliminate a tax credit and raise more than $300 million a year for college scholarships, wildlife habitat and other programs. But when it comes to whether big oil may be pumping in cash to help Republicans retake control of the state Senate, well, they’re just not saying. And in fact, they don’t have to.

Last week the Colorado Independent reported extensively on the Western Skies Coalition, which bills itself as a 501(c)4 nonprofit organization.

Though it has yet to show up as actually registered with the Internal Revenue Service as a nonprofit, Western Skies claims ex-Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, a former oil and gas lobbyist, as a member of its executive committee, along with former U.S. Secretary of Education and drug czar Bill Bennett.

The group was registered in Colorado on April 2 as a Virginia corporation by Sean Tonner, president of the Highlands Ranch-based GOP consulting group Phase Line Strategies, as the group’s registered agent in Colorado. Listed as directors on the organization’s Virginia filing are Tonner and fellow Phase Line employees Katie Behnke and Mike Ciletti.

The three have worked on behalf of numerous high-profile Republicans, including Owens, for whom Tonner served as chief of staff, Ciletti worked as a deputy director of the Office of Innovation and Technology and Behnke was a press assistant.

Sources have indicated that oil and gas money helped pay for TV ads this summer that were designed to portray Republicans Shawn Mitchell (no enemy to big oil) and Libby Szabo as champions of alternative energy. Their opponents claim the intent is clear: to help oil company-friendly Republicans retake control of the Colorado Senate by 2010.

Because Western Skies claims to be a 501(c)4, it does not have to disclose its donors — unlike traditional campaign organizations and 527 groups that have to make their financial backers known in Colorado.

Numerous companies that do business in energy-rich Colorado responded with various degrees of “no comment” when asked whether they contributed money to Owens and Tonner’s charitable nonprofit.

John Christiansen, the spokesman of Houston-based Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, said last week he was not sure whether the company had made a contribution to Western Skies, and that the company does not disclose any specific amounts it contributes to charities.

“The reason we give to entities is we see value in it, not to see the dollar amount out there,” Christiansen said.

A spokeswoman from Houston-based Noble Energy did not return several messages seeking comment. Nor were messages to Tulsa, Okla.-based Williams energy company returned.

Reached late last week, Wendy Wiedenback, of Calgary, Alberta-based EnCana, indicated she would look into the request, but never returned the call.

And Susan Spratlen, the vice president of corporate communications of Irving, Texas-based Pioneer Natural Resources, said she “cannot confirm one way or another” whether the company has contributed funds to Western Skies.

“We don’t disclose any activity with not-for-profits, whether they are political or charitable,” Spratlen said. “We don’t talk specifics of who we support.”

Not even for campaigns designed to elect candidates to public office?

“We don’t disclose that,” Spratlen said.

Companies may not have to disclose financial contributions or other support — or non-support — when it comes to 501(c)4 nonprofits, but state laws do require contributors to disclose the amounts they have given — in Amendment 58’s case furiously pumped — into statewide political campaigns.

According to state campaign finance reports, eight oil companies have so far contributed $1 million each to battle Amendment 58, a measure designed to raise more than $300 million for college scholarships and other programs, by eliminating the tax credit that energy companies can take for severance taxes in Colorado. The million-dollar contributors include:

• Anadarko
• BP
• Chevron
• ConocoPhillips
• EnCana
• ExxonMobil
• Noble
• Williams

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