Anatomy of a ‘stolen election’: Ex-Garfield County judge still seething

2008 Democratic Garfield County commission candidate Steve Carter. (Photo/www.SteveCarter.us)
2008 Democratic Garfield County commission candidate Steve Carter. (Photo/www.SteveCarter.us)

It’s been nearly eight months since former Garfield County Judge Steve Carter says he was ambushed by oil and gas money in his unsuccessful bid for county commissioner, but the Democrat is clearly still seething about what he considers a “stolen election.”

“If somebody parks in your parking place, you can call the police department and they’ll come and investigate it and give the guy a ticket. But if someone steals an election, the way it’s set up right now, neither the attorney general, the secretary of state, the local [district attorney] or the local police department have the power to investigate it, and I think that should be changed,” Carter said in an interview.

Formal complaints about illegal electioneering by so-called 527 political committees or nonprofits are typically left up to the losing candidate — who may or may not have the resources to pursue a complaint — and usually are filed after the fact.

“A crime is committed when somebody does those things and fails to disclose where they’re getting their money — the kind of political things that [Republican operative] Scott Shires’ group did,” Carter said. “However, unless somebody like Colorado Ethics Watch spends the time, money and effort to file a formal complaint, nobody will do anything.”

A judge in April fined Shires and his Aurora-based Colorado League of Taxpayers $7,150 for failing to file an electioneering communications report for money it spent to influence the race, which pitted two Democrats seeking more control over natural gas drilling against Republicans running on pro-drilling platforms. Garfield County is a hot-bed of natural gas production, with more than 5,000 active wells at one point last year.

At least five other groups, both 527s — named for a section of the federal tax code and not bound by traditional fund-raising limits that govern other political groups — and 501(c)4 nonprofits, spent heavily on that 2008 race. Carter and fellow Democrat Stephen Bershenyi said they were the subject of last-minute lies and personal attacks about past business dealings and political positions.

It was an unprecedented flurry of outside spending for a local race — including some money from liberal environmental groups — and some observers are worried it set a new standard for election spending on the Western Slope.

“Industry decided they had a candidate that they already owned that they were going to protect at any cost and they wanted to make sure stayed in place, and they spared basically no expense to get that done,” said Bershenyi, referring to incumbent Republican John Martin. “I’ve been told by reliable sources who shall remain anonymous that industry spent well over $100,000 making sure that happened.”

Martin fairly firmly denounced the attack ads, fake newspapers and other tactics targeting the Democrats, saying he didn’t need the help, didn’t appreciate the outside influence — by either the industry or environmentalists — and preferred to run on his record and the issues.

But in an April interview, he also predicted such tactics are here to stay, and that groups on both sides of the energy debate will spend heavily in the 2010 election.

“All of that is going to come to light, and you’ll have many, many arguments, and should we say accusations, as well as explanations in the political arena from the governor to the locals in two years,” Martin said.

Bershenyi, a blacksmith and artist who grew up in Glenwood Springs, ran unopposed and won an at-large city council seat in his hometown in April. He said he learned a lot from his run against Martin and now has a much thicker political skin, but he wants to focus on city government before considering running for commissioner again in 2012.

“What you saw in that race was probably something unprecedented in terms of it never having been seen in a local race like this,” Bershenyi said. “County commissioner races in Garfield County have traditionally been races about issues, races about voting records and direction, and not about personality, and this was a radical departure from that.”

Carter, a Rifle attorney, said he won’t run again in 2012, hoping instead a younger candidate steps into the fray. He doesn’t blame his 2008 Republican opponent, Rifle High School Dean of Students Mike Samson, for the industry tactics, but feels bad for the oil and gas workers who were lured to the polls by false promises on Election Day.

“The workers were all told that if these two guys get elected you’ll be laid off tomorrow, and as a result, not just in my election but also in Bershenyi’s, it was a complete turnaround,” Carter said, referring to early returns and absentee ballots that had both Democrats leading. “So they voted the way they were told and they got laid off anyway.”

A slowdown in natural gas drilling, brought on by the recession and declining commodity prices, has led the laying off of hundreds of contract workers across the Western Slope since the 2008 election.

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