Penry email strategy garners increased scrutiny

Building from reports last month on a possible breach of campaign-finance regulations, Colorado Ethics Watch has filed a Colorado Opens Record Act request to determine whether the government-funded Colorado Senate Minority Office provided the gubernatorial campaign of Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry (R-Grand Junction) with email contact lists. Colorado law prohibits state agencies from providing contributions to a campaign. Ethics Watch contends the email lists are valuable and would amount to a campaign contribution.

Josh Penry (Jason Kosena: TCI)
Josh Penry (Jason Kosena: TCI)

In September, the Denver Post reported that government employees were receiving campaign emails from Penry for Governor– employees that subscribed to the Minority Office list but not to the Penry campaign list.

Mike Britt, Penry’s campaign manager, told The Post that the campaign “asked supporters — including lawmakers and lobbyists — to share their distribution lists. That could be how the campaign ended up with e-mail addresses to state government accounts.”

This is not the first time, however, that political operative Mike Britt has been involved in an email scandal. Britt was one of Karl Rove’s acolytes in the Bush administration and he was one of the targets in 2007 of the congressional investigation into violations of the Presidential Records Act, also known as the White House email scandal, where Rove and Britt and other strategists conducted official government business on their Republican National Committee email accounts instead of on White House email accounts.

White House email is part of a public record archived for future researchers. The RNC emails, though, were mysteriously deleted when investigators began asking for them.

Observers remain skeptical of the Bush administration’s use of the RNC email accounts and particularly of Rove’s defense in the matter. Colorado Ethics Watch is likewise unconvinced by Britt’s explanation in the matter of Penry’s email distribution campaign.

“The fact remains that there are people who had not given the Penry campaign their email address but they had [given it to] the Senate Minority Office,” Ethics Watch Director Chantell Taylor told The Colorado Independent. “Those kinds of situations make you wonder ‘How did they get those people if not through the [Senate Minority Office] list?’

“If indeed the Senate Minority Office provided their list of emails to any candidate campaign that would be tantamount to a contribution, because a list has value,” Taylor said.

Taylor said the CORA request, while a response to The Post report, was also inspired by what she called a local history of misusing public funds for partisan purposes.

“It is not limited to just Penry’s campaign,” she said. “This issue has come up before with the Senate Minority Office. We brought a complaint to the District Attorney’s office and Mitch Morrissey about their use of partisan funds to create the website in the first place.”

Taylor said that case raised a lot of questions about how both the minority and majority office websites were funded., the Minority Office website, drew scrutiny two years ago. In an investigation conducted by media outlets including the Colorado Independent, then-Senate Minority Leader Andy McElhany revealed that the site came to life through a “handshake agreement” he made with GOP operative Brad Jones, the man behind now-suspended conservative blog Face the State. The two sites were originally both registered to Jones.

At the time, Colorado Ethics Watch reported that McElhany broke the law in paying Jones $2,700 with contributions from a political action committee to create the site. Political contributions, mostly campaign funding, may not be used for official purposes, including building a Senate party site.

“I knew how we were paying for it was eventually going to be questioned,” McElhany told the Rocky Mountain News. “We decided we’d make a gift to the state out of the [political action committee funds] in the interest of getting out the truth to Colorado citizens.”

Taylor said the CORA request looking into the Penry campaign is centered on the Minority Office and seeks simply to determine whether or not the office is providing emails lists to any candidate or campaign. Neither the Minority or Majority office should be supporting partisan activities.

“It is our concern that they might be,” Taylor said.

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