Watchdogs still sniffing at McInnis and Western Skies political group

Colorado campaign watchdog groups are keeping a close eye on a Virginia nonprofit group with a Littleton address, which they suspect may be the smoking gun gubernatorial candidate Scott McInnis alluded to on a cryptic voicemail nearly a year ago.

McInnis leaving messages (McInnis for Governor)
McInnis leaving messages (McInnis for Governor)

Before he had even filed his paperwork to run for governor, the former six-term GOP congressman from Colorado’s Western Slope left a voicemail for a potential campaign contributor referring to a 527 group set up by Republican political operative Sean Tonner.

Late last year, McInnis campaign director George Culpepper resigned, later phoning a Montana newspaper to tell them he still supported McInnis but quit to “form Western Skies, a political strategies organization based in Colorado.”

Tonner, president of the conservative lobbying firm Phase Line Strategies, in 2008 registered the Western Skies Coalition, a 501(c)4 nonprofit “dedicated to promoting issues that make our nation great.” Western Skies drew criticism from the left for trying to “green wash” Republican state Senate candidates in ad campaigns during that election cycle that painted them as pro-environment.

“We’ve got Sean Tonner on board. Sean’s doing our 5-uh, or a 527,” McInnis said on the infamous voicemail first posted on the Complete Colorado website in April of 2009. “We’ve got lots of support in the oil and gas industry.”

Luis Toro, director of Colorado Ethics Watch, said candidates rarely acknowledge any connection to 527 groups – political organizations named for a section of the IRS tax code – or 501(c)4 nonprofits because it’s considered a coordinated expenditure and therefore a campaign donation that can violate contribution limits.

“Candidates generally never want to coordinate with these outside groups, and it was really kind of a shocking statement for those of us who follow these things to hear a candidate on a voicemail even to someone he thought was a supporter saying, ‘Sean Tonner’s running our 527,’” Toro said.

In 2008, the Western Skies Coalition was linked to a veritable who’s who of Republican politicians and political operatives with deep ties to Colorado’s oil and gas industry, including former Gov. Bill Owens and state lawmakers Josh Penry and Cory Gardner. The group promoted the Energy Leadership Action Plan Pledge, which called for a more “balanced” emphasis on oil, gas and coal.

“[McInnis] said Sean Tonner is setting up our 527, so maybe he was talking about Western Skies,” Toro said. “And then when his former campaign manager [Culpepper] quits or leaves and goes to run that very same organization, that’s a red flag, so we’re certainly going to be watching this closely.”

None of the lawmakers involved with the group and contacted by the Colorado Independent would discuss its funding sources, but it reportedly raised nearly $400,000 in its stated pursuit of “removing limits on new oil and gas exploration, restructuring the burdensome requirements placed on energy production in the United States and supporting the research of renewable energy.”

McInnis, an attorney for a Denver law firm that does extensive work for the oil and gas industry, has been campaigning on a platform that would roll back Gov. Bill Ritter’s more environmentally stringent oil and gas drilling regulations. He also has provided lip service to the renewable sector, but, like Penry and Gardner, is a staunch opponent of Ritter’s “New Energy Economy.”

Western Skies was briefly inactive but filed an annual report in August of 2009 and is now listed under the business section of the Colorado Secretary of State’s website as a nonprofit corporation in good standing.

In a press release announcing the formation of Western Skies in late 2007, Tonner announced former Gov. Owens, also a former oil and gas lobbyist, and former U.S. Secretary of Education and George H.W. Bush drug czar Bill Bennett would serve on the executive committee. Tonner is Owens’ former chief of staff, and Owens’ daughter, Monica, works for Phase Line.

“I thought [McInnis’s 527 voicemail] was especially shocking, and from a longtime congressman who’s run lots of campaigns it just seemed like one of those, Really, did he just say that? kind of moments,” said Pete Maysmith, executive director of Colorado Conservation Voters.

“It certainly indicates [McInnis] and the folks on his team are thinking along those lines; otherwise I don’t know why it would come out of his mouth. So does it make us go, Hmmm, that’s something we need to be on the watch for? Absolutely. Of course.”

McInnis spokesman Sean Duffy did not return calls requesting comment; Culpepper could not reached for comment; a phone number listed on the Western Skies website has been disconnected; and a message left for Tonner at Phase Line Strategies in Highlands Ranch was not returned.

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