Republican U.S. Senate candidates Ken Buck and Jane Norton have been trading punches on Denver’s Caplis and Silverman talk radio show this week. The recent back and forth is the most heated exchange yet to pass between the two in a race that grows hotter by the day.
Norton, who was lieutenant governor under Bill Owens and who has family ties to the highest ranks of the nation’s corporate-D.C. lobbying community and whose candidacy received early backing of the national Republican party, seems determined to paint Weld County D.A. and grassroots favorite Buck as a corrupt politics insider. This week she has embraced a complaint filed with the Federal Elections Commission by a former Owens administration official that alleges Buck colluded with former employer Jerry Morgensen, CEO of Hensel Phelps, to skirt campaign finance rules.
Referencing the complaint, Norton is claiming Buck and Morgensen created a 527 political group that effectively funnels large donations to the Buck campaign not directly but through ad buys, for instance. Buck told Caplis and Silverman that the charges were ridiculous and a grasping conspiracy theory of a wilting campaign. State Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, who is now acting as Norton’s campaign manager, also appeared on the show to repeat the Norton claims.
The Caplis and Silverman conversation with Norton took off from discussion of the negotiations that passed last year between the White House and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Andrew Romanoff, where he was asked to apply for jobs with the administration rather than challenge incumbent Michael Bennet in a primary. The right blogosphere and talk radio have seized on the negotiations– a clearly common and bipartisan tactic– as an example of a “Chicago-style” rough and tumble politics introduced to Washington by Obama.
“This kind of bare knuckles is happening in my race too,” said Norton. “We have a guy who writes a huge check to the DNC in Denver and then Obama gives a huge amount of money in stimulus dollars to this guy. This guy then bundles the $150,000 to Ken Buck and then maxes out to Hickenlooper.”
Norton said she was talking about Morgensen and that she was tired of the “pay to play” system.
The campaign finance complaint detailing the theory was filed by Charles Grice, like Norton, a former official in the Owens administration. Owens and Grice asupport Norton in her race against Buck.
The complaint claims Buck told potential donors that Morgensen was willing to spend up to a million dollars to support the Buck campaign. It also alleges Buck told donors, including Morgensen, to give amounts greater than the campaign finance limit of $2,400 to 527 groups including the Declaration Alliance, which has spent $158,000 on television ads for the campaign.
From the complaint:
Upon information and belief, Buck has advised Morgensen and other potential Buck donors who are financially able to contribute more than the maximum allowable contribution of $2,400 to make excess contributions to Declaration Alliance in care of John Hoteling. In February and March 2010, intending to benefit Buck and the Buck Committee, Declaration Alliance, with the involvement of John Hoteling, and using funds funneled to Declaration Alliance by Hensel Phelps and/or Morgensen and/or other individuals who have contributed in excess of the maximum allowable contribution limit of $2,400 per individual, received and spent just over $158,000 on a television ad campaign attacking one of Buck’s potential primary opponents. See attached Exhibit I.[…]
All told, the three groups—Declaration Alliance, Campaign for Liberty and AJS—spent upwards of $781,000, that is, over three-quarters of a million dollars, on ad buys intended to benefit Buck and the Buck Committee.[…]
The advertisements purchased and run by Declaration Alliance, Campaign for Liberty and AJS are impermissible coordinated communication[…]
The advertisements are coordinated communications because of the apparent cooperation between Declaration Alliance, Campaign for Liberty and/or AJS and Morgensen and/or Hensel Phelps and/or Mrs. Buck and/or other undisclosed contributors, on the one hand, and Buck and the Buck Committee, on the other. The statement of Buck’s campaign manager in The Denver Post article indicates that both Buck and the Buck Committee had prior knowledge of the AJS ad…
Norton later pulled back, saying that the facts of the matter would later be established by the FEC. “Is there a kind of coordination going on?” she asked. “There are just a lot of questions that need to be answered. Those are questions that the campaign is going to have to answer.”
Buck called the allegations speculative, reckless and unfounded.
“I think it is reckless of my opponent to talk about speculation the way she is. I knew nothing about the commercials. Nobody in my campaign knew anything about the commercials that have been run by some grassroots organization– before they were run. We didn’t know anything about who funded the commercials, still don’t and don’t really care.”
Buck said Norton had gone negative in the last three weeks because she was “getting her butt kicked” by the Buck campaign, which won the caucus voting in March and starred at the GOP state assembly in May, pulling down the lion’s share of the delegates. Norton decided to petition straight onto the primary ballot rather than go through the delegate assembly. Buck said he hoped the lawsuit would be quickly dismissed. He called it an “establishment tactic to keep a grass roots candidate locked up.”
Penry appeared on the show after Buck and a day after Norton. The unproven FEC complaint mattered, he said.
“[The complaint] has an odor. Whether anything was criminal or not it is for somebody else to decide.” He said the Norton campaign would continue to play up the fact that Democratic Goverrnor Bill Ritter was best man at Buck’s wedding and any ties between Buck and Hensel CEO Morgensen. The point Penry said was to demonstrate that Buck is the establishment candidate.
Norton on Caplis and Silverman:
NORTON: This kind of bare knuckles is happening in my race too. We have a guy who writes a huge check to the DNC in Denver and then Obama gives a huge amount of money in stimulus dollars to this guy. This guy then bundles the $150,000 to Ken Bunk and then maxes out to Hickenlooper.
SILVERMAN: Who is this guy?
NORTON: Morgen– Jerry Morgensen. It is pay-to-play kind of politics. Whether we are talking about Sestak and Romanoff. We are passing Obamacare with sweetheart deals or with one of Colorado’s biggest beneficiaries of stimulus underwriting Buck’s campaign. I mean this is the kind of bare knuckles that we have to stop. I am tired of it.
SILVERMAN: Right and I am not tired of the Jerry Morgensen story because I have never even heard the name before you just said it. Let me get this straight. You are saying that he is an Obama operative or connected to Obama using money for Ken Buck, who last time I looked was a conservative Republican. What is the purpose? To knock you out of the race?
NORTON: No, this is the circle. So Morgensen writes a check to the DNC in Denver.
SILVERMAN: For how much money?
NORTON: I don’t know. I don’t know the exact amount. Then the administration gives a lot of stimulus money to Morgensen.
SILVERMAN: How? What is his business?
NORTON: About $200 million.
SILVERMAN: What is his company called, Morgensen Construction?
NORTON: Hensel Phelps.
SILVERMAN: I’m sorry? Oh, Hensel Phelps.
NORTON: Then he bundles money to Ken then maxes out to Hickenlooper, who hosted the DNC in Denver. I mean doesn’t that smack of pay for play?
SILVERMAN: It kind of does. But connect the dots. What are you saying? Ken Buck is in tight with John Hickenlooper or what are you saying?
NORTON: No, I am saying that a guy who gets a lot of stimulus money is helping in questionable ways a primary candidate in a Senate race.
CAPLIS: And a guy who, you are telling us, that a guy who helped Mayor Hickenlooper in the Governor’s race.
NORTON: Right. Right.
CAPLIS: Obviously this is me talking, and I support Jane, but it seems to me quite obvious that those who want to elect Michael Bennet would like to not face Jane Norton.
SILVERMAN: I don’t know that for sure. I look at prominent Republican Larry Mizel who has a lot of friends in high places in the Republican party. He is backing Michael Bennet. I don’t know why people make the choices that they do. I’m a bit of a free agent. Is it possible that Jerry Morgensen–didn’t Ken Buck have some working relationship with Hensel Phelps? Could it be a friendship?
NORTON: After he left the U.S. Attorney’s office under a cloud, he went to work for Hensel.
SILVERMAN: Isn’t that a good explanation?[…]
SILVERMAN: Jane, the point I was making– come on. If Ken Buck worked with Hensel Phelps they are friends. I am never going to run for political office again but if I were this time I would expect Dan Caplis maybe to support me or maybe be nicer to me just based on us working together. Can’t you understand that from Jerry Morgensen? I bet you have Democrats who are friends of yours who are supporting you.
NORTON: Absolutely, but that is the question of the Federal Elections Commission complaint. Is there a kind of coordination going on? So there is just a lot of questions that need to be answered. Those are questions that the campaign is going to have to answer, Craig.
Ken Buck responds:
SILVERMAN: I think of all of the candidates we have had on, Jane Norton [threw] the hardest punch and it was directed at Ken Buck. Ken, did that punch hit you?[…]
BUCK: Did the punch hit me? No. I think it is reckless of my opponent to talk about speculation the way she is. I knew nothing about the commercials. Nobody in my campaign knew anything about the commercials that have been run by some grassroots organization before they were run. We didn’t know anything about who funded the commercials, still don’t and don’t really care. They were positive commercials that talked about my conservative record, for the most part. There was one negative commercial about my opponent. Other than that, they really helped us, and I think that that is really the key. And for someone to impugn the integrity of a great Colorado corporation and CEO based on speculation is unfortunate.
SILVERMAN: But just so people haven’t caught up. You are talking about Hensel Phelps Corporation and Jerry Morgensen. I take it he is the CEO?
BUCK: He is the CEO of Hensen Phelps. Right.
SILVERMAN: And do you have a relationship with Hensen Phelps and Jerry Morgensen?
BUCK: Well you were absolutely right yesterday, Craig, when you said I used to work there. I worked there for three years before I ran for district attorney. Yes, I know Jerry and consider him a friend.
SILVERMAN: Well, that makes sense to me. It was somewhere in the recesses of my mind. I was glad it came to the fore. We didn’t know that was coming from Jane Norton. In effect, as I have thought about it, if you did collaborate with your former employer to put out these 527 ads, that would be a crime wouldn’t it, under the current campaign laws?
SILVERMAN: So, in effect, did you think you were being accused of a crime and as a prosecutor did it teach you about the dangers of false accusations?
BUCK: Well I will tell you, Vince Carroll said that the way the Norton campaign is being run right now is– would make a candidate for student council, high school student council, blush. And I think that is absolutely right. I am not going to get into whether I have been accused of a crime or not. They are accusing very good people outside of the political process of doing wrong things.
CAPLIS: Ken, let me ask you about that. I was here for the interview and I haven’t gone back and listened to it again. What accusation are you talking about? What wrong doing did Jane accuse anybody of doing? I don’t recall her accusing anybody of violating campaign finance laws. What I heard, and this is my general impression of it, is Jane spinning off of our conversation about Andrew Romanoff failing to disclose his conversations with the White House as business as usual and as part of that theme Jane then brought up her point about your friend from Hansel Phelps, and as I recall it, was that his company got a lot of stimulus money and then he was pouring a lot of money into these ads for you campaign while also pouring a lot of money into John Hickenlooper’s campaign, and she considered that business as usual. So, if I got that right, how does that constitute false allegations or impugning character or whatever?
BUCK: What she said was we had colluded in those commercials and that is what crosses the line. I didn’t. We didn’t know about them. I don’t know if Jerry Morgensen funded them and neither does Jane, for that matter. All that we know is that the organizations that take credit for those commercials, she has made a lot of allegations concerning who funded the commercials, who knew about the commercial beforehand, that she doesn’t know and frankly I don’t know. And that is what impugns character and integrity.
SILVERMAN: Right, but she must have a pretty good basis for suspecting Hensel Phelps and Jerry Morgensen. I don’t think she would have said it on the radio. I don’t know Jane Norton that well but what I know of her is she has a good reputation. Do you think she is wrong about Jerry Morgensen and Hensel Phelps supporting this 527? Surely you must have some idea?
BUCK: I have no idea, Craig. And neither do you and neither does Jane.
SILVERMAN: Alright I will give it to you that you may not know, but why does she have it on good authority?
BUCK: Because her campaign has gone so negative in the last few weeks after they are getting their butts kicked. You know after the caucuses, it was by 1 percent… but then they couldn’t’ even go to assembly. Craig if you remember when Jane announced and came into this race, she came in with all the fanfare with the lobbyist money, the endorsements from DC and now they are losing and I think it is a desperate campaign. It is just not what Republicans do to each other, and I hope they start taking the high road and stop making baseless accusations.
SILVERMAN: I had the chance to process what Jane Norton said to us 24-hours ago. Did she use the word colluded?
BUCK: That was my memory of it.
SILVERMAN: What she seemed to imply is here is a guy who is in support of Barack Obama because Barack Obama gave him a bunch of stimulus money, also a supporter of John Hickenlooper, and I thought, Wow she is trying to say Ken Buck is being supported by some sort of liberal Democrat. I think you are subject to criticism Ken, but have you ever been called a Democrat?
BUCK: I have not but I think she also mentioned a donation to the Democrat National Committee for holding their convention in Denver — and there were a lot of corporations that gave that and it was really–and while I don’t agree with a lot of the candidates or the a lot of the platform, it was a gem for Colorado and an economic boon to get something like that. So I can understand why Quest and Excel and others would donate to an event like that. But no, I have never been accused of being an Obama lackey. That was a first.
CAPLIS: It didn’t happen that’s why it can’t be a first. Let’s be fair about what happened in that interview verbatim. Brad maybe you can pull that interview up with Jane Norton. It was fairly short and we can just play it. I don’t remember the word ‘colluded’. Maybe it was in there. I remember her point clearly being that this was business as usual. You know major supporter of yours, supporting these ads and also funding John Hickenlooper and also getting stimulus money at the same time. Her theme was business as usual, and Ken, I respectfully disagree with your characterization of Jane getting her butt kicked at this point. I don’t think that is happening at all but the beautiful thing is that we will know on election day. Election day is just a couple of months away. But yeah.
BUCK: Absolutely, and I respect that and I appreciate you guys letting me come on and talk about that. My point isn’t that. My point is that Jane has gone negative and it is unfortunate that Jane has gone negative and it is the result of a less than stellar performance–
CAPLIS: Then tell me this Ken. Why did you go negative before Jane? If negative means your campaign is failing, why did you go negative first?
BUCK: When I talk about Jane supporting Referendum C, the largest tax increase in the history of Colorado, Jane says that is negative. I think that is a fair characterization of something that is on the public record. When she says that Jerry Morgensen is behind donations to a 527, she has no idea about the financial records of that 527. That is speculation. There is a difference between a fair characterization that is negative and speculation that is negative.
CAPLIS: Well first of all I am not talking about Ref C in particular, though that was what some characterized as going negative on Jane. Listen I think it is fine for candidates to step up….[…]
SILVERMAN: Let me advance this story a little bit. It is my understanding a formal complaint has been filed. Is it going to go to a hearing? You surely know, Ken Buck. Are we going to find out if Jane Norton’s insinuations– and I guess one of her campaign supporters formal complaint– is that going to be litigated? Do we have a hope of some resolution of this?
BUCK: I tell you I do think we have hope of a resolution and the hope I have is that when we present documents of these ridiculous allegations that are made in the complaint, that the complaint is dismissed. I don’t know what the FEC will ultimately do. Again it is an establishment tactic to keep a grass roots candidate locked up.