Colorado watchdog group calls on Suthers to return payday industry cash

Colorado Ethics Watch is calling on Attorney General John Suthers to return the more than $10,000 in campaign contributions he has received recently from the payday loan industry. Ethics Watch Executive Director Luis Toro believes the spike in industry donations to Suthers, coming at a time when he is drafting payday loan regulations, fits a pattern of industry attempts to affect policy. Toro said the Suthers campaign should return the money to “avoid the appearance of impropriety.”

Colo. A.G. John Suthers

“The payday loan industry has a long and well-documented history of using targeted campaign contributions as incentive or reward for regulators that weaken industry oversight,” wrote Toro in a release sent out Monday afternoon. “These contributions to John Suthers’ campaign seem to fit that pattern to a ‘T.’ To avoid the appearance of impropriety, Attorney General Suthers ought to return all of these contributions immediately.”

Longtime political reporter Charles Ashby at the Grand Junction Sentinel Friday reported on the payday donations to the Suthers campaign.

Suthers’ office is drafting new enforcement regulations of the industry, while his re-election campaign between June 28 and July 7 took in $10,350 from 11 payday lending companies, about half of which are based out of state.

While some of the companies contributed to numerous Democratic and Republican candidates over the past eight years, only one donated to Suthers in the past, and then only $500 when he ran for attorney general four years ago.

“This just doesn’t pass the smell test,” said Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, who introduced the new payday lending law, which narrowly won approval in the House and Senate earlier this year. “The fact that they only gave money when he was doing these final rules, that more than ever really raises flags. There’s something fishy going on.”

Toro told the Colorado Independent that his organization had been watching the payday industry closely all through the 2010 legislative session, when Ferrandino’s regulations were being proposed. He said that, although there was plenty of payday industry lobbying activity happening, the industry wasn’t giving money to candidates. In fact, he said, that’s part of what makes the Suthers campaign contributions so notable.

“This was the dog that didn’t bark during the session,” Toro said. “The payday industry has generally stayed out of elections in Colorado. There has been a pattern of giving at the federal level over the last few years as calls for regulation increased… But [Suthers] is the first [Colorado] candidate to attract this kind of attention.”

Toro said Ethics Watch has not recently called for candidates to return campaign contributions and that there is nothing illegal about the contributions to Suthers.

“This is a matter of perception. It looks like ‘pay-to-play’ and that’s something the attorney general should avoid.”

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