Watchdog group calls on FEC to continue investigation into Buck finances

Charles Rick Grice last week sent a letter to the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) seeking to withdraw a headline-grabbing campaign finance complaint he filed this summer against Republican U.S. Senate candidate Ken Buck. Not so fast, says political campaign and government watchdog group Colorado Ethics Watch. The group sent its own letter to the FEC Wednesday (pdf) calling on the FEC to disregard Grice’s request and to continue its investigation into the complaint.

“The Commission’s rules make no provision for withdrawal of a complaint after filing, and for good reason,” Ethics Watch Director Luis Toro wrote. “Allowing individuals to withdraw complaints would encourage the filing of meritless complaints for tactical reasons, only to be withdrawn later when the political landscape changed.”

Toro’s letter quotes a Colorado Independent story that broke the news that Grice was seeking to withdraw his complaint. Grice is a Republican voter and a former official in the administration of GOP Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and he supported Buck rival Jane Norton in the GOP primary, which Buck won last month.

“I’d rather have Buck in office. He’s the Republican candidate now,” Grice told the Independent, referring to the general election race pitting Buck against Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet. The complaint, he said, “is a dead issue to me now.”

Toro points out that the FEC complaint system is “not adversarial” like typical civil and criminal cases, where defendants face plaintiffs and plaintiffs can choose to withdraw charges. “Once filed, the complaint belongs to the FEC,” said Toro. “The rules don’t speak to withdrawal of complaints because it doesn’t matter. Whether a private person [like Grice] files the complaint or a government agency or the FEC staff or even if someone turns themselves in to the FEC saying ‘I screwed up,’ it’s the same. It’s up to the commission to decide to go forward.”

In his letter to Jeff Jordan, supervisory attorney with the complaints examination and legal administration office at the FEC, Toro underlines that Grice has never backed away from the charges he made against Buck.

“Mr. Grice was required to sign his complaint under penalty of perjury. Nothing in his August 30 letter [requesting to withdraw the complaint] suggests that he no longer believes the facts alleged in his complaint were true. Under these circumstances, we urge the Commission to disregard Mr. Grice’s request to withdraw the complaint, fully investigate the matters alleged therein, and promptly issue a reasoned determination whether to proceed.”

Toro said that there is plenty enough distrust already of the campaign finance complaint process and that dropping the case would set a bad precedent.

Grice, as well as Buck campaign consultant Walt Klein and attorney Daniel Abramson who filed a defense with the FEC against the complaint, all referred openly to the political gamesmanship fostered by the FEC’s slow and sometimes partisan deliberations.

“They’re so slow. They didn’t want to do anything with it before and now without anyone pushing it, I think they’ll just drop it,” said Grice.

“It’s a game. I never thought the complaint should be filed. It was bogus,” said Kline. “Obviously the whole thing was orchestrated by the Norton campaign to generate press.”

Toro argued that the charges leveled by Grice “raised serious questions about Mr. Buck’s compliance with federal campaign finance laws. Mr. Grice’s decision to support Mr. Buck’s campaign does not make those possible violations any less serious or less worthy of the FEC’s full attention.”

Grice’s complaint was made public the day it was filed and Norton made sure to give it play in a talk radio interview she gave shortly after it was filed.

Abramson’s defense against the complaint on the part of the Buck campaign, however, was never made public. The Colorado Independent asked for a copy of the defense to measure against the complaint, but Buck consultant Klein said he preferred to put the matter into the past.

The Grice complaint (pdf) alleges that Buck had coordinated with friend and former employer Jerry Morgensen, CEO of Hensel Phelps Construction, to skirt campaign donation limits, reassuring potential contributors that Morgensen would work to finance the Buck campaign mostly through independent so-called 527 groups.

Toro points out that in some of the complaint Grice is making allegations based on extrapolations, mostly as to the motives of Buck and Morgensen, but that in much of the complaint Grice’s charges hinge on what he is presenting as matters of fact, charges Grice would presumably be asked to support or at least to swear as to their veracity under threat of perjury.

From Toro’s letter:

Mr. Grice alleged that when Mr. Buck interviewed potential campaign consultants, he was accompanied by Respondent Jerry L. Morgenson, who allegedly told the consultants that he intended to invest up to $1 million in “independent” expenditures to support the Buck campaign. Mr. Grice also pointed to an April 13,2010 story in the Denver Post in which Mr. Buck’s campaign manager was identified as the source of information that Respondent Americans for Job Security was about to launch a $300,000 television ad buy in support of Mr. Buck’s campaign. These are just two examples of the specific factual allegations Mr. Grice made in support of his complaint.

Toro said that although Ethics Watch doesn’t expect a direct response from the FEC, the Commission may consider Grice’s request to withdraw the complaint in a scheduled September 23 hearing.

“That would be the earliest we would hear anything,” Toro said.

That wouldn’t be a ruling on the merits of the complaint but only a decision on whether to go forward. Officials at the FEC told the Colorado Independent last week that any decision on the merits of the complaint wouldn’t arrive until well after Election Day in November.

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