The head of a conservative nonprofit blasted by Democrats for “tasteless” and possibly illegal mailers targeting state Sen. Gail Schwartz in last month’s election told The Colorado Independent (TCI) Tuesday that “we engaged in no electioneering or 527 activity and always follow the law.”Donald Ferguson, executive director of Western Tradition Partnership (WTP), clarified that the mailers featuring Schwartz’s face on Donald Trump’s body with the tagline “You’re Fired!” were paid for by the registered 501(c)4 “social welfare” nonprofit, not an associated 527 group called Western Tradition Partnership Education Fund.
Under federal law, 501(c)4 groups are allowed to engage in political activity up to 50 percent of the nonprofit’s overall purpose, with very few disclosure requirements in terms of funding. There are more stringent requirements for 527 groups in Colorado.
Ferguson said Western Tradition Partnership Education Fund, registered to an attorney with Colorado Secretary of State-elect Scott Gessler’s law firm, Denver-based Hackstaff Gessler, did not engage in any political activity this year.
The office of current Colorado Secretary of State Bernie Buescher, a Democrat, could find no evidence of an independent expenditure or electioneering report filed by Western Tradition Partnership in Schwartz’s hard-fought state Senate District 5 (Aspen area) campaign, which the incumbent narrowly won.
Schwartz, a Snowmass Democrat, and the election watchdog group Colorado Ethics Watch are looking into whether that constitutes a campaign violation and therefore warrants a formal complaint with the secretary of state. Ethics Watch director Luis Toro Tuesday told the Colorado Independent his organization is still investigating the matter.
Critics say WTP is a coal, oil and gas industry front group targeting Democrats and moderate Republicans who favor alternative energy. On its website, the group characterizes such politicians as “Gang Green” and says it’s “dedicated to fighting environmental extremism.”
Schwartz, named chairwoman Tuesday of the Senate Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resource Committee, was instrumental last legislative session in passing the second highest renewable energy standard (RES) in the nation (30 percent by 2020) and the Clean Air Clean Jobs Act, which converts coal-fired power plants to cleaner-burning natural gas. WTP claims those measures will kill high-paying traditional energy jobs.
State Sen. Morgan Carroll last week told TCI that Western Tradition Partnership has been “one of the worst actors” in Colorado politics the last several years, contributing to conservatives 527 groups and hiding behind the cloak of its 501(c)4 nonprofit status.
Named chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday, Carroll said she will pursue a bill to make Colorado the first state in the nation to compel 501(c)4 nonprofit “social welfare” groups to divulge donors contributing to political activity.
“This is simply an attempt by incumbent politicians to silence dissent and deny Coloradans their constitutionally-guaranteed right to petition their elected officials,” Ferguson wrote TCI in an email Tuesday.
“WTP has been forced on more than one occasion to take these kind of officials to court to enforce the law and our constitutional protections,” he added. “Courts have always ruled in our favor for one simple reason — the law and the Constitution are on our side.”
Carroll said she is close to figuring out how the state could compel disclosure of donors whose funds are earmarked for political activities, so that even if a 501(c)4 is “mixed-purpose” — with half of its activities falling under social welfare — the political lobbying side would be subject to public scrutiny. That way the first amendment protections afforded the legitimate social welfare side of the operation would be kept in place.
“One of the things that we have seen out of this election cycle is … I am just going to use the word laundering,” Carroll told TCI last week. “There were a lot of layers of C4’s that were created for purely political purposes and then the C4 would donate to a 527.”
Carroll championed a bill in 2007 (pdf) that compelled 527 groups to disclose donors and expenditures.
“The whole point of that bill that I carried was that you could see the money in and the money out of the 527,” Carroll said. “Well, they will have the good government C4 gave to the 527 and the limited government C4 will give to the 527.”
Carroll argues citizens would then be able to see what groups are behind a particular ad campaign and make informed voting decisions accordingly.