Ten legislators abandon controversial Republican Study Committee

(Image: Felix Sockwell)

Former Colorado Springs Senator Dave Schultheis is no longer holding forth on bills on the Senate floor in Denver, but he has continued to exert influence this year as the powerful force behind the conservative Republican Study Committee of Colorado. Now that influence may be waning. This week, a third of the RSCC flock quit the committee, rejecting the would-be radical-right revival.

The RSCC claimed 34 Republican members in the state Legislature – 11 in the Senate and 23 in the House – prior to Tuesday. At least 10 legislators quit in the wake of allegations that it was crossing ethics boundaries in influencing lawmaker votes, directing legislative aides and meddling in the race for state GOP chairman.

The committee drew media attention this year for pushing Arizona-style anti-illegal immigration legislation. It held informational hearings that were stacked with anti-immigration witnesses, some with clear ties to white spremacist organizations.

A high-profile surprise rebuke

The committee also took a strong stand in the race to replace Dick Wadhams as head of the Colorado Republican party this month. Schultheis and most conservative study committee members had endorsed RSCC member Senator Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch.

The committee members scrambled on stage last Saturday to nominate Harvey but their “we’ve got it nailed” confidence withered when the Republican Party Central Committee overwhelmingly elected state GOP Legal Counsel Ryan Call on the first ballot with 167.6 votes to Harvey’s 74.4.

As the vote was being read, RSCC Vice Chair Senator Kent Lambert tweeted, “They didn’t buy these ballot boxes at the magic store, did they? ;)”

The committee members and other hard-right Harvey supporters shouldn’t have been so surprised. Wadhams, dogged this year by Tea Partiers as a compromised establishment figure, received an enthusiastic standing ovation at the event. Also, influential RSCC member Senator Shawn Mitchell had seconded Call’s nomination as the kind of leader who could unify a party still reeling from the fractured 2010 Republican primary races for governor and U.S. Senator, offices the GOP lost in the general election.

The rump committee

Gone from the RSCC website membership page are photos and names of House Speaker Frank McNulty, Majority Leader Amy Stephens, Majority Caucus Chair Carole Murray, Majority Whip B.J. Nikkel and Representatives Cindy Acree, Kevin Priola, Ray Scott, Ken Summers, Spencer Swalm and Libby Szabo.

Several legislators recently questioned whether Schultheis and the group had crossed the line between a policy ad-hoc committee and a volunteer lobbyist coalition. They wondered whether the committee compromised a legislative aide who might have breached ethics by disseminating positions on bills and by twittering opinions.

The RSCC produces Senate and House reports – up to 20 pages long – that designate whether a bill “DOES” or “DOES NOT” support conservative values.

For example, an RSCC report evaluated HB 11-1144, which requires health benefit plans to cover medical evaluations of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. The disease is preventable by treating the mother during pregnancy.

The bill, sponsored by Democratic Representatives Judy Solano, Edward Casso, Andy Kerr, Nancy Todd and Democratic Senator Lois Tochtrop, passed in both chambers and was signed into law, despite receiving the thumbs down by the RSCC.

The RSCC said the bill “DOES NOT” support the principles of “constitutional limited government, free markets and personal responsibility.”

That judgment sounded eerily familiar to Schultheis in 2009 citing the need for personal responsibility and less government regulation when he voted against a bill to protect fetuses exposed to the HIV virus. In a Rocky Mountain News interview, he reasoned that as an AIDS-afflicted baby grows up, “the mother will begin to feel guilt… The family will see the negative consequences of that promiscuity.”

The Colorado Springs wing

Earlier in this legislative session, Schultheis candidly discussed his role in monitoring bills and votes for the RSCC with the same eagle-eyed scrutiny he once brought to his search for illegal drug runners and undocumented workers on his treks with the group to the Arizona-Mexico border, most recently in August.

Schultheis appears to be going underground. He claimed “he’s not the brains behind the RSCC” and he blocked public access to his Facebook page.

The RSCC operates under the Legislative Support Group, a nonprofit organization registered with the Secretary of State’s office in June 2006. Schultheis registered the RSCC trade name and designated the entity as an “Other Non-Profit… Social Welfare” located at 1250 Golden Hills Road in Colorado Springs.

The base of operations is Schultheis’ $500,000-plus home perched above the canyon community of Pinecliff, where he rises before daybreak each weekday to assess legislative bills, their sponsors, and the votes cast by members of the Colorado House and Senate.

“It’s frustrating. The Republicans are acting like RINOs,” groaned Schultheis in late February. Among the GOP legislators gone rogue and drawing the ire of Schultheis by defying his version of conservative principles is House Speaker McNulty.

Skewing the initiative process to favor liberal ideology

The source of Schultheis’ anxiety was Senate Concurrent Resolution 11-001, sponsored in the Senate by President Brandon Shaffer and Nancy Spence and in the House by Majority Caucus Chair Murray and Minority Caucus Chair Lois Court. McNulty joined the bill’s numerous co-sponsors.

The resolution aims to tighten requirements to amend the state Constitution. It passed third readings in both chambers, and is pending Senate approval of House amendments. If approved, the measure will go before voters on the 2012 general election ballot.

Schultheis opposed SCR11-001 in a Feb. 23 memo dispatched to House State, Affairs Committee Republican Representatives Randy Baumgardner, Don Coram, Larry Liston, Jim Kerr and Mark Waller. The resolution’s numerous co-sponsors also included Baumgardner, Coram and Liston.

“As conservatives and those who advocate their allegiance for TABOR (Taxpayers Bill of Rights), it seems very apparent to me that should the legislature pass this bill, that two very onerous conditions will result,” wrote Schultheis, who asked that the resolution be killed or at least postponed.

If the resolution passes, Schultheis predicts that TABOR would be repealed and that “more liberal Constitutional amendments will be passed.” He said he had analyzed voter-approved initiatives and amendments over the past two decades, particularly those that passed by at least 60 percent of the vote.

“The shocker is that you will notice that all but one that passed placed liberal ideology in the Constitution,” said Schultheis in a memo. “You can verify that in the initiative summary that I’ve asked Lauri (sic) Bratten to provide you.”

Defining lobbying

Some RSCC members bristled at the notion that Schultheis or the RSCC has lobbied for or against legislation. According to Amendment 41 passed by voters in 2006, statewide elected officials cannot become paid lobbyists until two years after leaving office. Schultheis is free to voice opinions as a citizen or volunteer lobbyist although the latter are supposed to register with the House Clerk.

“I don’t consider the [RSCC] as lobbying,” countered Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, an RSCC member. “They’re just trying to promote Republican ideals and which they stand for. I don’t think they’re lobbying. There’s no difference between the RSCC and Colorado Municipal League or CEA (Colorado Educators Association).”

Both CML and CEA employ registered lobbyists.

More skeptical legislators said Laurie Bratten, referenced in Schultheis’ memo, is dangerously teetering on the ethics line.

Bratten is Director of Communications for RSCC and married to RSCC Executive Director Rich Bratten. She is also the paid legislative aide to RSCC-affiliated Senators Harvey and Scott Renfroe.

The legislators spoke on the condition of anonymity in fear of RSCC members killing their bills or dredging up a primary contender in future re-election bids. They objected to a legislative aide circulating information to influence votes and twittering opinions on bills and politics during committee and floor discussions.

For example, Bratten twittered about Senate Bill 126 that proposed in-state college tuition rates for high school graduates who attended a Colorado school for the three previous years regardless of immigration status. It was introduced and discussed in the Senate on Feb. 2.

On that day, from 1:00 – 1:19 p.m., Bratten pecked several tweets bashing the bill.

“Your kids can’t get a break for tuition in CO but Dems thinks they should give tuition money to illegals,” wrote Bratten.

“CO Dems just CANNOT stay focused on jobs and the economy! Giving an tuition to 4 illegals pressuer NOW.”

“Dem Senator Michael Johnston and the CEA are sponsoring this redistribution to a special class. Be afraid.”

“We have 8.8% unemployment in CO and a 1.5 billion $ deficit & CO Dems want 2 subsidize illegals college degrees?”

The rule governing legislative aides is well known to Schultheis, whose legislative aide Dave Crater testified before the House State Affairs Committee on behalf of the “Dr. Laura” bill in March 2001. The committee rejected Schultheis’ bill to mandate counseling for couples seeking a divorce, and Crater lost his job as a legislative aide.

“We can’t have someone on the state payroll that is advocating for the passage or defeat of a piece of legislation,” then-House Speaker Doug Dean, a conservative Republican, told The Colorado Springs Gazette.

Crater was demoted to an unpaid intern working for Schultheis. The senator, however, admitted that he’d personally padded Crater’s $800-a-month salary to the tune of more than $3,000 a month.

Has Laurie Bratten been inadvertently placed in a similarly compromising position?

“We’re very careful to simply put the legislative analysis in the perspective of whether a bill is consistent or inconsistent with our principles,” said RSCC Executive Director Bratten who refused to comment on his wife’s role. “I suppose that’s a question you will have to ask Senator Harvey.”

“It’s kosher!” laughed Harvey.

Harvey said that the legislative aide’s work on behalf of RSCC is part of her duties for himself and Renfroe, and asserted that other Republican senators’ aides also assist. Legislative aides, he said, follow the directives of their bosses.

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