With Larimer ruling, Gessler opens door to abuse

Colorado secretary of state Scott Gessler

Editorial boards at the Fort Collins Coloradoan and at the Denver Post have admonished Secretary of State Scott Gessler for setting bad precedent when he decided that the scandal-plagued Larimer County Republican Party was merely negligent and not willful in allowing Chairman Larry Carillo to bilk party funds and ignore obligations to file campaign finance reports on $90,000 worth of contributions during the 2010 election season.

Gessler has made a career as a private attorney of opposing campaign finance regulations of all sorts and he has waged a steady battle against them as the state’s head of elections since he took office in January. With the Larimer GOP decision, he has provided a strategy outline for any political organization across the state looking to dodge responsibility for campaign finance wrongdoing. That strategy might come to be called the “Rogue Chairman Defense” or the “Carillo-Gessler Bail Out.”

The record of negligence in the Larimer case is not under dispute. There was no “good cause,” as Gessler put it in an op-ed, to fail to file six reports over the course of months. Throughout that time, the Secretary of State’s office was sending warning notices to the Larimer Party treasurer as well as to Carillo. That the treasurer, assigned specifically with the task of overseeing the chairman, had resigned and never been replaced was negligent. That the party never updated its staff listings to reflect the absence for communications purposes was negligent. That the party also failed to appoint an assistant treasurer was negligent. That this went on for years in an election cycle as money was pouring in and Carillo was skimming off the top is grossly negligent. What are the “good” reasons for that kind of falling down on the job?

“Willful” can be a relative term in such cases. High-level indifference might qualify as willful.

The point of establishing campaign finance rules in the first place is to increase accountability all through the system. The objective, at least theoretically, is to force political parties taking in campaign donations to be on the watch for corruption and crooks. They are responsible to the public via the Secretary of State’s office.

Gessler said that by lowering the fines levied on the Larimer County GOP from $49,000 to $16,000, he was seeking to avoid discouraging citizens from participating in the electoral process. He said the state doesn’t want to send the message that you need to hire lawyers and accountants to engage in politics.

But, as the editorial boards at the Coloradoan and the Post agree, Gessler has done citizens no favor. He has encouraged participants to flout the rules or look the other way at a time when the main impediment to participation among the public is lack of trust in the system or, more precisely, in the people running the system, not fear of the rules, at least as they appear on the books.

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