Colorado Ethics Watch seeks IRS investigation of Open Government Institute

Colorado Ethics Watch this week filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service against the Open Government Institute of Colorado (OGI), asking for an investigation of actions allegedly taken by OGI to benefit the re-election campaign of U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, which Ethics Watch said could call into question OGI’s pending non-profit 501(c)(3) status.

The dust-up started a few weeks ago when OGI Executive Director Jessica Peck spoke at a meeting of the Colorado Republican Business Coalition. Whether Peck knew it or not, the meeting was being filmed. A snippet of that video found its way to Colorado Pols. In that video, Peck seems to say that OGI’s work will benefit Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman’s re-election bid.

From the Colorado Ethics Watch press release announcing that it has asked the IRS to investigate the Open Government Institute:

Colorado Ethics Watch Executive Director Luis Toro (Kersgaard)

A video posted on the political blog shows Executive Director Jessica Peck’s remarks at an April 20 Colorado Republican Business Coalition event. Ms. Peck was recorded on video camera saying “Congressman Coffman, we’re working on some things that may, in a very non-partisan way, benefit you in your endeavors in November, so I’ll talk a little about that. So, I come here as a partisan Republican…,” which can be interpreted as stating that OGI has already taken specific actions to “benefit” U.S. Rep. Coffman’s “endeavors” in November, i.e. his reelection. Ms. Peck’s remarks also allude to future activities that will be conducted by OGI between now and Rep. Coffman’s November election.

“Ms. Peck’s remarks are tantamount to telling a roomful of potential donors that a contribution to OGI is a tax-deductible way of supporting Rep. Coffman’s reelection campaign,” said Luis Toro, director of Colorado Ethics Watch. “The IRS has made it clear that 501(c)(3) organizations may not support or oppose candidates for office. There are many non-profit organizations in Colorado, representing every point of view, who take care to follow these rules, and none of us want one bad apple to spoil the bunch.”

Shortly after Ethics Watch filed its complaint and notified the press, OGI posted a withering rebuttal on its own website, wherein Peck accuses Ethics Watch of unethical behavior and said the video was doctored and presented her remarks out of context.

From that statement:

“This pathetic and unethical attempt to slander us has no basis in fact and comes from CEW’s tired, old, playbook of lobbing attacks against anyone it perceives as a competitive threat to its organization. CEW has misstated federal rules for non-profit advocacy and utilized a sloppy secret video edited to intentionally misrepresent my statements at a recent event,” said OGI Executive Director Jessica Peck. “We welcome any and all inquiries from the IRS into our status and are confident that this complaint will be seen for what it is: an ill-conceived and amateur political attack.”

Peck’s statement goes on to accuse Colorado Pols of doctoring the video:

CEW bases its false accusations on a secret video recorded by a candidate tracker and doctored by liberal political blog,, in which Peck is seen speaking to the April 20th Colorado Republican Business Coalition meeting.

The 20-second video references Peck’s voluntary disclosure as a “partisan Republican” but then cuts her off as she continued to disclose that she is also the executive director of a non-profit organization focused on achieving non-partisan objectives. Further, even if CEW’s allegations based on the video were true, federal law expressly provides an exception from limits to a 501(c)(3)’s political advocacy when its members distinguish between their personal views and those held by their organization.

If the video at the core of CEW’s complaint had not been manipulated, it would reveal that Peck identified herself at the outset of her address as someone wearing“two hats”, including one based on her personal views as a “partisan Republican” and another as the executive director of a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Multiple times during her remarks, she introduced specific opinions by indicating that they were hers alone and not those of her organization.

Screen shot of Open Government Institute web site.

Jason Bane, founder of ColoradoPols, and the site’s public face, said categorically that ColoradoPols did not doctor the video. He said the audio quality of the video was not very good and so Pols added subtitles. ColoradoPols has now posted video of the entire speech.

Peck did not quickly return a call seeking comment.

Toro said Peck is correct that a person working for a non-profit is allowed to express their personal political views, but he noted that the event where Peck made the offending comments was advertised as one where Jessica Peck, executive director of OGI, was speaking.

“What she seems to be saying is that she was wearing two hats and taking them off and on very quickly. What you can’t do is use the resources of a non-profit to benefit a political campaign. I think the IRS will be very skeptical about the line she says she has drawn.”

Scot Kersgaard has been managing editor of a political newspaper, editor and co-owner of a ski town newspaper, executive editor of eight high-tech magazines (where he worked with current Apple CEO Tim Cook), deputy press secretary to a U.S. Senator, and an outdoors columnist at the Rocky Mountain News. He has an English degree from the University of Washington. He was awarded a fellowship to study internet journalism at the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He was student body president in college. He spends his free time hiking and skiing.

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