Watchdog eyes Pagosa boss, urges investigation in voter intimidation case

The 2012 election season has seen a surprising uptick in the number of employers willing to wade into voter intimidation gray areas by notifying their employees that their jobs depend on who wins the White House. The not so subtle message: Vote the way your boss wants you to vote.

Stories coming out of Minnesota and Florida, for example, featuring Koch Industries subsidiary Georgia Pacific and Westgate Resorts, sound like updates to textbook chapters on the kind of 19th-century industrialists who worked to make sure their friends held all the political offices that mattered.

Chris Smith, the owner of Pagosa, Colorado, senior home care company Visiting Angels, joined other contemporary thin-line-walking execs this month when he sent an email to employees (pdf) arguing that Republican candidate Mitt Romney would work to repeal the Affordable Care Act and that repeal of the federal health care law would save their jobs.

“For the sake of the 80 people working for Visiting Angels and your own paycheck, remember, on November 3, it will be a close presidential race,” he wrote in the email. “Please VOTE!”

Watchdog group Colorado Ethics Watch has argued that, in the Centennial State at least, Smith’s letter amounts to illegal voter intimidation. Director Luis Toro sent a letter (pdf) today to Todd Risberg, DA for the Sixth Judicial District, asking him to launch an investigation into the matter.

Toro told the Colorado Independent that people have misinterpreted the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling to mean companies can now frighten voters as part of their free speech.

“Corporations are free to pay for political ads but not to intimidate voters,” he said. “It’s important that we send a message that this is not OK in Colorado.”

Toro said that voter intimidation laws vary from state to state but that in Colorado the statute is clear.

“The language is outdated,” he said, “but we think an e-mail counts as a contemporary ‘notice’ of the kind [mentioned in the statute].”

The Colorado law states that “[Any] handbill, notice or placard containing any threat, notice or information that, if any particular ticket or candidate is elected, work in [the] establishment will be closed, or the wages of the workmen will be reduced…”

Smith told the Durango Herald he thought his note to employees was tame compared to those sent by men like Koch Industry President Dave Robertson and Westgate CEO David Siegel.

“I thought I toned mine down,” Smith said and added that he was attempting to persuade not coerce.

Toro called the e-mail a “throwback to the bad old days” and said that, if found guilty of the misdemeanor violation, Smith could face jail time, a fine or the loss of his business license.

DA Risberg didn’t immediately return calls for comment.

[ Image of voters by Columbia City Blog via Flickr ]

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