Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government, a conservative politics organization, is back, spending heavily in state elections this cycle. And some of the roughly $200,000 they’ve poured into the messaging market so far is behind a false attack advertisement directed at state Senator Rachel Zenzinger, a Democrat from a swing district based around Arvada.
The ad, “China Girl,” alleges that while serving as Arvada city councilwoman, Zenzinger voted to use taxpayer money to fund a visit to sister city Jinzhou, China.
“Call Rachel Zenzinger and tell her to stop wasting tax money on perks,” concludes the female narrator.
Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government, like all 527 groups are prohibited from delivering express candidate advocacy, such as “vote for Zenzinger’s opponent.” But voters know what’s going on. Asking them to send a message to a candidate is a sly way for the groups to conform to the letter if not the spirit of the law.
To backup the claim that Zenzinger spent or even tried to spend taxpayer dollars for an international junket, the ad sites Arvada City Council minutes from April of 2013, as well as an article by The Colorado Independent.
Not only does neither source support the claim — our article, for example, only reports Zenzinger’s appointment to the state Senate — the council minutes themselves expose the ad as blatantly false.
Zenzinger never went to China and she herself filed a motion in that city council meeting requiring that private funds available through nonprofit group Sister Cities of Arvada, not public dollars, must be used if either elected officials or staff were to go on the trip.
“Councilmember Cook asked if Ms. Zenzinger is suggesting that no city costs be used in the delegation, and Mayor Pro Tem Zenzinger said yes…” the minutes cited in the ad read(pdf). “Mayor Pro Tem Zenzinger clarified before rereading her motion that it is with the understanding that if Sister Cities is unable to fund them, then we would come back and decline the invitation.”
Zenzinger’s campaign asked Citizens for Accountable Government to pull the ad. Zenzinger says the group refused to do so.
“I’ve been told, ‘Well that’s politics,’” said Zenzinger. “I get that. I’ve been in elected office before. I know these things happen and people play dirty, but to me this crosses the line into an area that is no longer gray. It’s pretty black and white.”
Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government did not respond to messages asking about the ad.
Zenzinger, increasingly worried that the spot could cost her the election, has hired an attorney and is working to get the ad pulled through cable company Comcast. She sent a cease and desist letter and a supporting accounts from current Arvada Mayor Pro Tem Mark McGoff and Arvada Sister Cities President Edna L. Gordon.
“The law we have on the books is that it’s actually a crime to make malicious false statements about a candidate, but that is almost never enforced,” said Luis Toro at nonprofit Colorado Ethics Watch.
“When a campaign sends a threatening letter to a news station, it’s mostly publicity, but the underlying law they always reference is this statute, saying if you don’t pull the ad, we’ll prosecute you.”
Zenzinger said she hasn’t gone the prosecution route yet and neither the Adams County nor Jefferson County District Attorney offices, which would handle the case if someone else complained about the ad showing in their area, has received any communications about “China Girl.”
“They’re actually fairly infrequent,” said Carl Blesch, an investigator at the JeffCo DA’s office, referring to false political ad complaints. “We’ll occasionally get one or two issues per cycle. It’s not as though the election seasons starts and the phone begins to ring.”
Blesch said the office is looking into one such complaint this cycle — not about “China Girl” — but he wasn’t at liberty to discuss the specifics of the ongoing investigation. Blesch did say that every DA’s office has a legal obligation to investigate complaints and that the first step is to ensure that the complaint refers to specific statements of alleged fact and not to those of opinion, which might be constitutionally protected free speech.
Toro acknowledged that concerns about the “chilling effect” the law against non-factual campaign ads might have on free speech is a major and sometimes controversial theme in larger debates at the highest level of election and campaign law.
“The underlying question about the First Amendment and if it protects flat out lying in a political campaign has actually not been decided.”
[ Top image: Still from “China Girl” ]