Story updated, 5/20/16
A mysterious $50,000 donation from a Texas holding company to a Democratic campaign committee has a surprising source: Franklin Azar, a personal injury attorney whose ambulance chasing ads blanket daytime court TV shows.
The committee Citizens for a Strong and Fair Public Advocate has been raising money this election cycle to back any Democrat running for the Denver District Attorney’s seat, currently held by Mitch Morrissey.
But on Monday, campaign filings with the Colorado Secretary of State showed the committee had changed its purpose from backing any Democrat to backing just one: CU Regent Michael Carrigan.
Carrigan is one of three Democrats running to replace the term-limited Morrissey.
The other two candidates are state Rep. Beth McCann and Kenneth Boyd, a senior deputy district attorney in the Denver District Attorney’s office.
Citizens for a Strong and Fair Public Advocate is an independent expenditure committee. Under state law, it can advocate for a candidate but cannot coordinate with that candidate’s campaign. So far, it’s brought in $67,201, as of its Monday filing.
Donors include Denver personal injury attorney Michael Sawaya, with $5,000. Another $1,000 came from attorney Norm Brownstein of Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber & Schreck, one of Denver’s best-known and most politically-connected law firms.
The biggest donation, $50,000, came in February from a Texas holding company, FDJR Holdings, Inc. of Houston.
According to the Texas Secretary of State, FDJR Holdings is one of a group of holding companies owned by Azar and/or his wife, Jeanette Renfro Azar.
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So why would a personal injury lawyer care enough about who gets elected Denver District Attorney to hand over $50,000? A call to Azar’s spokesperson was not returned.
To date, the committee hasn’t spent down much of its bank account. All but a few dollars out of the $8,000 spent have been paid to committee agent Carrie Steele of Western Wins, a political consulting company.
Steele told The Independent, “We have a number of donors who support the committee’s work for a strong and fair people’s advocate,” but would not discuss individual donors.
Azar, Brownstein and Sawaya have also made direct donations to Carrigan’s campaign, all in the maximum amount of $400 each. Brownstein also gave $200 to McCann’s campaign.
The primary race is becoming a big-money contest. Total contributions exceed $1 million, including the $67,000 raised by Citizens for a Strong and Fair Public Advocate.
Carrigan leads the pack with $441,613 raised. McCann is a distant second with $266,905 and Boyd has brought in $235,949.
Friday, McCann’s campaign manager, Dan Aschkinasi issued a statement on the donation.
“The campaign contribution limits in this race are meant to prevent more powerful interests from leveraging their influence for one candidate. ” The $50,000 check from Azar to Citizens for a Strong & Fair Public Advocate indicates Azar “believes he found a way to buy a district attorney in Denver, Aschkinasi added.
“If Mr. Azar is trying to ‘Strong-Arm’ his way into this race, why would he go through the trouble of hiding the money through a Texas corporation? Beth McCann isn’t afraid of a fight and powerful interests that oppose her are rarely on the winning side; just ask the NRA how their opposition to Colorado’s gun laws went.”
Carrigan shot back several hours later.
“I am focused on listening to and talking with Denver voters about their hopes for the district attorney’s office —like expanded juvenile diversion programs, better mental health services and bringing a smart, modern approach to the D.A.’s office. If there are individuals and groups who agree with my platform it is their right to express them. I’m beholden to no one but the residents of Denver I hope to serve,” Carrigan said.
“Rep. McCann needs to take a hard look in the mirror before making wild accusations – a large portion of her own campaign donations came from lobbyists, PACs and other special interests in the health insurance industry she regulated. I’ve personally heard from lobbyists who felt strong-armed into giving her donations before the legislative session started last January.” And Carrigan pointed out that McCann had “conveniently forgot” that she personally asked Carrigan to “donate to an independent group that would advance her legislative career.”
According to McCann, the committee in question is the House Majority Project, a political party committee that raises money to back Democratic candidates for state and local races. McCann said she doesn’t recall ever receiving any financial support from the committee.
The winner of the June 28 primary will face off against independent Helen Morgan of Denver, who to date has raised about $52,000 for her bid for the office. Morgan is the Chief Deputy District Attorney for the Denver County Court.
Photo: I am Frank Azar