With less than a week to go before the votes are counted in her hotly-contested district, Colorado state Senate candidate Rachel Zenzinger is working overtime to let voters know that she has never been to China.
It’s not going well.
The Colorado District Attorneys’ Council on Monday recommended against pursuing criminal charges against Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government for a series of fliers it dropped in Zenzinger’s district. The nonpartisan “voter education” group, which has a history of supporting conservative candidates, sent the fliers attached to packages of fortune cookies, a reference to a taxpayer-funded trip to China the group claims Zenzinger took in 2013 while a member of the Arvada City Council. Zenzinger never made that trip and introduced a measure to prohibit using any taxpayer money as part of a “Sister City” visit. It is a misdemeanor under Colorado law to knowingly make false statements about candidates.
Zenzinger is running in Senate District 19 in Arvada and Westminster against Republican Sen. Laura Woods. Both have raised a combined $442,531 (with Zenzinger leading by about $56,000), making the race the costliest in the state so far.
The recommendation by the CDAC, a consortium of DAs from around the state, is not binding, and Jefferson County District Attorney Pete Weir may still choose to charge the group. His office’s investigation is ongoing.
The CDAC did not respond to multiple requests for comment on its recommendation. Pam Russell, communications director for the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office, said that Weir’s investigation would examine what was said in the two Arvada city council meetings where the sister city trip was discussed and determine whether the fliers truthfully characterize those conversations.
“It’s a complicated issue,” Russell said. “Every time there’s a political cycle, you have groups that make statements others may not agree with.”
Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government has been using the China story to attack Zenzinger for years. But Zenzinger’s campaign decided to file a criminal complaint two weeks ago because for the first time, the fliers stated that Zenzinger herself went to China using public funds. In the past, the group had suggested that Zenzinger had sent others abroad, an assertion she also vigorously denies.
Because of potential partisanship issues (Weir is a Republican and Zenzinger is a Democrat), Weir’s office decided to refer the issue to the CDAC for consultation.
According to Peg Perl, senior counsel at Colorado Ethics Watch, groups like Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government are allowed to send somewhat misleading or rhetorical messages about candidates. “We know how political ads are,” Perl said. “They’re very vague.”
But if law enforcement can prove that a group knowingly spread false information, that’s a different issue. “The statute is there for a reason,” Perl said, referring to CRS 1-13-109, which Zenzinger’s campaign invoked when it made the complaint. It’s important, she said, that such mailers be examined and “not just treated as a political act.”
Zenzinger says she is optimistic that Weir’s investigation will show that the fliers’ messages are egregiously untrue. “This is unchartered territory,” she said. “This is the first time that anything has moved forward with one of these complaints, so I’m hopeful, but I should be realistic.”
But even if Weir determines that the fliers violate state law, the damage has been done, Zenzinger said.
“If they find out after the fact that this was a criminal act, it’s like, okay, great,” she said. “Now what?”
According to Perl, there’s not much Zenzinger can do. “Our law doesn’t set this up to affect the election either way,” she said.
Still, Zenzinger said she will consider all of her options if she loses. “It’s a matter of principle for me at this point.”
Photo Credit: Cambodia4kids.org, Creative Commons, Flickr