In Colorado, lawmakers clash over a dark money loophole

Dark money

During Colorado’s November legislative elections, mysterious fliers fluttered around the districts in some of the state’s most hotly contested races.

The anonymous glossy fliers lacked the “paid for” disclosures typically seen on election season political leaflets and carried no information at all about who was behind them. It was beyond just dark money, and at the time, political observers called the tactic a new and troubling development in state elections— but not necessarily an illegal one.

Currently in Colorado, while individuals and groups have to disclose money they spend when trying to influence an election, they often don’t have to publish who paid for it on the specific fliers they print.

Now, some lawmakers at the Statehouse say that’s a loophole they should close.

Two Democratic members of the Colorado House want to pass a law that would require “paid for” disclosure on literature that “unambiguously refers to a candidate that is disseminated to the public within 30 days before a primary election or within 60 days before a general election” and costs more than $1,000 to produce.

The proposed law would directly affect dark money mystery fliers on which The Colorado Independent reported during last fall’s elections.

Related: Mysterious dark-money fliers target highly contested Colorado House and Senate races

On Tuesday, Democrats and Republicans clashed over the proposal on the floor of the House.

“If you oppose this bill you support dark money in politics,” Greenwood Village Democrat Jeff Bridges said to loud whoops, laughter and jeers. He cited Matthew 6 and Luke 12 from the Bible, saying, “Where your treasure is there your name shall be also.” In Colorado, he said, “We call that being a straight shooter, and Colorado voters deserve nothing less.”

Some of his GOP counterparts argued anonymous political speech is necessary during elections.

“This has gone on through the history of elections and politics, because as we know when you’re ever fighting against someone who’s in government or in a seat of power there’s always an ability to to have retribution come your way,” said Republican Rep. Tim Leonard.

Debate on the potential law also featured a legendary flashpoint in Colorado politics— when a group of four wealthy progressive activists in 2004 bankrolled a successful soft-money campaign to turn the state’s legislature blue by influencing elections. In a way, that context made the debate personal.

Republican Rep. Justin Everett of Littleton pointed out how one of those so-called Gang of Four was Rutt Bridges, the father of current Rep. Jeff Bridges, who is a sponsor of the current dark money bill.

“That was kind of coming close to impugning someone’s reputation,” Rep. Jovan Melton, who was chairing the debate, scolded Everett. Bridges waved it off. He called anyone who wants to anonymously attack a political rival a coward.

When it comes to the dark money fliers in last fall’s election, at some point, the cost of the fliers must have been reported as what is called electioneering communications. But unless someone knows where to look, finding the source would be difficult. Electioneering spending is reported online through a service called TRACER in Colorado, and one would have to dig through pages of records looking, anecdotally, for a potential link from a disclosure to the actual fliers. Since those elections, whoever spent money on the fliers has not been outed.

The new law would make whoever paid for future fliers have to put their name on it.

In Colorado, Democratic Rep. Mike Weissman said voters shouldn’t need a Ph.D in data mining to figure out who is spending money to influence elections. He noted red, blue and purple states such as Alabama, Connecticut and Ohio have similar laws on their books.

Related: A dark money lawsuit, a colorful cast of characters, and Colorado’s citizen campaign finance cop 

While the proposed law in Colorado has backing from groups like Colorado Ethics Watch and Common Cause, it had found resistance from the office of Republican Secretary of State Wayne Williams, who is in charge of administering elections.

Suzanne Staiert, the deputy Secretary of State, says she worries the measure is too broad.

What if, she posited to the The Colorado Independent, someone were to spend more than $1,000 to send out wedding invitations around election time in a district where the bride or groom happened to be running for office? Would that count as an electioneering communication?

“We cannot support something that brings in communications that are not necessarily related to an election,” Staiert says.

Democratic Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, who won election in November despite a barrage of anonymous negative fliers in her district, calls the Secretary of State’s concern far fetched.

During her campaign, she told The Colorado Independent that if she made it to the Senate she would introduce a bill to close what she saw as a loophole in campaign finance law that personally affected her. Some of the anonymous fliers, she says, made inaccurate claims about her, and she didn’t know who was behind them.

The proposed law cleared the Democratically controlled House Thursday on a party-line vote and will go to the Republican-led Senate where Zenzinger will be its sponsor.

“Right now with our elections people are so cynical,” she says. “They don’t know what’s real and what’s not. And I think this just helps make our elections more transparent so people can figure out who is behind this message, and that gives them more tools to go to the ballot box.”


Photo by r2hox for Creative Commons on Flickr.