A secret recording. An alleged payoff. A surprise twist involving a heavy-hitter Denver business group.
It’s all part of a volatile story that continues to roil a ballot-measure campaign in the latest chapter in the high-stakes political battle between Colorado activists seeking restrictions to fracking and a big-moneyed oil-and-gas industry dead set on fighting those limitations.
The latest shoe to drop is that the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, which includes among its members some of the biggest oil and gas interests in the state, was using the same petition-gathering company that had been hired by anti-fracking organizers.
The Chamber retained a firm called FieldWorks to gather signatures for an unrelated transportation funding measure. FieldWorks subcontracted that work to a company called Petition Connection, which, it turns out, was also gathering signatures for Colorado Rising, the group backing Initiative 97, a measure to increase by five-fold setbacks on oil and gas activity. The measure would require 2,500-foot setbacks between oil and gas operations and houses and schools.
Chamber President and CEO Kelly Brough told The Independent Friday that when her group learned Petition Connection was also gathering signatures for Colorado Rising, it told FieldWorks to stop using Petition Connection to gather signatures for its proposed transportation measure. That measure seeks a 0.62 percent statewide sales tax to pay for transportation and transit.
“We try not to have our (petitions) carried along with issues we would not support,” Brough said, noting that her board has opposed the fracking limitation measure.
Asked if her members in the oil-and-gas industry pressed her to split with the company, she said no.
“We took the action ourselves as a campaign and as the Chamber,” she said.
But Sean Duffy, spokesman for the Chamber-affiliated transportation ballot measure campaign, acknowledged later Friday that the oil-and-gas industry “along with a number of other businesses” in the Chamber are very concerned about the setback measure getting on the ballot and were uncomfortable with signature collectors gathering petitions for it at the same time they were gathering petitions for the transportation measure.
“They said, ‘Yeah, that’s a conflict for us’,” Duffy said.
Petition Connection not only stopped gathering signatures for the Chamber’s transportation measure, but it bailed on collecting signatures for Initiative 97 — becoming the second company to do so in recent weeks. Late last month, Direct Action Partners, another firm that had worked with Colorado Rising, bolted Colorado and took 15,000 signatures with it. (Colorado Rising got those signatures back after some legal wrangling.)
In another twist last week, Colorado Rising released an audio recording of what it says is two of its organizers confronting Petition Connection owner Dan Fessler after they saw him walking near their office. In the recording, the man they say is Fessler admits to being paid to drop the petition effort and leave the state, though he declined to say who paid him.
“You know what they’re doing, they’re going around buying people,” the man they say is Fessler can be heard on the recording at one point. “It’s like ‘go home’.”
Fessler did not return a phone message or Facebook message from The Independent seeking further comment.
As for the politically-influential Chamber, Brough said her group had “nothing to do with that payment” to Fessler.
“Absolutely not,” she emphasized.
Colorado Rising spokeswoman Lauren Petrie says the abrupt departure of two of her group’s petition-gathering companies “seems to be a desperate attempt on the part of the oil and gas industry to buy people off or pressure them to stop Initiative 97.”
Protecting Colorado, the industry-back group trying to keep the setback measure from making the ballot, dismisses the anti-fracking group’s narrative about the industry playing dirty tricks with Colorado Rising signature-gathering efforts.
“There have been so many allegations and misrepresentations by Colorado Rising it’s difficult to take them seriously,” said spokeswoman Karen Crummy. “They are trying to distract the public from the real issue, which is recent studies showing their ballot measure would ban oil and natural gas development in the state.”
Noble Energy, Anadarko Petroleum, Encana Corporation and other oil-and-gas giants are members of the Chamber. So are the industry’s powerful trade groups, such as Colorado Energy Council and the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. The industry long has tried to quash any effort, statewide or local, that would hinder its operations in Colorado.
Through the industry-backed super PAC Protecting Colorado’s Environment, Economy and Energy Independence, Protecting Colorado has raised $13.1 million from oil and gas interests. It already has spent $7.7 million.
Today is the deadline for all groups to submit their petitions to the state for review to qualify for the November ballot.
Colorado Rising says it turned in about 170,000 signatures this morning. Ballot issue campaigns need 98,492 valid signatures to qualify.
Protecting Colorado issued a statement this afternoon saying it’s ready to challenge the validity of those signatures. If passed, increased setbacks “would destroy the state’s economy, cut tens of thousands of jobs and eliminate billions in tax revenue to the state and local communities.”
Mike Littwin contributed to this report. Photo of Colorado Rising signature collectors by Corey Hutchins