Colorado SpringsHot Sheet

Colorado Springs Police Protective Association, KOAA battle over story on finances

Author: Kaitlin Durbin - May 24, 2018 - Updated: May 24, 2018

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Officers from the 67th graduating class of Colorado Springs Police Department sit and listen during the commencement ceremony that took place at Village Seven Presbyterian Church in 2018 in Colorado Springs. (The Gazette file photo)

The Colorado Springs Police Protective Association’s president has urged its 900-plus members, including 613 city officers, to boycott KOAA News 5 over a story the station ran in March on the group’s finances.

And nearly two months after the story surfaced, the CSPPA president and KOAA are accusing each other of publishing “completely non-factual hit pieces.”

In a News 5 Investigates story March 26, reporter Eric Ross quoted public tax forms showing the organization in 2014 spent more money on staff salaries and office supplies than it spent providing benefits to police officers – “the very group of people they serve.” A Gazette review of the tax forms confirmed KOAA’s findings for 2014. The Gazette review also found that in 2015 and 2016, more money was spent on benefits to police officers than salaries and office supplies.

CSPPA Executive Director Sherryl Dillon told The Gazette she expected final 2017 numbers will mirror the trend of the previous two years. She also said the tax forms KOAA used in its story don’t account for all of the benefits the association provides its members, such as athletic and education scholarships, legal representation and will preparation, membership parties, a monthly newsletter, retirement badges, and a gym.

The KOAA story suggested the association was trying to hide its issues by not sharing more detailed financial records with the public and by denying requests for interviews. The story said Dillon “refused” to answer questions by email or when Ross confronted her in the parking lot behind the association’s office.

KOAA News Director Ryan Hazelwood said his station “stands by the story” and its reporting methods, saying Ross and his colleagues only attempted the parking lot interview “after exhausting all other avenues to make sure we get all sides of a story.”

In a letter published in the police association’s April newsletter “The Centurion,” President Joseph Somosky requested members, their families and friends to “completely boycott the local media outlet KOAA” by not going to the station’s website or clicking links posted to social media and “most of all not to watch the highly spun, agenda-driven attack on the Colorado Springs Police Department and our Colorado Springs Police Protective Association.”

The association does not represent or speak for the police department, but it does represent its members, who are employees of the department.

Somosky’s letter said it was written in response “to the completely non-factual hit piece that Eric Ross ran on our organization.” Somosky called the KOAA story “a bold-faced fabrication” because it alleges that the association, as a non-profit, should answer to the public about how it spends its money.

The police association, while a nonprofit, is not a public entity. It is a 501(c)(5) labor association, which means it is not subject to public disclosure, donations by entities other than businesses are not tax deductible, and they do not solicit for or accept grants. This is contrary to the more common nonprofit designation 501(c)(3), which applies to charitable organizations that often are public, tax-deductible and grant-eligible.

The money the association uses to pay overhead expenses for its 516 N. Tejon St. office and officer benefits comes solely from dues paid by its 924 members, who each contribute about $670 per year, Dillon said. Any other public contributions go to the association’s Fallen Officer Fund, which is used to support officers and their families in the event of serious injury or death.

“We don’t have public dollars,” Dillon told The Gazette.

If members want to know how much money is being spent in specific areas, they need only ask, Dillon said. But the public is not privy to that information, she said.

“We’re responsible to our membership,” Dillon said. “We’re not responsible to the general public because we’re a 501(c)(5).”

Dillon told The Gazette she did, in fact, respond to KOAA’s requests for comment. In emails published with the News 5 story, Dillon writes that “the CSPPA is a private entity and thus any information beyond the publicly accessible Form 990s are not available for general disclosure.”

Ross responded to the email saying, “Unfortunately, due to the nature and subject matter of this story, we are not able to accept a ‘no comment.'” Afterward, Dillon said she was advised by the association’s legal counsel “to cease communication because it was going in a direction that would not be productive.”

After the story had aired, Dillon and Somosky said they sent to KOAA a list of “inaccuracies” and asked for a retraction, but KOAA declined.

“The CSPPA did send a list of what they called ‘inaccuracies,'” Hazelwood said. “We reviewed the story and their list. We sent a response that went point by point in their letter to dispel any doubt of the accuracy of the story.”

He also said KOAA had told the CSPAA that the station “would be happy to open a dialogue and discuss in detail. However, they never responded.”

Hazelwood told The Gazette last week he had no knowledge of the police association’s letter that called for the boycott. He released his statement the next day after reviewing a copy of the CSPPA’s letter provided by The Gazette.

“The document falsely claims that we published a ‘completely-nonfactual hit piece’ when in fact, and most certainly ironically, it is the CSPPA publishing a completely nonfactual hit piece,” Hazelwood said. “In addition to never responding to our request for information on how CSPPA spends money, it never explains how ensuring that it is not wasted on administrative expenses is an attack on the police officers the money is intended to benefit.”

By not correcting or retracting the story, Somosky said he “saw it as a personal attack on our members,” concluding that KOAA was trying to “generate ad revenue” by misleading the public “to bring the national anti-law enforcement movement into our community.” He noted the story followed on the heels of a shootout in which El Paso County Sheriff’s Deputy Micah Flick was killed and other law enforcement officers were wounded.

“This was a clear attempt to undermine the work our members do in the community day in and day out,” Somosky wrote in urging the boycott.

Hazelwood said the report aimed to “shed light” on an issue some considered “a misuse of money.”

“This story came about as a viewer/CSPPA member initiated tip,” Hazelwood said. “For the CSPPA to use recent tragedies in our community as a way to villainize KOAA to their members is unconscionable.”

Kaitlin Durbin

Kaitlin Durbin