Complaint charges Democrat Levi Tillemann went beyond ‘testing the waters’ while exploring congressional run

Author: Ernest Luning - July 21, 2017 - Updated: March 3, 2018

Levi Tillemann waits to speak at a stop on a listening tour held by Colorado Democratic Party Chair Morgan Carroll on Tuesday, June 27, 2017, at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 68 hall in Denver. Tillemann said he plans to announce within days that he's running in the Democratic primary in Colorado's 6th Congressional District. (Photo by Ernest Luning/Colorado Politics)Levi Tillemann waits to speak at a stop on a listening tour held by Colorado Democratic Party Chair Morgan Carroll on Tuesday, June 27, 2017, at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 68 hall in Denver. (Photo by Ernest Luning/Colorado Politics)

A former Democratic elected official is accusing Levi Tillemann, an Aurora Democrat, of acting as a congressional candidate when he was operating an exploratory committee to determine whether to challenge U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, a five-term Republican, in Colorado’s 6th Congressional District.

But Tillemann, one of three Democrats running for the swing seat, said his conduct has been well within the limits of federal election law and then opened up a fresh attack on Jason Crow, one of his primary opponents, for legal work the attorney has performed in recent years.

Patricia Ann Noonan, a former Arapahoe County commissioner, filed a complaint last week with the Federal Election Commission, pointing to language Tillemann used on a website, in a video and in a Twitter exchange with a Coffman strategist. In several cases, Noonan maintained, Tillemann represented himself as a candidate by saying what he “will do” if elected, such as pledging, “I will fight for progressive causes. And I will fight for you.”

Tillemann formally launched his campaign on July 9, nearly two months after he announced he planned to “knock on doors, visit taquerias and diners, participate in community meetings and hear more about what’s important to the mothers and fathers, workers and students, citizens and dreamers of CD 6.”

At the end of May, Tillemann rejected calls by a conservative organization that he make his campaign official, saying he’d been in contact with FEC officials and cleared his exploratory committee’s activities, including fundraising and accumulating financial commitments in case he decided to run.

Crow, a partner at law firm Holland and Hart and an Army Ranger combat veteran, and David Aarestad, an attorney and former Cherry Creek School District board candidate, both announced they were running in April.

In her complaint, Noonan pointed to instances where she alleges Tillemann crossed a line from “testing the waters” to full-out campaiging, including a Twitter exchange between Tillemann and Tyler Sandberg, a Coffman spokesman and frequent Twitter provocateur. By saying,  “Coming for you next @tylersandberg #2018 #victory,” Noonan wrote, “(Tillemann) is speaking about his hypothetical general election win.”

She asked the FEC to require that Tillemann file a campaign finance report for May and June “as well as penalize Mr. Tilleman for his willful violation of the law.” (Because he entered the race days after the end of the 2nd quarter, Tillemann’s campaign won’t have to report contributions and expenditures until Oct. 15, the 3rd-quarter reporting deadline.)

“It is clear that Mr. Tilleman has no regard for the law and he will be a liability to the Colorado Democratic Party,” Noonan wrote. “This is not how we do things in Colorado; we play within the rules.”

Noonan told Colorado Politics she wasn’t supporting any of the declared candidates in the 6th District primary yet but felt strongly about holding them to account and making sure they were following the law.

“I’ve always believed that parties should police their own candidates,” she said in an interview. “If they see the party is doing something wrong, they should talk with him or her and make sure they do it right.”

Noonan acknowledged she hadn’t talked to Tillemann before filing the complaint with the FEC. She added that she was approached by a group of 6th District Democrats — including NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado Executive Director Karen Middleton, a former state representative — to sign a letter they’d been working on.

“We need to wait and see what the FEC says,” Noonan said. “We could be totally wrong — he could have gotten all the appropriate approval in advance like he claims. But there’s some issues that make us believe he didn’t.”

Middleton, who endorsed Crow in early June, told Colorado Politics she helped put Noonan together with some Democrats who were concerned that Tillemann might be violating election law, but she said it wasn’t because she was backing another candidate. Instead, Middleton said, she was approached by active Aurora Democrats wondering if Middleton had ever heard of Tillemann, who only moved into the suburb earlier this year.

“It looked like he was actually running for office when he had not declared,” Middleton said.

Tillemann told Colorado Politics he was confident he hadn’t violated FEC rules.

“This is the kind of small-ball political infighting that has killed Democrats in previous elections,” he added. “This is a campaign that has to be about issues and the people of Colorado.”

His campaign advisor, LeAnn Joswiak, elaborated: “According to the conversations we’ve had with our compliance people and the FEC, we are operating in accordance with the law,” she said. “This isn’t an FEC complaint, it’s a press release. Levi is a candidate, so it’s a moot point.”

Then she trained her fire on Crow.

“What voters should be paying attention to is Jason Crow’s role in helping payday lenders evade the law and victimize members of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe,” Joswiak said.

According to court documents, Crow was a member of a team of lawyers defending Western Sky Financial LLC and a web of associated companies labeled “unscrupulous and abusive online lenders” by then-Attorney General John Suthers when he joined other states and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in a broad crackdown against the lenders starting in 2011. The legal action eventually yielded $8 million in settlements for Colorado consumers. Members of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe were among those targeted by the lenders.

Crow’s campaign manager Alex Ball swung back at Tillemann in a statement to Colorado Politics.

“Fellow Democrats didn’t cause this problem for Tilleman, that was his own doing,” she said. “Rather than attacking other Democrats and contributing to the very political infighting he complains about, Tilleman should focus on making sure he is conducting his campaign appropriately. Combat veteran Jason Crow’s longstanding commitment to this country and community is not in question here.”

An FEC spokeswoman acknowledged the commission had received the complaint against Tillemann but noted that the FEC would have no further comment until it was resolved, according to standard practice.

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.


  • Jeff B.

    July 21, 2017 at 9:24 pm

    Pretty rich for Karen Middleton and Patricia Noonan to pretend this isn’t directly tied to their support of the Crow campaign. They really expect anybody to believe they did this out of the goodness of their hearts without even asking the Tillemann campaign if they were breaking the regulations?

    Just the sort of insider politics and system rigging the DNC is famous for. Stuff like this has lost us elections in the past. Stupid and bad for the party. They should be ashamed.

    Crow should call off his attack dogs and start focusing on real issues.

  • Jonathan

    July 21, 2017 at 9:33 pm

    Is this a joke?

    One of the candidates was ACTUALLY a lawyer for “unscrupulous and abusive” payday lenders who targeted Native Americans and you focus a story on the candidate who some rando tied to the other campaign is claiming might have possibly violated some arcane campaigning rule?

    Are you KIDDING me?

    I’m sorry, but I don’t see how the headline here is news and I sure as day don’t see how the illegal payday lender lawyer thing ISN’T a headline.

    That’s a big deal. Or it should be unless bought-and-paid-for journalists don’t follow up on it!

  • CTD

    July 22, 2017 at 6:43 am

    The second to the last paragraph of this piece is the most Trumpian and dishonest thing I’ve seen come from a Democrat in years.

    You have Crow’s campaign saying both “fellow democrats didn’t cause this” and “combat veteran Jason Crow’s commitment to community is not in question.” I mean, a) who talks like that? “Combat veteran Jason Crow?” And b) B.S. On both accounts. “Fellow democrats” absolutely did cause this and, more importantly, Crow’s commitment to anybody other than himself is SERIOUSLY called into question when you learn that he was a lawyer to abusive and illegal payday lenders targeting marginalized communities.

    Do we really need another congressman who can be paid off by the bad guys to screw over the little guy?

    It was a nice try to smear a fellow democrat Crow team, but I come away from this thinking that you tried to use dirty insider politics to go after a competitor and lost at your own game. Makes you look ridiculous, ineffective, and, more than anything, corrupt.

  • Sarah Delgado

    July 22, 2017 at 6:51 am

    This story seems a like it’s not spending very much time on the most interesting bits, namely that this seems like it’s a pretty explicit effort by one campaign to clobber the other one with arcane bits of election law while also barely touching on the fact that the candidate in that race seems to have built his career victimizing minorities.

    Tell us more about Crow’s payday lenders please.

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