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A GOP gadfly fights reform of a campaign law that many say has run amok

Author: Dan Njegomir - March 14, 2017 - Updated: June 6, 2017

Not long ago, libertarian-leaning Reason magazine ran an expose of Colorado’s convoluted campaign-finance law and how it invites abuse by those who manipulate it to clobber — and silence — their political foes. We blogged on the article at the time, noting its focus on controversial Colorado political operative Matt Arnold and his business, Campaign Integrity Watchdog, as Exhibit A.

The article characterized Arnold essentially as a serial complainant who files pretextual and vindictive actions over minor clerical errors found in the campaign disclosures of candidates and other entities covered by the campaign-finance law. The actions are often filed at the last possible moment. That runs up the meter on the fines — not to mention legal fees — that the targets must fork over. The law has no screening process for such complaints, Reason points out; it’s come one, come all. And all must be turned over, indiscriminately, to the Office of Administrative Courts to sort out.

The lax law not only can be used to intimidate opponents but also plays into an old game among hired-gun political consultants and other operatives: Pick the inevitable nits in opponents’ campaign filings, get the expected court ruling on a technical violation — and then broadcast it to the world in the next election via those obnoxious mailers that fill your recycling bin. Of course, by the time a two-bit campaign-law infraction — maybe an omitted name of a $25 donor’s employer — makes it into your mailbox, it has morphed into: “What is Rep. __________ hiding?” and, “Sen. _______, BUSTED for breaking campaign laws!!!”

Arnold, the article noted:

…is responsible for more campaign finance complaints in Colorado than anyone else. Out of the more than 340 complaints that have been filed since Amendment 27 passed 14 years ago, more than 50 were filed by him or his Campaign Integrity Watchdog group. As Arnold once explained, the campaign finance system is a tool for waging “political guerrilla legal warfare (a.k.a. Lawfare)” against one’s opponents.

…the sheer pettiness of so many complaints reveals that, in fact, the law invites intimidation and reprisals against those who try to exercise their First Amendment rights.

So, why not put a stop it it? How about giving campaigns a chance to fix truly innocent errors in their filings, without penalties, if the real point of the law is to encourage disclosure to the public — not to let political hacks play “gotcha”? It turns out that very reform is in the works.

House Bill 1155 as amended and approved in a House committee last week would tweak Amendment 27, enacted by voters in 2002, in a way that probably should have been in the law all along. It would allow candidates and other political entities a 15-day grace period to fix any error after being notified of a complaint. No penalty would be assessed so long as the entity demonstrated to the satisfaction of an administrative law judge that a good-faith effort had been made to comply with disclosure requirements in the first place or that substantial compliance had occurred.

“It’s encouraging candidates to go ahead and fix those issues,” Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert told the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee as she testified in support of the bill. At the same time it would curb “gamesmanship, political posturing” and other motivations for mischief, she said.

As she told us after the hearing: “It’s supposed to be about disclosure.”

The legislation has the endorsement not only of Republican Secretary of State Wayne Williams but of left-leaning Colorado Ethics Watch’s Senior Counsel Peg Perl, as well, who also testified in support. The bill’s sponsors — Rep. Dan Thurlow of Grand Junction in the House and Sen. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs in the Senate — are both Republicans. Just like Arnold.

Of course, Arnold was the only person who showed up to testify against the reform bill at last week’s hearing. After all, he was the one person in the room who arguably has a stake in maintaining the status quo. By all indications, filing complaints under the current law’s wide-open and permissive structure is his LLC’s primary function. And he went after the bill in his characteristic and familiar style: assailing it as “unconstitutional” (nonsense, says the Secretary of State’s Office), and lashing out at its sponsors — a violation of committee rules — as he was repeatedly gaveled down by the committee chair.

The committee approved the bill 6-2 despite his testimony. (Or perhaps because of it; an example of decorum, it was not.)

We reached out to Arnold via email for some insights into how he runs Campaign Integrity Watchdog. We were rebuffed. Arnold responded by email with an accusation that this humble blogger — who has written about him before — has a “conflict of interest” in a case “currently being prosecuted by Campaign Integrity Watchdog.” It thus, “would be inappropriate for CIW to provide a response.” (Disclosure: I have no idea what he is talking about.)

A couple of footnotes.

Of interest: The two “no” votes both came from two of the three Republicans on the committee, Reps. Tim Leonard of Evergreen and Stephen Humphrey of Severance.

Just plain odd: The third Republican on State Affairs, Rep. Dave Williams of Colorado Springs, invoked House rule 21C and was excused from voting. It’s a fairly unusual move intended for a lawmaker to sit out of a vote in which he or she may have a personal financial stake and thus a conflict of interest.

Williams’s personal stake? He tried to explain it to fellow committee members but left them, and us, befuddled. So we followed up with him afterward to get a clarification. He texted this response, citing the rule:

21(c) “A member who has an immediate personal or financial interest . . .”

I’m a declared candidate for 2018

This is a clear conflict of interest.

So, because as a candidate he must file campaign disclosures, he has a conflict? Wouldn’t that mean every House member who is seeking re-election should not, by his reasoning, vote on any campaign-finance legislation?

A rather novel legal theory, to say the least. Williams is a freshman and is not an attorney. Would be interesting to get a legal opinion. Perhaps some House member would care to consult the Office of Legislative Legal Services?

Dan Njegomir

Dan Njegomir

Dan Njegomir is a blogger and opinion editor for Colorado Politics. A longtime journalist and more-than-25-year veteran of the Colorado political scene, Njegomir has been an award-winning newspaper reporter, an editorial page editor, a senior legislative staffer at the State Capitol and a political consultant.

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