Election 2018EnergyNews

Initiative 97: Backers of oil & gas measure allege buyout of a signature gatherer

Author: Joey Bunch - August 1, 2018 - Updated: August 23, 2018

oil and gasState Rep. Joe Salazar. the lawyer for Initiative 97 supporters, speaks at a press conference about problems with petition-gatherers at the state Capitol last week. (Photo by Joey Bunch/Colorado Politics)

For the second time in just over a week, a group hoping to restrict oil and gas operations in Colorado says a contractor it hired to circulate petitions for Initiative 97 has hurt instead of helped get the measure on the ballot.

The pro-97 group, Colorado Rising, on Wednesday issued a statement saying that one of its signature-gathering contractors had admitted that “he was paid to stop circulating Initiative 97 and to immediately leave Colorado instead of fulfilling his commitment to collect thousands of signatures for the measure.”

Colorado Rising provided an audio recording that it said documented an admission by a representative of petition contractor Petition Connection that it had been offered a buyout to back away from working on Initiative 97.

The pro-97 group said the latest incident is another example of how they’ve been thwarted by what they suspect to be industry-supported efforts, although the group did not provide direct evidence of industry involvement in the petition-circulator buyout and an anti-97 group spokeswoman denied involvement.

Just last week, the organization provided another audio recording that it said proved that a different petition contractor, Direct Action Partners, had messed up petitions with delays and paperwork problems. It said Direct Action Partner then left the state abruptly and temporarily held onto thousands of pro-97 petitions before turning them over.

> RELATED: Drama over oil and gas ballot measure: Claims of stolen petitions, harassment

Initiative 97 — the latest salvo in a years-long battle over surging energy development in Colorado — would increase setbacks between new oil and gas operations and homes to 2,500 feet from the current 500 feet.

A state analysis says the measure would bar new petroleum development on about four-fifths on non-federal land in Colorado.

Colorado Rising must turn in at least 98,492 signatures from registered voters by Tuesday to qualify for the November ballot.

Wednesday, Colorado Rising released a recording of a man they identify as Dan Fessler, owner of Petition Connection.

On the recording, two Colorado Rising members tell the man identified as Fessler they need more verification on “thousands” of the petitions his company circulated. He replied that he had given the petitions his company gathered to the contractor who hired him, Hiram Asmuth of Encore Political Services.

The petitions ultimately made it to Colorado Rising, though many had errors that, if uncorrected, would disqualify them, the group said.

The man identified as Fessler said Encore’s new client — whom he would not identify — wanted him to give them the signed pro-Initiative 97 petitions “so they could be the ones giving them to you.”

The Initiative 97 members told him they doubted that was likely.

“I was just going to go home,” the man on the audio says. “I didn’t want to have anything to do with this anymore.”

Fessler could not be reached at his office or by cell phone Wednesday. Asmuth did not immediately return a phone call from Colorado Politics.

Aside from the petition issues, Colorado Rising has complained about pro-industry people showing up to interfere where Initiative 97  petition-gatherers are at work, something both sides have acknowledged. Each side cites free speech protections.

“It’s absolutely disgusting to hear rumors that these firms are being bought out, but even more disgusting to find out that the rumors are true, straight from the horse’s mouth,” Colorado Rising board member Lauren Petrie said in a statement. “It’s unforgivable that these so-called professionals, along with the oil and gas industry, are willing to screw people out of their right to have a voice at the ballot box.”

Colorado Rising singled out Initiative 97 opposition group Protect Colorado.

Karen Crummy, the spokeswoman for Protect Colorado, denied the allegations about energy-industry involvement in Initiative 97’s petition-circulator problems.

“There have been so many allegations and misrepresentations by Colorado Rising, it’s difficult to take them seriously,” Crummy said in an email. “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.”

She cited industry talking points: that at least 85 percent of all new oil and natural gas development on non-federal lands would be off limits if Initiative 97 passes, costing 147,800 jobs and $169 billion to $217 billion economic impact, plus $7 billion to $9 billion in state and local taxes over the next 12 years.

Those opposing the industry see it much differently.

“This is a movement led by mothers, grandmothers, teachers and health professionals,” said volunteer petition gatherer Therese Gilbert, a Greeley teacher. “We are looking out for our families and neighbors. This reckless industry is spending millions on ads, lobbyists and scandalous tactics, but they cannot drown out our voices to protect our homes, schools and everything we love about this state. This is a volunteer led-effort and we have spent thousands of hours working hard to ensure Coloradans have the opportunity to protect themselves and their community from fracking. We will not back down.”

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.