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INSIGHTS: Public loses authority to police campaign finance

Author: Joey Bunch - June 25, 2018 - Updated: June 26, 2018

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On “The Andy Griffith Show,” Gomer Pyle took the law into his own hands. After Barney Fife wrote Gomer a ticket for an illegal U-turn, the deputy made the same mistake. Gomer leaped from the cab of his truck and into law enforcement.

“Citizen’s arrest, citizen’s arrest, citizen’s arrest,” he called out until Barney stopped and got out of his cruiser as Mayberrians gathered around.

“I hereby, as a citizen of town of Mayberry in the United States of America, arrest you,” Gomer said, stiffening his back.

Colorado, say goodbye to Mayberry.

When it comes to politicos, since 2002 ordinary citizens could wear the badge, and not just on Election Day. Or at least they did until June 12, when U.S. District Judge Raymond Moore ruled that the state’s procedure for finding, reporting and prosecuting campaign finance violations is unconstitutional. Now the Secretary of State’s Office will enforce the law.

The way it worked up until lately is that anyone can report a violation and it automatically goes to an administrative law judge for a hearing. But Moore said the state should not be “outsourcing the enforcement of laws.”

In 2014, the last cycle for statewide officers, citizens registered 50 campaign finance complaints. So far this year, they’ve introduced five, according to the  Secretary of State’s Office.

Secretary of State Wayne Williams didn’t put up much of a fight for the law, either, in a case defended by the staff of Attorney General Cynthia Coffman. He’s been urging the state legislature to improve the campaign finance laws for some time. And he created a rule to give people who make simple mistakes the chance to fix them before an adversary hauls them and their lawyer before a judge.

Matt Arnold (Colorado Politics file)

Matt Arnold isn’t a lawyer, but he’s spent a lot of time in front of such hearing officers. His Campaign Integrity Watchdog operation is “one guy with an overdeveloped sense of justice and his dog,” he told me. He’s usually up against skilled politicians and high-priced lawyers in righting what he perceives as wrongs.

In 2015 he went after the state Republican Party for how it disclosed some donors. Among the alleged mistakes: The party failed to list the occupation of Phil Anschutz, the billionaire who owns a lot of stuff, including Colorado Politics and The Gazette in Colorado Springs. Administrative Law Judge Robert Spencer agreed with Arnold and fined the party $10,000.

Republicans accused Arnold of a “shakedown,” however, when he offered to settle the complaint if the party paid a company he was affiliated with $10,000 to do an audit of the party’s campaign finance paperwork to find mistakes to stay out of court.

“Alternatively, ‘the beatings will continue until morale improves.’ ;)” Arnold wrote in his email to the party.

Arnold told me the voters approved the state Colorado Campaign Finance Initiative to include citizen enforcement for a reason: Politicians can’t be trusted to police politics.

He was critical of Williams, noting the elected secretary of state relies on the same pool of private donors as any other politician, and if Williams, a Republican, secretly aspires to be governor someday, he will be careful to make friends and not enemies.

“This is why the people of this state voted to take it out of the hands of partisan elected officials,” Arnold said.

Former state Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt, R-Colorado Springs, takes in the hearing room during a break in testimony on Wednesday, March 29, 2017, at an administrative court hearing in Denver on a complaint filed by Matt Arnold's Campaign Integrity Watchdog alleging that an organization run by former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez, Colorado Pioneer Action, improperly targeted Klingenschmitt and other GOP candidates in primaries in 2016. (Photo by Ernest Luning/Colorado Politics)
Former state Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt, R-Colorado Springs, at an administrative court hearing in Denver on a complaint filed by Matt Arnold’s Campaign Integrity Watchdog alleging that an organization run by former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez, Colorado Pioneer Action, improperly targeted Klingenschmitt and other GOP candidates in primaries in 2016. (Photo by Ernest Luning/Colorado Politics)

One of Arnold’s other big wins was against Colorado Pioneer Action last year. It was found that the conservative nonprofit, led by former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez, was not properly registered as a political committee as it worked to defeat Republican state Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt and other hard-right conservatives in the Republican primary in 2016.

Pioneer Action is appealing the $17,735 fine to the state appellate courts.

“Hallelujah,” Beauprez said behind the wheel of his pickup on his ranch in Jackson County, when he was told the news of Judge Moore’s decision on reporting campaign finance misdeeds.

There’s no vetting process for these citizen complaints. Regardless, the accused have to mount a defense and often hire a lawyer, no matter how small the violation might be, whether it has any merit or has any other motivations behind it. Likewise, average citizens could find themselves outgunned by lawyers for the accused.

“My preference would be that you could take limits off, practically, and there wouldn’t be any difference in the money that gets spent now,” Beauprez said. “What I would do is make all your campaign contributions reported immediately and posted online within 24 hours.”

Money won’t corrupt politics if it’s all out in the sunshine, he said.

“What people are doing now is sweeping money under the rug.” Beauprez said. “It’s there. You just can’t follow where the money comes from.”

Candidates would have to define their limits and be held responsible for who he or she takes money from, said the two-term congressman and two-time Republican nominee for governor (and the subject of my June 22 cover story).

Moreover, to Beauprez, it doesn’t seem right that a person with a political axe to grind can sharpen the blade by hauling someone before a judge.

In the Colorado case that got citizen enforcement thrown out, a Strasberg mom who dislikes the Common Core school curriculum bought two ads in a local newspaper encouraging fellow citizens to vote. She didn’t name any candidates.

Complaints that she was an unregistered political machine were filed by the local superintendent and a school board member. The complaints were dropped after she lawyered up, but she pressed on to get a ruling on the way the campaign finance law is enforced.

Citizen police power is carved out in Colorado solely to use against politicos. The rest of the time we can’t even make a citizen’s arrest for an illegal U-turn.

When Barney refused to write himself a ticket for that, Gomer implicitly referred to Colorado: “You hear that folks? There are two sets of laws: one for the police and one for the ordinary citizen.”

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.