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Complaint accuses backers of independent Colo. candidates of finance violations

Author: Ernest Luning - September 18, 2018 - Updated: October 8, 2018

The gold dome of Colorado's state Capitol gleams in the sunlight on May 9, 2016. (Photo by Ernest Luning/Colorado Politics)The gold dome of Colorado’s state Capitol gleams in the sunlight on May 9, 2016. (Photo by Ernest Luning/Colorado Politics)

A Denver election law attorney who regularly goes to bat for Democrats filed a complaint Monday alleging campaign finance violations by a group of nonprofits that are backing five unaffiliated legislative candidates in Colorado.

Mark Grueskin, representing four registered Democrats from Denver and Arapahoe County, says in a 15-page complaint filed with the Secretary of State’s Office that Unite America, Unite Colorado and the related Unite America Election Fund — parts of a Denver-based organization that used to be known as the Centrist Project — haven’t adhered to disclosure requirements and contribution limits while advocating for the candidates they’ve endorsed.

“They admit it, without qualification, on their websites and in their posted videos, as just a couple of examples,” Grueskin told Colorado Politics in an email. “Yet, none of these organizations complies with Colorado campaign finance law by telling voters where the money’s coming from to do this.”

A spokesman for the organizations fired back, saying the entities are complying with campaign finance law.

“This partisan complaint filed by a partisan lawyer is a desperate attempt to stifle political competition from independent candidates and protect the failing two-party duopoly that has brought dysfunction and gridlock to our political system. It is sloppy, misinformed and riddled with factual errors, and it will be dismissed.”

Under rules that took effect in June, state officials have 10 days to review the complaint and decide whether it’s valid.

The candidates endorsed by Unite Colorado are Maile Foster in El Paso County’s House District 18, Jay Geyer in Broomfield’s House District 33, Steve Peterson in Senate District 30, Thea Chase in Mesa County’s House District 54, and Paul Jones in House District 59, in the southwest corner of the state.

The group set up its national headquarters in Denver a year ago and plans to spend around $1 million in an effort to elect at least one independent candidate to the General Assembly — something that hasn’t happened in at least 100 years. It’s also backing candidates for governor, the U.S. Senate and other legislative bodies in other states.

At issue is whether the group is properly dividing its activities among its various entities, including a federal super PAC and two varieties of nonprofits, each with its own disclosure requirements.

For instance, the law requires groups that tell voters to support a candidate or pay for candidates’ fundraising efforts to report their own sources of contributions and file regular reports detailing funds spent on electioneering — something Unite America and Unite Colorado haven’t done, Grueskin alleges.

“None of these entities has followed the law here,” he said. “And that’s not tough to grasp at all.”

But Nick Troiano, the group’s executive director and a one-time unaffiliated candidate for Congress in Pennsylvania, said he expects the Secretary of State’s Office to dismiss the claim after reviewing it.

“We’re confident the merits are on our side on this,” he said. “But the bigger point here is, they must be looking at the same polling we are, which shows our candidates are competitive. They’ve stopped ignoring us and are suing us. This will work out on Election Day, as it should, with voters getting the right to cast their ballots.”

A survey conducted last year for the Centrist Project showed a majority of Colorado voters believe the two major political parties aren’t working together well enough and were open to voting for unaffiliated candidates.

Marc Snyder, the Democratic candidate for House District 18, said he’s glad the complaint was filed.

“Something I think is on a lot of voters’ minds right now is who exactly are Unite Colorado?” Snyder said. “There’s just so little information and there’s a little bit the sense that the playing field is not level.”

Under stricter reporting requirements that kicked in on Sept. 7, state-level candidates must report expenditures and contributions exceeding $1,000 within 24 hours, Snyder pointed out.

“So the information is pretty much in real time, and yet I don’t feel like all the candidates are under the same rules,” Snyder said. “More transparency is in the best interest of everybody.”

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.