Spin Cycles

Laundered money, the shadow of big tobacco, and a blubbering court reporter: The wild trial over Colorado's Amendment 15.

Bopp's main argument to Judge Sparr has been that, regardless of how money has flowed to Colorado candidates, there is no evidence of corruption. During the trial's early stage, he objected to a line of questioning about a contribution to a state senate candidate from Lafayette. Defense attorney Hill presented evidence to show that the donation had been laundered in such a way that it was impossible to tell that it came from a group of Senate Republicans--who in turn had got much of the cash from tobacco companies. Bopp argued that the testimony was irrelevant because, he said, Hill had offered no proof that such money laundering affects the voting habits of candidates.

"You don't think," an incredulous Sparr interjected, "that those funds that were allegedly disguised before they arrived with the eventual candidate aren't evidence of the possibility of quid pro quo corruption?"

Bopp said he didn't, but before he could say another word, Sparr gave his response: "I do, so your objection is overruled."

Rulings such as that might give supporters of Amendment 15 reason to think that Sparr will take their side. Sparr, however, has pointed out a problem he'll face in making his decision: The Supreme Court has ruled in other cases that there must be evidence of what amounts to bribery before corruption can be assumed. During a hearing earlier this month, Sparr said the Supreme Court may have been "too narrow" in its definition of corruption. "I don't think you have to prove a politician committed a crime to prove there's a quid pro quo," he said.

The judge then seemed to realize the ramifications of what he was saying: "Heaven forbid. I shouldn't question the Supreme Court."

Before Amendment 15, Colorado was one of only five states that placed no limits whatsoever on contributions to state candidates (politicians were, however, required to disclose who was doing the giving). And even with Amendment 15 in place, Colorado candidates still enjoy significant freedoms. For instance, the measure places a $2 million total spending limit on candidates for governor. But it allows those people to spend more than that as long as they include a line in all campaign advertising acknowledging their flouting of the voluntary limits. Similarly, candidates for the state House of Representatives have a $50,000 spending cap, but it really isn't a cap at all. As long as they come clean about their gluttony, they, too, can spend whatever they want.

However, people and organizations who want to give large amounts of cash haven't fared as well under Amendment 15. PACs, for instance, can receive only $500 from any one individual donor and can in turn give only $1,000 to statewide candidates and $200 to legislative candidates. Individual donors face the same $1,000 and $200 limits. And all candidates must take no more than 20 percent of their entire campaign purse from PACs.

The amendment's patchwork approach reflects efforts by its framers to tiptoe around sensitive constitutional questions. That's because efforts by states to limit the flow of political cash have a less-than-sterling record in the nation's courts. A key moment came in 1995, when a federal court struck down as unconstitutional a reform measure passed by Missouri voters.

"We paid close attention to that ruling," says Ric Bainter, one of the drafters of Amendment 15. Now a candidate for secretary of state, Bainter says he hoped that by studying the Missouri case, he and his colleagues could avoid making the same mistakes. They gave equal attention to an Oregon measure, also passed in 1994, which was later thrown out by that state's Supreme Court.

California, Arkansas and Wisconsin have since passed their own spending limits on state candidates. California's Proposition 208 was thrown out by a federal judge, while parts of the Arkansas law were stricken as others were allowed to stand, and Wisconsin's case is still pending.

Many observers think the Colorado case could give the U.S. Supreme Court its first chance to change case law on campaign-finance reform since 1976, when the court ruled that spending limits were acceptable as long as they were voluntary. "I think there's a better-than-even chance," says Tymkovich, who already has argued two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, including Colorado's Amendment 2, "that this will go all the way."

In their search for "corrupting influences," defense attorneys have repeatedly stumbled across the strange role played by tobacco companies in Colorado politics. A memorable example emerged when Hill was cross-examining Steve Durham, a former legislator and current GOP consultant. Hill asked Durham about a $6,000 contribution from his consulting company, Colorado Winning Edge, to the Colorado Republicans for Choice PAC. Durham said the $6,000 was not a contribution but was instead a "purchase of services" from Republicans for Choice. He said the money came from the Colorado Senate Republican Election Committee, a special fund of the Colorado Republican Party set up to elect candidates to the Senate.

Durham said his secretary inadvertently included the $6,000 transaction on a list of contributions made by his company. But under questioning from Hill, it became apparent that the $6,000 was a contribution. Indeed, court records show that three days after Durham's company wrote a check to Republicans for Choice, that organization showed up as a $6,000 donor to the campaign of Fran Raudenbush, a state senate candidate from Lafayette. Durham admitted under questioning that Republicans for Choice had no staff members and no ability to provide any "services" other than to act as a conduit for the money.

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