David Sirota, a Denver-based journalist and nationally recognized columnist, took to crowdfunding to raise enough money to get e-mails between Republican lawmakers in Colorado and oil and gas donors and lobbyists.
Sirota raised the $1,670 required by the state to mine the e-mail accounts of Republicans in the Colorado Senate — specifically, Republicans on the Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy committee. According to Sirota, the resulting documents could show why GOP committee members killed a series of oil and gas measures proposed this legislative session by Democrats, including a 1,000-foot setback of oil and gas wells from schools and a reform of controversial forced-pooling practices.
“First of all, we would like to see how closely in contact were the Republican legislators who voted this bill down — how closely were they in contact with the oil and gas industry and oil and gas donors on these specific bills,” Sirota continues. “We want to know the extent of the legislative lobbying campaign against these bills.”
Sirota, a senior editor for investigations at International Business Times, says this isn’t a political attack on the Republican senators. Rather, he sees oil and gas as a “really important matter of public policy,” and believes that government transparency is important in policymaking.
“What I’ve done in the past in my reporting, generally, is to take a look at how — or, I should say, if and how — donors explicitly influenced the policymaking process.... I’m not pre-judging anyone,” he says. “But these are our public records, these are public officials, and I think the public has a right to know.”
A spokesperson for Randy Baumgardner, the vice chair of the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy committee, says that when his office receives requests for documents, it responds accordingly, adding that “these things happen all the time.”
Under Colorado’s Open Records Act, petitioners of public documents are charged between $20 to $30 an hour for staffers of state departments to locate and copy the documents; however, departments can grant waivers of the fees.
When Sirota wasn’t granted such a waiver, he appealed to the public in order to raise the money, launching a crowdfunding campaign at the end of last week.
“I do a lot of open-records requests across the country, and I think that Colorado’s law is one of the most draconian that we’ve encountered in our investigative work,” he says. “We didn’t want to allow that financial barrier to prevent the release of these records, and so we went to the public and said, ‘Can you help us get these records released?’”
To his surprise, money came in quickly from about sixty donors, putting his team in a position to file the request for documents. Typically, the state has to meet the request within three business days — meaning that the senators’ e-mails could be released right around the end of the legislative session, on Wednesday, May 10.
Sirota has been investigating connections between the oil and gas industry and Colorado Republicans, who blocked the proposed 1,000-foot setback between school property lines and new drilling sites.
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Most recently, his investigations revealed that a Halliburton official donated $40,000 to the Colorado Republicans' super PAC on the day that the bill was introduced, and that corporate donors from oil and gas firms donated $738,000 to Republicans in the 2016 election cycle.
The ongoing debate over Colorado’s oil and gas development was reinvigorated last month after two people were killed in a Weld County explosion. A faulty pipeline that leaked methane into a Firestone home was found to have caused the explosion.
In response, Democratic lawmakers attempted to rush through a bill that would have required mapping of existing oil and gas pipelines through the state, which House Republicans blocked in a five-person filibuster.