Political groups in Colorado have more freedom to pour money into campaigns without disclosing their finances thanks to Secretary of State Scott Gessler, who has overstepped his bounds and rewritten election rules. At least that's the charge of Colorado Ethics Watch and Colorado Common Cause, which have filed a complaint against Denver District Court in a case that has a scheduled hearing today.
These watchdog groups allege that Gessler has unlawfully weakened Colorado campaign finance laws through the Secretary of States' rule-making process. In the complaint, they essentially ask the court to invalidate those rule changes they say extend beyond the duties of his office. Many of the rules also make the campaign finance process in the state less transparent, according to the group.
Gessler's office, however, contends that the rule changes are appropriate and necessary to clarify vague laws and respond to the mandates of specific court decisions.
"[Gessler] is saying, 'I'm going to rewrite Colorado campaign finance laws to conform with my interpretation of the law,'" says Luis Toro, director of Ethics Watch. "He's taking interpretations that we think are way too far out there."
Today's hearing comes just two weeks after the minority political parties in Colorado banded together to criticize one aspect of Gessler's rule changes -- one they feel unfairly limits their ability to participate in the process.
In this latest case, Ethics Watch isn't just concerned that Gessler has gone beyond the purview of his job as a member of the executive branch of government. The organization contends that many of these changes will allow groups to support races without revealing their finances, or in some cases their identities.
For example, one rule change for 527 groups (defined as tax-exempt political organizations) so narrows the definition of which are required to disclose their activities that many will be able to operate without reporting their funding, Toro says.
The new rule, according to a spokesman for the Secretary of State, is that 527s have to file if the group expressly supports or opposes a candidate.
"It's so narrow, there aren't going to be any disclosures," says Toro. He explains that groups bashing or praising someone without specifically calling for folks to cast their vote for a candidate won't have to file disclosures.
The rule changes, Toro charges, makes it easier for groups to hide funding sources.
"Everyone knows those ads are being used to manipulate public opinion," he says. "We should at least know who's paying for it."
Gessler's office argues that voters need these more-specific rules.
"Our job is to administer the law, and if there are either conflicts in the law or if court decisions have deemed the law unconstitutional, then we have to step in and create a rule to let people know how the law will be enforced," says Gessler spokesman Andrew Cole. "Otherwise you have uncertainty...[and] people deserve some level of certainty so they feel they can participate in the political process."
It should be clear to groups how they can participate, Cole says, adding that these rules offer some guidance as to what they are required to do.
With small political groups, it becomes an issue of First Amendment rights, says Rich Coolidge, another Gessler spokesman.
"We've had court cases in the past...that say these kinds of regulations infringe upon a person's right to free speech," Coolidge says. "The secretary is trying to...[create] a balanced approach so that small committees can comply with these regulations, but at the same time, preserve...their free speech [rights]."
Ethics Watch, though, believes less disclosure means less transparency -- a problem that watchdog groups across the country are trying to address.
"There's a national effort to role back these laws...not just contribution limit laws, but even disclosure laws," says Toro, adding, "People want to know who is spending all this money."
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