Clear the Bench's Matt Arnold: Court win for CO Ethics Watch a victory for big $ over little guy

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Here are the basics of the dispute, as originally spelled out in the May 6 post "Clear the Bench's Matt Arnold Calls Colorado Ethics Watch Complaint a 'Pathetic Political Ploy:'"

Clear the Bench registered as an issues committee -- a designation that places no limit on donations, although such gifts aren't tax deductible. But CEW felt Clear the Bench should have filed as a political committee subject to donation limits, because "judges are defined as candidates in Amendment 27," Colorado Ethics Watch director Luis Toro said in May.

Nonsense, countered Arnold, who pointed out that Secretary of State's office representatives had recommended the issues committee filing in the first place. Last May, he dubbed the complaint CEW filed against his organization over the disagreement "a pathetic political ploy by Colorado Ethics Watch to scare off donors and intimidate us. But we're not going to run away from the legal hucksterism they're trying to do."

During the first hearing, Administrative Law Judge Robert Spencer ruled that CEW had filed its complaint prematurely, before judges were required to declare their candidacy. For that reason, Ethics Watch was ordered to pay Clear the Bench's legal fees pertaining to the initial procedure, held in July. But CEW refiled the complaint on the meat of the matter -- and after a September 15 hearing, Toro says Spencer decided that Clear the Bench should have registered as a political committee, not an issues committee.

"I think it's a horrible decision," Arnold maintains. "The judge pretty much ignored all the testimony from the Secretary of State's office. There were reams of documented evidence laying out the fact that the Secretary of State's office, after much deliberation, concluded that Clear the Bench is, was and ought to be an issues committee, and that the rules for issues committee do, should and ought to apply to Clear the Bench Colorado."

The judge disagreed -- but because Arnold was following the advice of a state office, Clear the Bench was not ordered to pay a penalty. Toro said such a fine was never the point. Instead, CEW merely wanted to establish the precedent, so wealthy individuals with a grievance against a particular judge couldn't finance an attack campaign with unlimited funds. Arnold doesn't buy this argument.

"In his initial attacks, Luis Toro trumpeted quite loudly his allegation that Clear the Bench should be subject to thousands of dollars of fines," Arnold allows. "CEW was pretty clearly rebuked by the judge about that, and also in his ruling in July, where he sanctioned CEW for their frivolous, groundless and vexatious complaint."

Toro believes the amount of those fees should be fairly small, since he believes they only pertain to the early filing, not the other facts in the case. Arnold's not so sure about that.

"Toro and CEW owes us quite a bit of money dating back from July," he feels. "Although, ironically enough, the judge gave CEW as much or more time to cough up that money as he's given Clear the Bench to refile as a political committee. That's adding insult to injury from my perspective."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts