Politics

Dark Money Group Gives $250,000 to Three Denver Ballot Measures

Defend Colorado is pouring money into the upcoming Denver election.
Defend Colorado is pouring money into the upcoming Denver election. Unsplash/Element5 Digital
Defend Colorado, a dark-money political advocacy group, has contributed $250,000 to efforts to put three initiatives on the Denver ballot in November.

The organization, which describes itself as "an alliance of state community leaders focused on defending Colorado‚Äôs economy from extreme anti-business policies," cut two $80,000 checks for a pair of ballot initiatives being pushed by the chair of the Denver Republican Party, and gave another $90,000 to an initiative seeking the repeal of Denver City Council-approved changes to the group living aspects of the Denver Zoning Code.

"Defend Colorado has a history of working on issues that aim to improve Colorado's economic climate and supporting policies that create or preserve economic opportunity," explains spokesman Sean Duffy. "The group also holds local government directly accountable for results. It makes sense that Defend would support good ideas that address some of Denver's most significant issues."

A donation is considered a dark-money political contribution when an entity uses "the law to directly hide donor information so it creates different pathways for donors to give but not have their name publicly out there," says Andy Szekeres, the campaign finance administrator for the Denver Clerk and Recorder. The use of dark money in politics exploded after the landmark Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court decision in 2010.

"There are a number of different legal entities now that can flood money in on both sides of the political aisle or issue. It's now sort of part of the political fundraising," notes Szekeres.

Denver Republican Party chair Garrett Flicker is currently gathering signatures for two initiatives that he hopes to get on the November ballot. One would require the city set up safe-camping sites for people experiencing homelessness, while also granting Denver residents the power to sue the city if it doesn't respond to their complaints about outdoor camping. The other would lower the city sales tax rate from 4.81 percent to 4.5 percent and cap it there.

On May 19, Defend Colorado donated $80,000 to each of the issue committees for Flicker's initiatives. The May campaign finance report for the homelessness initiative's committee showed that it had not spent any of the $80,000 before the end of the month; the May report for the sales tax initiative committee indicated that it had spent $17,718 of the contribution on signature collection through a local canvassing company. The two committees have until early July to submit the signatures to the Denver Elections Division.

In mid-March, Defend Colorado gave $90,000 to Safe and Sound Denver, the issue committee that's trying to repeal changes to the Denver Zoning Code that increased the number of unrelated adults who can live together in the same home, and made it easier for service providers to set up halfway houses, sober living homes and homeless shelters throughout the city.

By the end of May, Safe and Sound Denver had spent around two-thirds of the Defend Colorado contribution on signature-gathering through a canvassing company. On June 7, it received word from the Denver Elections Division that it had submitted 13,642 valid signatures, well above the 9,184 required to place a measure on the  citywide ballot in November.

Florence Sebern, a founder of Safe and Sound Denver, says she has not communicated with Defend Colorado and has "no access to funders."

Denver does not have any limits on contributions to issue committees, nor are there any individual donor reporting requirements for dark-money entities that contribute to an issue committee.

And previous campaigns for and against Denver initiatives have collected big bucks. Together Denver, which fought against the Right to Survive initiative on the May 2019 ballot, generated close to $2.5 million in contributions for a high-powered barrage that helped sink the initiative, which sought to overturn the urban camping ban and other laws that proponents argued criminalized homelessness. But contributions to the Together Denver campaign weren't as opaque as these Defend Colorado donations. For example, the April 2019 campaign finance report for Together Denver shows multi-thousand-dollar donations from individuals and entities like the Colorado Hotel and Lodging Association.

"It's substantially more transparent than what some of these other organizations are doing in the 2021 election cycle," Szekeres says. With the Defend Colorado contributions, he notes, "We have no idea if it's an individual, or if it's an organization."

While Safe and Sound Denver is the only issue committee that has officially landed its referendum on the ballot, eight other issue committees, including the two Flicker is working with, are pushing to take their own measures to Denver voters in November.

Update: This story has been updated to include a statement from Defend Colorado spokesman Sean Duffy.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.