For months, Colorado Rising has been pushing a ballot measure that would force a 2,500-foot setback between oil and gas developments and occupied buildings, such as homes and schools.
Now the grassroots group's money and hard work could go down the drain because of a problem with the signature-gathering firm that was helping it qualify for the November ballot. Last week the Portland-based Direct Action Partners abruptly quit gathering signatures for the oil and gas setback measure, known as Initiative 97, allegedly taking seven boxes of petitions estimated to contain up to 20,000 signatures.
In a recorded phone conversation shared with Westword, Direct Action Partners president Michael Selvaggio said he would return the petitions "as soon as humanly possible." Direct Action Partners did not return calls for comments.
“It's far more stressful than it should have been, if he hadn't stolen our property," says Micah Parkin, a boardmember of Colorado Rising and executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group 350 Colorado.
Losing those signatures is a huge hit to the campaign, but the fight for the ballot isn't over. Colorado Rising has contracted with Encore Political Services to continue gathering signatures before the Colorado Secretary of State's deadline of August 6. A minimum of 98,462 valid signatures are required to make the November ballot, but tens of thousands more are usually needed to overcome the intense petition audit conducted by the Secretary of State's Office, which killed a nearly identical initiative in 2016.
"We believe we're still on track to make it even if we don't get these signatures back," says Russell Mendell, an organizer for Frack Free Colorado and one of the initiative's sponsors. Still, Mendell says, Colorado Rising will need to raise more money to pay for more signature-gatherers if it wants to ensure that the initiative makes the November ballot.
In addition to leaving with boxes of petitions, Direct Action Partners is alleged to have demanded up to $41,000 from Colorado Rising; it also reportedly wanted the group to sign a contract waiving the firm's contractual responsibility and asked Colorado Rising not to go public about the alleged theft. Colorado Rising refused to sign the waiver or pay what it says it considers a "ransom" for the signatures. Instead, it's suing Direct Action Partners.
Representative Joe Salazar, who came out strongly against fracking as a Democratic candidate for attorney general (he lost the primary to Phil Weiser), is representing Colorado Rising in the civil lawsuit. Salazar has already filed a Replevin case in Denver County Court to force Denver Action Partners to return the petitions. There's a major hurdle, though: finding the owners of Direct Action Partners in order to serve them with the lawsuit in person. The clock is ticking toward that August 6 petition deadline, and finding out-of-state defendants could take time that the campaign just doesn't have.
"We don't know exactly where [Selvaggio] is, so we'd have to find him," Mendell says. "We have some leads. We're going to do whatever we can."
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Direct Action Partners faces other problems. Former Colorado employees of the firm are preparing to sue the company over alleged wage theft. Brian Loma, a former Denver field operations director for Direct Action Partners, says that everyone was abruptly let go by Selvaggio last week; workers were locked out of the Colorado Springs office without notice on Friday, July 20.
Colorado Rising says it paid Direct Action Partners in full and on time, but is now trying to work through payroll issues left by Direct Action Partners' departure. The campaign estimates that about 100 Colorado employees, or about one-fourth of those employed in the state by Direct Action Partners, have either not been paid or were incorrectly paid.
"Yes, in our office and throughout the [Direct Action Partners signature-gathering areas]...the employees are standing in solidarity with Colorado Rising. We are still out getting the signatures to get safety setbacks on the ballot. We are, in solidarity, filing labor documents with the State of Colorado" for wage theft, Loma says, then adds, "Democracy doesn't stop because a business decides not to pay its people."
Colorado Rising is holding a press conference at 11 a.m. today, July 26, on the west steps of the State Capitol. It will also hold a sign-a-thon from 2 to 6 p.m. at Unity of Boulder Church, where people can drive up and sign from their cars.