Groups sue Gessler over campaign finance rules

The Colorado Statesman

A pair of liberal watchdog groups sued Secretary of State Scott Gessler last week claiming that an extensive overhaul of state campaign finance rules wasn’t authorized by statute or the Colorado constitution.

Gessler dismissed the legal challenge as “no surprise,” saying he rewrote the rules so that state residents could participate in politics without needing an army of lawyers.

In a complaint filed on Friday in Denver District Court, attorneys for Colorado Common Cause and Colorado Ethics Watch — two groups that successfully sued Gessler last year to overturn looser disclosure regulations for ballot proposal advocates — argue that a series of rules adopted by the secretary of state on March 7 effectively gut numerous campaign reporting requirements.

Scott Gessler was elected Secretary of State in November of 2010.
Statesman file photo

“Coloradans fought for the right to know who is spending money to influence their votes,” said Colorado Common Cause executive director Elena Nuñez in a statement. “As we approach an election expected to have record spending, Secretary Gessler’s rules rewrite will leave Coloradans in the dark.”

The lawsuit charges that the rules adopted by Gessler effectively repeal reporting requirements on so-called 527 organizations by excluding so many of the groups that hardly any in the state would be subject to the rules. In addition, the lawsuit contends, Gessler’s new rules would allow corporations to skirt spending disclosures unless campaign spending equals at least 30 percent of their total spending. The lawsuit targets other revised rules, arguing they contradict state law or constitutional requirements.

“Secretary Gessler appears not to have gotten the message that both the court and the legislature have already sent: his job is to enforce the laws on the books, not rewrite them to his liking in an election year,” said Ethics Watch director Luis Toro in a statement. “We are confident that the result in this case will be no different from what has happened before. Unfortunately, the State of Colorado will spend a great deal of public money attempting to defend the indefensible.”

Gessler immediately fired back, taking aim at the organizations suing him.

“This challenge comes as no surprise. Groups opposing common sense rules have stacked the deck in their favor,” Gessler said in a statement. “Yet again, the office has been sued by the same secretive, unaccountable, taxpayer-subsidized groups.”

Saying his revised rules create “a level playing field for everyone,” Gessler blasted the nonprofit groups and defended his motives.

“Unlike grassroots groups, these well-funded organizations can afford attorneys and accountants to navigate the complex laws and court decisions,” Gessler said. “The new rules level the playing field by clarifying Colorado’s confusing political finance framework. We rewrote these rules to uphold free speech rights, not stifle political engagement.”

Another group of organizations filed a similar lawsuit against Gessler the same day, targeting rules they claim would allow political parties in home-rule jurisdictions to entirely circumvent campaign reporting requirements, among other complaints.

“Colorado’s constitution has long protected voters and citizens from back-room funding of local candidates and campaigns, but now the Secretary of State wants to turn the tables around so that millions of dollars could be potentially funneled into political use without the public knowing about it,” said Senate District 27 candidate David Paladino, a Centennial Democrat, in a statement announcing that he had joined the second lawsuit.

Others involved in that complaint include Colorado AFL-CIO executive director Mike Cerbo, Pro-Choice Colorado, Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains Ballot Issue Committee, and a political action committee that calls itself Citizens for Integrity, Inc.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com