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PAC attack 

Campaign committees pour big money — much of it untraceable — into Colorado Springs elections

About a quarter of the roughly $1 million that's flowed into city elections this spring has come from campaign committees whose backers' names are hidden from voters. Organizations made up of developers and cops, among others, have collected money from members and given lump sums to political action committees, without reporting who gave.

Such "dark money" is apparently legal; the city maintains its rules don't require individual donors to be named. But it's "sleazy," according to Colorado Ethics Watch director Luis Toro.

"People deserve to know who's trying to influence their votes," Toro says. He adds that disclosure also allows voters to "know who they [politicians] owe," and to monitor for favoritism to donors.

PACs gave about $275,000 through April 3 to candidates and to an effort to recall District 4 Councilor Helen Collins. Elected to Council seats on April 7 were Merv Bennett, Larry Bagley and Tom Strand — all of whom got PAC money — and Bill Murray, who didn't.

John Suthers received PAC money and won the most votes in the mayor's race. He'll face Mary Lou Makepeace in the May 19 runoff election.

A rundown on PAC money:

• The Colorado Springs Police Protection Association gave a lump sum to its PAC, which gave $6,000 to Suthers, and $1,000 each to Council candidates Jariah Walker, Vickie Tonkins, Glenn Carlson, Bagley and Bennett.

• The Housing and Building Association gave a lump sum to its PAC, which gave $5,000 each to Suthers, Strand, Bagley, Walker and Bennett.

• The Colorado Association of Realtors gave a lump sum to its PAC, which gave $3,000 each to Suthers and Bagley, and $2,000 each to Bennett, Strand and Walker.

• Colorado Springs Forward, a group started last year by well-connected locals seeking to influence public policy, gave $85,000 to its PAC, which gave $5,000 each to Suthers, Bennett, Bagley, Strand and Walker. The PAC also spent $47,540 on vendors from as far away as Virginia for campaign services like advertising and social media.

• Colorado Springs Government Watch, an outfit run by Dede Laugesen, wife of Gazette opinion page editor Wayne Laugesen, gave $65,207 to its Independent Committee. The money was spent on signature-gatherers, a law firm and a consultant for "voter outreach" for the recall, which was ultimately unsuccessful.

• Save the Springs of Colorado Springs got $10,915 from Every Vote Counts of Colorado Springs, run by marijuana advocate Mark Slaugh, and paid $10,810 to Newell Ledbetter Advertising Inc., for advertising.

• Colorado Citizens Protecting Our Constitution, formed in 2013 to "carry out educational outreach regarding the strengthening of public education" in Colorado, according to a Secretary of State filing, gave $74,000 to its political committee. The committee paid vendors in Colorado, Minnesota and Florida for campaign services, such as radio ads and "voter contact."

Bennett got 27 percent of his $53,050 in campaign funds from PACs. For Bagley, it was 32 percent of his $51,100; Strand, 27 percent of his $49,200; and Suthers, 6 percent of his $358,500.

When the Independent asked Bennett, Bagley and Strand via email if they'd support revising city campaign finance rules to ban "dark money," Bennett and Bagley said they didn't know what that meant (even though the Indy had defined it for them as money not identified as coming from any specific individual).

"Apparently there are some loopholes," Bagley wrote, "but I would need more information about this to make any determination on what should be done."

Bennett responded similarly, saying via email, "I do not know where that came from or who was involved. I would need to have more information before I would make any statement related to it."

Strand said he "will look into the issue regarding the City Campaign Finance laws."

The trio and Suthers also got thousands from the PAC of the Regional Business Alliance, which gets money from the city's bed and car rental tax. The PAC revealed donors' names, including a $200 donation from city-owned Memorial Hospital. Memorial drew a complaint to state officials in 2008 with its $4,000 donation to a group pushing a county tax increase. Anti-tax activist Douglas Bruce alleged it violated the Fair Campaign Practices Act's ban on use of public money in political campaigns. Then-Mayor Lionel Rivera demanded the money be returned to Memorial.

A city spokeswoman now says the city's home-rule status allows it to ignore the FCPA, and the city's rules apparently don't forbid governments from giving to campaigns.

Former Secretary of State Scott Gessler ruled that home-rule cities cannot spend public money on elections, Toro says, but that stance hasn't been tested in court.

Asked about the donation, Dan Weaver, a spokesman for University of Colorado Health, which is leasing Memorial, initially defended it, saying, "Memorial is now far different than it was in 2008." But he later acknowledged that UCH leadership had been unaware of the donation — which he says was OK'd by former CEO Mike Scialdone — before the Indy's inquiry. UCH, he now says, is "looking into" it.

"If the donation made by Memorial's former CEO is found to be not permissible," he adds, "we will take steps to correct this in accordance with IRS regulations regarding 501(c)(3) organizations."

Suthers initially claimed Memorial "is not city owned" but later modified his comment, saying, "The city no longer owns the operational aspects of the hospital." Bennett says he's sure "everything they did was appropriate." But Bagley says he'd be "deeply concerned" if any city entity or agency funded a political campaign.

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