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Election influencers: Hiding in plain sight 

Political action committees are busy influencing the Colorado Springs city election, and it's impossible to know who's coughing up the money.

That kind of secrecy, says an open government expert, handicaps the voters. Where the money comes from helps voters decide who to vote for, says Luis Toro with Colorado Ethics Watch. "Once someone is in office," he adds, "you need to know who they're beholden to."

Sometimes it's obvious who backers are. The Housing and Building Association of Colorado Springs, for example, represents developers and the building industry.

But with others, it's muddier. Take Colorado Springs Forward. It claims supporters ranging from the Regional Business Alliance to the Council of Neighbors and Organizations. CSF gave $30,000 to its PAC on Feb. 9; the next day, the PAC gave $5,000 each to John Suthers in the mayor's race; Merv Bennett, Tom Strand and Jariah Walker in the at-large Council race; and Larry Bagley in the Council District 2 race, the same slate endorsed by the HBA.

Here's another one: Colorado Springs Government Watch. Based at a post office box in Monument, the group gave its Independent Expenditure Committee $14,122 in three payments between Dec. 28 and Jan. 11 and paid GOTV Canvassing, also known as Lincoln Strategy Group, of Tempe, Arizona, those same amounts on those same days to gather signatures to recall Councilor Helen Collins.

Government Watch's registered agent is Mario Nicolais, who appeared at a March 2 recall petition protest hearing on behalf of the recall's leader, Deborah Hendrix. The IEC, in its March 16 report, says Government Watch gave it $32,435, of which $25,000 went to GOTV for "voter outreach" and $7,435 for attorney fees. Who's funding Government Watch isn't clear.

Meanwhile, Colorado Citizens Protecting Our Constitution, of Greenwood Village, gave $10,000 on March 11 to its Independent Expenditure Committee. As of its March 12 report, the committee hadn't recorded an expenditure, but it released a radio ad Tuesday morning that urges support of Suthers, Bagley, Bennett and Strand.

Asked why the group is involved in this election, registered agent Tamra Farah says, "It is a group that promotes smart leadership and conservative public policy statewide, but we have a long history and special focus on the Springs, including the gun recalls."

Toro says it's impossible to know whether the rules are being followed. He suggests Colorado, like some other states, adopt rules that require random audits of committee finances.

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