In the fall months of an election year, political mailers are a dime a dozen. Such literature is now piling up in Pueblo, where multiple ballot questions aim to stop retail cannabis, there's a concerted campaign lined up against the proposals, and grassroots conflicts have become an all-out battle.
Amid viral videos of unsavory exchanges between picketers and their detractors, a litany of lawsuits and spurned debate invitations, accusations of impropriety already abound. Now, a new matter to be adjudicated: the mailers.
On Tuesday, a representative with the pro-pot campaign Growing Pueblo's Future filed a formal complaint accusing the anti-pot issue committee Citizens for a Healthy Pueblo of violating campaign finance law.
"When the first one without any disclosure of who's paying went out, I thought it was a mistake," says Jim Parco, economics professor at Colorado College and owner of Mesa Organics. "But then there was a second, and another went out yesterday, which to me looks like a pattern of misbehavior."
That's why Parco, who's not an attorney and was not advised by one, went ahead and sent a complaint to the Secretary of State's office in Denver. It alleged that two mailers and a door hanger with no indication of who paid for them violate state law that says "an issue committee making an expenditure in excess of one thousand dollars on a communication that supports or opposes a statewide ballot issue or ballot question and that is broadcast by television or radio, printed in a newspaper or on a billboard, directly mailed or delivered by hand to personal residences, or otherwise distributed shall disclose, in the communication produced by the expenditure, the name of the issue committee making the expenditure."
A representative with Citizens for a Healthy Pueblo, former cop Charlene Graham, denied culpability.
"We didn't send them out, so how can we be held responsible for them?" she asks, adding that there are a number of other local, state and national groups supporting their cause. She says "it doesn't matter" who's behind them.
The next day came another clue. At a forum hosted by Growing Pueblo's Future, an audience member brandished yet another mailer, this one emblazoned with the name "Safer Pueblo." Turns out, that's a nonprofit whose registered agent is the "Corporation Company" based in Centennial. There's no record it ever filed as a 527 issue committee, meaning it can't engage in this kind of electioneering.
On Friday, Parco withdrew his complaint against Citizens for a Healthy Pueblo and filed two new ones: one against Safer Pueblo and one against "the Media Center," whose name appears on yet another anti-pot mailer that surfaced. It too doesn't appear to be appropriately registered with the state. The Indy reached out to the addresses listed on those groups' filings with the Secretary of State's office, but didn't hear back by press time.
"Now, the question is what special interest groups are funding them?" says Parco. "It sure looks like dark money here."
It was already clear that dark money was in play. A list of contributors to Citizens for a Healthy Pueblo features mostly modest amounts from individuals except for a $10,000 donation from Warm Homes, Warm Hearts — a nonprofit corporation that doesn't disclose donors. Registered agent for the group is the same Grand Junction attorney, Erik Groves, who served as legal counsel for the 2013 recall effort against Democratic lawmakers who voted for gun control. In that campaign, his group was aided by out-of-state interests including the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity.
"When you look at the legalization effort going on in Arizona right now, you see these huge pharmaceutical companies funding the opposition," Parco says, calling that "disturbing."
This late in the game, the issue with the mailers is unlikely to have any material effect on the outcome. That's because adjudicating this kind of complaint takes about 35 days, pushing resolution to near or beyond election day.
But it's more about integrity than impact. "This industry is all about compliance because we know as Colorado goes, so goes the rest of the country," he says. "So we just want everyone to play by the rules in elections, too."