Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Complaint filed in treasurer race

Posted By on Tue, Jun 10, 2014 at 3:47 PM

County Assessor Mark Lowderman is being accused of violating campaign finance rules by his opponent's campaign.

click to enlarge Lowderman: I 've done nothing wrong.
  • Lowderman: I 've done nothing wrong.
Former county commissioner Duncan Bremer had his son, Eli, call media, shopping the story around last week.

Then, on June 6, a formal complaint was filed with the Secretary of State's Office by Colorado Springs political activist Karen McCormick, who says she discovered the issue through a network of friends. 

"It's not right to bill taxpayers for what I consider a political campaign," she says.

In a nutshell, Lowderman, assessor since 2007, is accused of sending a mailer to seniors who qualify for the homestead tax exemption on their homes in May — shortly before ballots were mailed for the June 24 primary election. This, Bremer contends, was an illegal campaign contribution by the Assessor's Office. Campaign finance laws bar governments from spending money to support candidates.

The letters sent by Lowderman did not say, "Vote for Lowderman," or contain any campaign message. Rather, they gave information about the program, which exempts half of the first $100,000 of value half of a property's value, up to $100,000, from property taxes for seniors' homes owned by them for at least 10 years. About 22,000 seniors qualify in El Paso County.

Here's the complaint:

We were contacted on June 5 by Eli Bremer, who served as chairman of the El Paso County GOP during a turbulent time when the tea party was in ascendence. We asked him what other media had been advised, and he said he had contacted the Gazette two days before, but nothing happened. The Gazette ran a story in today's edition.

"The complaint will allege he did this for campaign reasons," Eli Bremer told us. "They [Assessor's Office employees] have never done this before [send out letters about the senior exemption]." He also alleged that none of the state's representatives, who determine whether to fund the exemption approved by voters years ago, "remember him advocating for it."

Bremer says it's wrong to spend about $7,200 in county money in coordination with a campaign. "It was done for the purpose of influencing an election," he says. "That makes it electioneering."

Lowderman says Bremer is wrong.

The assessor says he's advocated for funding the exemption for years, and worked closely with Rep. Marsha Looper and other lawmakers on the issue. He also says he sent similar letters in 2009 and 2010.

"It didn't have a damn thing to do with the campaign. I've done nothing wrong," Lowderman says in an interview. "First of all, I’ve been a staunch advocate of the senior program since I took office, and I ran on that platform in 2006. I testified multiple years, a couple of times when the program was going to be unfunded."

He says he planned to send a letter to seniors to advise them the program had been funded, if it was, which wasn't decided until May when the General Assembly adopted the state budget.

"If funding changes," he says, "people get confused."

When County Treasurer Bob Balink sent out tax bills in 2013, he failed to check the box showing whether someone qualified for the program, causing a lot of confusion and a lot of phone calls, Lowderman says. He simply wanted taxpayers to know they had qualified for the program, and that it would be funded for another year.

As for allegations about a news conference that referenced the senior exemption, Lowderman says that wasn't his idea but he obliged when asked by other county officials to participate.

Luis Toro, an attorney and executive director of Colorado Ethics Watch, says if McCormick can prove the assessor letter was coordinated with the campaign, "it could get interesting."

"One has to prove that the spending was intended to help the campaign, and that's very difficult," he says. "Public officials have a way of coming up with explanations that administrative law judges don't like to second-guess. Otherwise, it's one of those unfair advantages of incumbency."

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