Thursday, March 16, 2017

Spotlight on dark money in Colorado Springs city election

Posted By on Thu, Mar 16, 2017 at 5:16 PM

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"Dark money" flowing into the Colorado Springs City Council election comes at least in part from a group first formed to fight gun-control legislation, which is dominated by Republican heavyweights outside of Colorado Springs.

Colorado Citizens Protecting Our Constitution isn't new to local politics. Its Independent Expenditure Committee spent $76,000 in the 2015 election, canvassing, issuing mailers and buying phone banks in support of Mayor John Suthers and the candidacies of Council members Tom Strand and Larry Bagley and Council President Merv Bennett.

It didn't disclose where the money came from; hence, the "dark money" label.

Here's an ad that CCPOC sponsored in that election.

This year, it's spent $72,000 so far to support management consultant Chuck Fowler, who's running in District 3 against businessman and former vice mayor Richard Skorman, and also to help District 6 incumbent Andy Pico, who has three opponents. (Those are the candidates for whom CCPOC has funded mailers — so far.) The City Council races are nonpartisan.

While CCPOC hasn't divulged where its money comes from in this election, past associations suggest that local developers have helped fund its efforts in local elections. More on that later.

For all those who are not political junkies, you can stop reading now. We're about to get down in the weeds on the CCPOC. In short, CCPOC involves mostly, if not exclusively, Republican operatives who have been heavy hitters either by holding office or working behind the scenes. And those figures appear to have an intense interest in our local political scene as well as at least indirect connections within the local business and development community.

CCPOC was formed in 2013 by Andy Nickel, who the Denver Post reported a while back led state House GOP campaign efforts in 2012.  Nickel, a lawyer in Denver, interned for the U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Neil Gorsuch, who's nominated to become a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

An organizer for CCPOC told the Post the group formed to advocate for responsible gun owners. After that, Republicans recalled several Democrats who had voted to adopt stricter gun-control measures, including Senate President John Morse of Colorado Springs.

Since then, Gwendolyn Benevento, at attorney in the Denver office of Holland & Hart, has filed paperwork on CCPOC's behalf. The firm's website says she:

represents clients on state and local ballot measures and advises federal and state candidates and elected officials. She advises corporate clients on various matters, including corporate compliance. She was former Chief Legal Counsel to Colorado Governor Bill Owens, having served as Legislative Assistant to United States Senator Wayne Allard.

In November, Katie Kennedy took over CCPOC. The Colorado Secretary of State's Office lists more than 60 politically oriented groups for which Kennedy is listed as registered agent. She gives two addresses on various filings, one a townhome and the other an apartment in Denver. Among those groups, which appear to be largely conservative and Republican causes, are Conservative Leadership PAC, Colorado Liberty Fund, Senate Republican Caucus, Reagan Justice for Colorado, Colorado Republican Leadership Fund, Conservatives for a Better Colorado and Western Republican Values.

Others involved in CCPOC include:

• Dede Laugesen, wife of Gazette editorial page editor Wayne Laugesen. Her firm, Windover Media, is handling the 2017 city election efforts on behalf of CCPOC.

• Josh Penry, former Senate minority leader and Republican gubernatorial candidate. He's employed by EIS Solutions, a Denver-based firm that works in legislative affairs, public and media relations, government affairs, and grassroots mobilization, according to its website.

(Penry's wife, Kristin Strohm, is a managing partner of Starboard Group. Starboard's Kitt Smith was Suthers' campaign manager in 2015. Suthers says Smith was overseen by Starboard's other managing partner, Katie Behnke. He also says there was no coordination between his campaign and CCPOC. It's illegal for a 527 organization such as CCPOC to coordinate with candidates' campaigns. Penry says via email, "We employ legal counsel to ensure strict compliance with Colorado’s campaign finance laws. There was no coordination." And Strohm says in an email she did not work on Suthers' campaign.)

In 2015, CCPOC conducted voter canvassing, robo calls and mailers advocating for the election of Strand, Bagley, Bennett and Suthers.

According to emails obtained by the Independent, it appears Doug Stimple and Ralph Braden, Colorado Springs developers associated with Classic Homes and Nor'wood Development Group respectively (two of the biggest donors to city elections over the years and including this year), were in touch (at least indirectly) with CCPOC amid the 2015 election cycle.

Here's a Feb. 23, 2015, email from Stimple to Braden and William Mutch, who then served as political consultant for Colorado Springs Forward, and copied to Nor'wood Development Group's Chris Jenkins:
We should pound Joel and Helen for not voting for the airport zone that attracted Sierra Nevada. Especially since that is in Helens district and will benefit that area and schools etc. just shows they are out of touch.
Joel Miller had resigned his Council seat to run for mayor during that election. City Councilor Helen Collins, representing the southeast District 4, was facing a recall vote in that election.

The message was then sent by Mutch to Penry — remember he's associated with CCPOC  — and Jake Zambrano, who also works for EIS Solutions and specializes in state government relations, public affairs, grassroots advocacy, and political campaign management, the EIS website says.

Zambrano then forwards the message to Jia Meeks, who's described on a communications firm's website as specializing in policy research and evaluation, media relations, and grassroots mobilization. Zambrano wrote to Meeks, saying, "Please find associated votes for the research binder."
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(Stimple, Braden and Jenkins have donated to a slate of candidates in this year's City Council race who are also backed by the Housing and Building Association of Colorado Springs and Colorado Springs Forward.)

We've contacted Stimple, Braden, Jenkins, Mutch and Colorado Springs Forward for a comment and will update when and if we hear back.

CCPOC's canvassing numbers were reported by Black Diamond Outreach, a Denver area firm, to Zambrano and Mutch on March 24, 2015. One of those copied on the message was James Rankin, with Black Diamond at that time and now project manager at Rocky Mountain Voter Outreach. Rankin has supervised canvass offices across Colorado, including in Colorado Springs, and led petition collections, ballot issue campaigns, "message crafting" and data analysis.
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