U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton's latest campaign finance report has raised questions on whether he can effectively mediate a dispute over gas drilling near Carbondale.
Tipton, a Republican from Cortez, organized a meeting Friday between SG Interests, a Houston-based oil and gas company, and the Thompson Divide Coalition, a broad-based citizens' group from Carbondale. SG Interests wants to drill in the Thompson Divide area, west and southwest of Carbondale. The coalition opposes the plan.
The coalition has tried since 2008 to get federal legislation passed to withdraw leasing on public lands in Thompson Divide and to work with leaseholders such as SG Interests to purchase, exchange or retire their existing leases. The coalition says Tipton's help is vital, since he represents the 3rd Congressional District, which includes much of the Roaring Fork Valley.
But Tipton's latest campaign filing with the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) shows he has close ties with SG Interests. In the third quarter of 2011, Tipton reaped $10,600 from executives, investors and other people affiliated with the company, according to his report filed with the FEC.
Russell Gordy of Houston, an owner of SG Interests, contributed $3,000 to the congressman. His wife, Glenda Gordy, contributed $2,500. Shaun Gordy, an engineer with SG Interests, contributed $2,500. Lester Smith, a Houston oilman and investor in the company, contributed $2,500. Thomas Speck, vice president of SG Interests, contributed $100.
Another $7,200 in campaign contributions from persons affiliated with SG Interests were made to Tipton during 2010. All information came from the financial reports filed by Tipton's campaign.
David Donnelly, national campaigns director for Public Campaign, a nonprofit seeking campaign finance reform, said Tipton's latest report demonstrates why reform is so badly needed.
"It's incredible that Scott Tipton would take money from a specific company that could benefit from his decision," Donnelly said. Accepting contributions from people affiliated with SG Interests while mediating the Thompson Divide dispute raised the question: "Is he working for people in Texas or people in his district?" Donnelly said.
He likened SG Interest's contributions to Tipton to a team in the World Series trying to influence an umpire.
"If Tipton is the ump, he's just been paid," Donnelly said.
At a minimum, the contributions should make Thompson Divide Coalition wary, according to Donnelly. "I don't know how he could be direct with these people if he's taking [SG Interests'] money," he said. "These people aren't walking in on a level playing field."
Malcolm McMichael of Carbondale has organized citizen rallies against drilling in Thompson Divide, although he isn't part of the coalition's leadership. He said he is aware of SG Interests' contributions and noted the reported donations are only a portion of the total money involved in the campaign system. Unlimited, secret money can now be contributed to 527 organizations, which help candidates or causes, and to Political Action Committees.
"The financial relationship between Congressman Tipton and SG makes me uneasy," McMichael said. "The timing of the donations, at a period when the drilling issue is heating up, yet still over a year from the election, is a curious coincidence to say the least."
McMichael said it stands to reason that corporations view their contributions as "an investment in obtaining the legislative outcomes they desire."
"I'd like to hear from the congressman how he reconciles his acceptance of donations from owners of companies with controversial plans for drilling - companies from outside his district - with his obligation to represent the interest of his constituents, constituents who have clearly demonstrated that they overwhelmingly oppose those plans," McMichael wrote in an email interview with The Aspen Times.
Tipton's press secretary, Josh Green, declined requests for interviews, but he sent a statement on the SG Interests' donations.
"Rep. Tipton has received contributions from both sides of the issue, including Sue Anschutz-Rodgers on the opposite side of SG," Green wrote. "Additionally, I would like to point out that Rep. Tipton has been engaged with all stakeholders in the discussion, working to encourage their discussion and find consensus between them."
Anschutz-Rodgers, owner of Crystal River Ranch outside of Carbondale, is a Republican party supporter and a rancher aligned with the Thompson Divide Coalition. Sources connected with the coalition credit her with providing a pathway to Tipton for the coalition. Anschutz-Rodgers made two donations in July to the Tipton campaign for a combined $5,000, according to Tipton's latest report.
Sloan Shoemaker, executive director of Wilderness Workshop, which is assisting the Thompson Divide Coalition, declined extensive comment about Tipton's campaign contributions. He said he hopes contributions from Texas residents and business interests won't outweigh the interests of the congressman's constituents.
Luis Toro is director of Colorado Ethics Watch, a nonprofit organization created by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Both organizations take legal action to hold public officials accountable.
Toro said Tipton's acceptance of campaign contributions from a company that may benefit from his decisions is nothing new in Congress. Members from both parties regularly collect such questionable contributions.
"The public perception of Congress is at an all-time low because of issues like this," he said.
Campaign finance reports are designed to keep the public informed. "The idea is, we have transparency so people in Carbondale can ask questions," Toro said.
Public Campaign's analysis of Tipton's third-quarter campaign finance report indicates he received at least $27,175 in contributions from the oil and gas industry. Donnelly contended it is a prime example of how elected officials "scoop up" contributions without regard to consequences.
Concerned citizens need to express their opinions to the elected officials, educate other voters and support organizations fighting for campaign finance reform, Donnelly said. And they should hold elected officials accountable on Election Day.
"For too long, members of Congress have gotten along without feeling any political pain" for accepting questionable contributions, he said.
Carbondale activist McMichael said the core of the issue is how Tipton views the contributions from SG Interests and if he will listen to the broad-based coalition opposed to the gas company's plan.
"I do hope that he recognizes the value in protecting this particular place due to its unique characteristics and special value to the community," he said.