Complaint filed against group that slimed Democratic Garfield County Commission candidates |

Complaint filed against group that slimed Democratic Garfield County Commission candidates

Pete Fowler
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado ” A group called Colorado Ethics Watch filed a campaign finance complaint Friday against a nonprofit that paid for at least one mailing to smear a Democratic Garfield County Commission candidate in the fall.

The complaint was filed with the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office against the Colorado League of Taxpayers for failure to file an electioneering communication report in the last Garfield County Commission election. Colorado Ethics Watch says the Colorado League of Taxpayers (CLT) never filed the electioneering communication report with the Secretary of State or the Garfield County Clerk and Recorder’s Office by a Sept. 29 deadline.

The complaint focuses on a mailing sent to Garfield County citizens in September advocating against Rifle attorney Steve Carter, who was a candidate for the county commission. The mailing featured a wolf howling at the moon and the text, “Steve Carter … His massive tax-and-spend agenda is making taxpayers howl!”

“That’s the one that on the back of it says that I’m a Boulder liberal,” Carter said.

He went to high school and college in Boulder 35 years ago. He said that attack and others were “bogus” and he approves Colorado Ethics Watch’s decision to file the complaint.

Although the complaint focuses on only one mailing, outside groups including the CLT spent more than $50,000 to try and influence voters in the county commissioner race in the fall in a county that is a battleground for the future of oil and gas development. A Montana-based environmental organization spent about $13,000 to support Democratic candidates Stephen Bershenyi and Carter, but the candidates and some area mayors said that groups supporting Democrats registered properly and acted transparently.

As of Oct. 24, around $31,500 went to ads supporting Republican candidates or attacking Democratic ones, while around $14,200 went to ads supporting Democratic candidates or bashing Republican candidates.

A group called the Western Slope Independent sent out what was called a fake newspaper just days before the election with articles attacking Bershenyi and Carter. Bershenyi and Carter have said those attacks and others were false and libelous. One article suggested Bershenyi is a “well to do” multimillionaire. Bershenyi, a blacksmith and artist, has said he has a second job of driving a school bus to help pay for his family’s health insurance.

A group of area mayors endorsed the Democratic candidates and decried the outside spending on ads attacking them. They said much of the funding came from the oil and gas industry to support the Republicans and was done by groups that failed to properly register or report the source of funds. Commissioner John Martin, who beat Bershenyi in a close race, said then the mayors were hypocritical for not forming their own political action committee because they endorsed candidates as a group in political ads. He couldn’t be immediately reached but previously called the mailings “dishonorable.”

Commissioners Tresi Houpt, who was re-elected in 2006 and Mike Samson, a 2008 winning candidate, also couldn’t be immediately reached. All the candidates involved in the election said they didn’t know about or authorize the expenditures meant to help them.

Colorado Ethics Watch argues that CLT could be liable for fines of $50 per day for a delinquent report totaling over $7,000. The group says it is still reviewing other mailings for possible violations. The complaint will likely be turned over to an administrative law judge who will hear from both sides and make a ruling.

CLT is registered to Scott Shires, of Aurora. CLT was reportedly fined $650 in 2008 for similar behavior in a Weld County Commission race. Carter said the same wolf and moon mailing was used in that instance.

“It’s unfortunate that that happened in a Garfield County campaign,” Carter said.

He commended Samson for quickly denouncing the mailings, but added, “What’s more disturbing is the local Republican party has just not said a word about it. … They apparently think that’s OK because they haven’t said otherwise.”

Milt Blakey, chair of the county’s Republican Party, said, “Frankly I paid very little attention to (the mailings) because we didn’t have anything to do with them. I can’t even recall now what any of them said. I’m in no position to comment on whether they were accurate or not.”

Both Carter, who lost a close race to Samson, and Bershenyi thought the mailings may have swung the election, due to the fact that they were ahead until the last minute, when they said the worst of the mailings were sent out. Bershenyi also said he received anecdotal evidence like hearing about people standing in line to vote in western Garfield County and asking over cell phones, “Who’s the guy I’m supposed to vote against again?”

Bershenyi’s campaign forwarded the mailings to Colorado Ethics Watch for review.

“I hope they pursue it because I don’t see that as being a legitimate part of the political process,” Bershenyi said. “I don’t mind having a good, vigorous debate on the issues. I don’t mind defending my position, but I really am disgusted that people think they have the right to completely destroy someone else’s character as campaign tool.”

Bershenyi is running uncontested for a Glenwood Springs City Council seat.

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