Dark money controversy fuels churlish campaign for Centennial state Senate seat

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DENVER | Suzanne Staiert’s state Senate campaign slogan is “Practical. Not Political.”

But the Republican competing for an open Centennial seat is finding herself in the midst of a political maelstrom and new questions are surfacing about her work as a lawyer.

Staiert is representing a dark money nonprofit whose affiliated super PAC spent $175,000 on advertising supporting her campaign.

It’s the newest twist in a nasty campaign filled with mailers and digital and TV advertising that question her past job as deputy secretary of state. She even filed a criminal complaint regarding one of the mailers that she says is false.

Staiert faces Democrat Chris Kolker, a financial planner, in a seat being vacated by current Republican state Sen. Jack Tate. Kolker is an afterthought in the campaign, barely mentioned in the messages from outside political groups who are aiming at Staiert, the attorney who pressed ethics complaints against former Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper.

More than $508,000 in outside spending is targeting Senate District 27, most of it opposing Staiert. It’s one of the Democratic Party’s top legislative contests in the November election, and a Sun analysis shows the district is seeing the most outside money of any statehouse race so far.

The latest questions in the campaign center on a complaint involving Unite for Colorado, the conservative nonprofit organization whose affiliated campaign arm is working to elect Staiert.

Unite for Colorado — its work ranging from pushing ballot initiatives to subtly opposing Hickenlooper in the U.S. Senate race — is the subject of a complaint filed with the Secretary of State’s Office by Scott Wasserman, the president of Bell Policy Center and Bell Action Network.

In late August, as first reported in The Sun’s Unaffiliated political newsletter, Wasserman alleged that Unite for Colorado provided inappropriate financial help to two ballot campaigns — propositions 116 and 117 — on taxes and fees, arguing that Unite for Colorado should have filed as an issue committee and disclosed its donors under state law.

Staiert is Unite for Colorado’s lawyer. But that nonprofit also funded Unite for Colorado Action, which paid for ads supporting Staiert’s campaign.

Wasserman questioned whether the relationship between Staiert and Unite violates laws that prohibit coordination between candidates and independent spending committees.

“It’s really brazen,” Wasserman said in an interview. “It’s really shocking that she doesn’t even see the appearance of impropriety.”

Chris Murray, a Republican election lawyer, questioned the idea that it’s illegal. The state’s coordination rules require direct requests or suggestions by a candidate to an outside group, said Murray, who works for Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. Both Staiert and the leader of Unite for Colorado say that has not happened.

“It’s a fact pattern you don’t see very often,” Murray said of Staiert representing a group that’s also helping her campaign. But, he added, “I don’t see how it would indicate coordination just off the top of my head.”

Ethics questions are part of broader attacks on Staiert

In an interview, Staiert insisted her work with Unite for Colorado doesn’t constitute coordination. “If they want to file a complaint and say they think it’s a conflict, they should do that, but there’s nothing,” she said. “I have not coordinated with them.”

Instead, she pointed to the Democratic super PAC sending numerous mailings and airing ads against her at a cost of more than $310,000. She said Leading Colorado Forward is trying to “dehumanize” her and filed a criminal complaint against the group saying a recent mailer made a false statement.

“It’s been really just stressful and unpleasant,” she said. “They’re just trying to buy a seat in the Senate and they don’t care how they get it.”

Staiert was deputy to two former Republican secretaries of state, Wayne Williams and Scott Gessler. When Williams lost reelection in 2018, she left the office early the following year.

Soon, she became executive director of the Public Trust Institute, where she helped pursue ethics complaints against Hickenlooper, who is now challenging Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner.

In early June, the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission found Hickenlooper violated state ethics law in two instances, when he took a flight in a corporate jet owned by a former campaign donor and accepted a limousine ride at a conference in Italy.

Those violations have since featured prominently in TV ads from Gardner and several outside groups, including Unite for Colorado. The Unite ads featuring Hickenlooper criticize the state for spending $150,000 from a federal relief fund to pay his legal bills in the case.

Gessler, Staiert’s former boss, also faced ethics complaints in 2013 for using state money to go to a political event. Gessler’s unsuccessful appeal of his ethics violation cost the state of Colorado more than $500,000 in legal fees. Staiert didn’t represent Gessler or even testify in that case. But Leading Colorado Forward sent a mailer criticizing her for the cost of the defense.

Other recent mailers cite 2013 tweets from Staiert’s since-deleted account that criticized the ethics commission as a “kangaroo court.” That mailer called her a “Trump-like Twitter troll.”

Asked what’s changed about the ethics commission since 2013, when she slammed it on Twitter, Staiert said the makeup of the group is entirely different.

Spotlight focuses on Unite for Colorado’s campaign spending

Unite for Colorado’s work in the 2020 campaign is helping conservative causes up and down the ballot. The nonprofit does not disclose its donors.

In addition to the signature gathering to help the two ballot campaigns and attacking Hickenlooper in TV ads, two Unite for Colorado Action super PACs were formed in August at the federal and state level.

The federal group doesn’t have to disclose information about spending or donors until Oct. 15.

At the state level, all the super PAC’s $1 million in donations are from the nonprofit.

The state super PAC spent $752,000 through Sept. 21 to boost Staiert’s campaign and help Republicans in three other state Senate contests. State law prohibits independent spending groups, which can take unlimited donations and spend unlimited amounts, from coordinating with candidates or political parties.
Dustin Zvonek, the CEO for Unite for Colorado, also dismissed Wasserman’s concerns about potential coordination or the appearance of it.

“What do they think coordination is?” he asked. “She does not represent the (super PAC). My interaction with Suzanne is on issues related to these ballot measures.”

Still, a Unite mailer features photos and quotes from Staiert’s campaign website. That’s common practice, however.

Meanwhile, Staiert is already the subject of a complaint made in May noting that when she filed to run as a candidate, she provided a 2018 income tax return instead of filling out a personal financial disclosure form. The complaint says the tax filing didn’t list any 2019 employers such as the Public Trust Institute or Maven Law Group, where she is of counsel. And it argues that incumbent lawmakers may file tax returns instead of the state form, but that the provision doesn’t apply to candidates.

Staiert filed the traditional form in late May listing Maven and her own law firm, along with jobs held by her daughters. But a motion to dismiss the complaint was rejected in July by Deputy Secretary of State Ian Rayder, who was appointed by Democrat Jena Griswold.

The issue goes to a hearing Sept. 30, with a lawyer from the Colorado Attorney General’s Office representing the Secretary of State’s office. Staiert said she asked that an outside attorney be appointed instead, but that request was rejected.

“The day after I asked them to do that” is when Attorney General Phil Weiser, a Democrat, endorsed her opponent, she said. A Weiser spokesman said he recuses himself from supervising such cases.

 Big outside money fueling attacks in legislative race

The other outstanding issue is the criminal complaint Staiert filed with the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office against the Democratic group Leading Colorado Forward. The mailer from the group said she “tried to silence the truth” when a freelance reporter claimed in 2018 that Williams had purged hundreds of thousands of voters from Colorado rolls. Staiert said that isn’t true. Colorado law prohibits false statements in campaign ads.

Staiert said she asked the reporter to correct a report about the co-called “purge” because of calls from concerned county clerks. A 9News story concluded that the reporter’s blog post was misleading, and even Griswold, who defeated Williams in 2018, agreed.

Senate District 27 is considered to lean Democratic and is one of the possible pick-up opportunities for Democrats to cushion or maintain their current 19-16 majority.

Even as political organizations target Staiert, she has received more than $177,000 in outside support from Unite for Colorado and Americans For Prosperity Action. Zvonek, the leader of Unite for Colorado, previously worked in numerous capacities for AFP, the conservative organization backed by Charles Koch. Kolker has seen about $16,000 in outside spending supporting him and none opposing him, according to the latest reports.

“They haven’t spent anything pumping their own candidate up and they’ve just spent all the money trying to tear me down,” Staiert said.

Meanwhile, Kolker has outraised Staiert, bringing in more than $140,000 to her $62,000, according to state campaign finance reports.

Kolker said he’s focused on his campaign, not the outside groups spending on the contest.

“I’m focused on my message and what I can do for Colorado,” he said in an interview. “I believe in talking about myself. That’s why I’m raising money, so I can get my message out and focus on what I have to say.”

This story is a part of #FollowtheMoneyCO, a project of the Colorado News Collaborative (COLab), edited by The Colorado Sun with support from the Colorado Media Project.