Mayor Coffman sues Aurora over local dark money campaign reform law

Mayor Mike Coffman

AURORA | The mayor of Aurora has sued the city he represents over changes made by city council affecting campaign finance, a bill he voted against.

Mayor Mike Coffman has filed a lawsuit against Aurora and the city clerk, aiming to reverse recently enacted campaign finance rules. 

In the suit, Coffman alleges the new finance structures infringe on his free speech and choke his ability to effectively raise money for himself and other municipal candidates and causes. 

“That new law prohibits Mayor Coffman (and others like him) from doing anything effective to campaign for another candidate or in support of a ballot issue. In essence, it unconstitutionally restricts the rights to free speech and association for both candidates in the current election cycle and others who could potentially run in some future election,” the lawsuit says of the rules. 

The nine-page complaint was penned on Coffman’s behalf by attorney Dan Burrows, who is affiliated with the Lakewood-based Public Trust Institute, a conservative non-profit group “created to uphold our state’s constitution and defend the principles of individual freedom and personal responsibility on which Colorado was founded,” according to the group’s website. The suit was filed in Arapahoe County District Court shortly before 10 a.m. March 17, a clerk confirmed.

Specifically, Coffman’s lawsuit takes issue with rules in the new law that prevent candidates from becoming involved in each others’ campaigns — including fundraising. The mayor is technically still a candidate for a 2023 reelection bid, although he hasn’t publicly announced whether he’ll run. 

The lawsuit drew immediate criticism from some city council members.

“We have the city’s mayor using taxpayer money to sue the city on an issue that provides for transparency and accountability in elections — and it’s an issue that as mayor that he can’t vote on,” said Council member Nicole Johnston, a chief author of the campaign finance reform measure.  “The mayor is suing the city, using taxpayer money, to make it easier for him to keep himself involved in dark money politics that have plagued city elections.

“It’s unfathomable that he would spend scarce city resources on this issue instead of addressing real city problems,” she added.  

The lawsuit was filed by a group of political activists. Aurora must pay to defend the measure.

The lawsuit immediately raised ethical questions about how the city council would handle advice and details of a lawsuit in executive session filed by a member of the council, Coffman.

Coffman says in the lawsuit that he already supports a candidate in the 2021 city council race and wants to help funnel money into the person’s campaign. 

He told the Sentinel that candidate is Dustin Zvonek. He’s a candidate for an at-large seat who was Coffman’s spokesperson, campaign manager and aide when he represented the 6th Congressional district in Congress.

Zvonek also worked with the conservative political group Americans for Prosperity and Unite for Colorado, whose expenditure committee has helped fund political campaigns for conservative candidates but does not disclose its own donors.

The origins of Coffman’s disagreement with the campaign finance rules lay in the politics surrounding the expansive campaign finance reforms that will now govern the 2021 election cycle, which is beginning to heat up. 

A majority of city lawmakers in November approved a plan penned by council members Nicole Johnston and Juan Marcano with the help of left-leaning campaign finance advocacy groups. 

Marcano said that process also included legal reviews from city staff and the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center. He said the rules are constitutionally sound.

“There was nothing that raised a flag,” he said.

Coffman, a Republican who has held a slew of public offices in the state since the 1980s, has pitted himself against Johnston, Marcano and other council Democratic council members, saying they pushed the recent financial retooling “to shut him up,” according to the complaint. 

“The Mayor’s political opponents convinced the City of Aurora to pass a law to entrench the current power structures and sideline people, like Mayor Coffman, who want to change the system,” the suit alleges.

The new municipal finance law created a cap on the amount of money that a committee or an individual can contribute to a candidate. Corporations, business entities and political groups have to register with the city and set up a special entity to contribute money and resources or donate directly to a candidate.

Sponsors said the rules are intended to make it easier for Aurora residents to track the dark money contributions that have flooded races in recent years. 

Plus, contributors and candidates can face steep fines if they intentionally flout rules. 

Coffman voted against that proposal after pushing his own plan for more relaxed rules, but he’d failed to earn enough support from other lawmakers. 

Both Coffman and the prevailing duo had agreed that campaign finance in Aurora was out of control. 

The 2019 election that brought Coffman to the helm of city government clocked in as the most expensive in Aurora history. The mayor’s race alone eclipsed more than $1 million in spending, much of it in the form of large donations from individuals representing oil and gas, development and big political interests from both sides of the aisle. 

Coffman netted 223 donations of more than $1,000 in his mayoral bid, according to the suit.

He edged Democratic challenger Omar Montgomery by some 200 votes.

Coffman’s counsel have 63 days to serve their suit on Aurora city attorneys and Clerk Kadee Rodriguez.

City spokesperson Ryan Luby said attorneys are still reviewing the suit.

“The Aurora City Attorney’s Office (CAO) is still reviewing the lawsuit, so it would be improper for us to comment on it at this time,” Luby wrote in an email. “However, the CAO defends any policy or law that is supported by the City Council as a body.”

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FeelingsAreNotFacts
FeelingsAreNotFacts
6 months ago

Did councilmember Johnston purposely lie or was she merely ignorant when she twice said the lawsuit was on the taxpayers’ dime?

freeatlast
freeatlast
6 months ago

What an absolute JERK Coffman is! Obviously, he is putting his own personal interests (and desire to hide shady campaign finances) ahead of the interests of Aurora and Aurorans. Shame on him. 2023 can’t come quickly enough!

Owen Perkins
Owen Perkins
6 months ago

Athough the article cites Coffman as pitting himself against Democratic Council members with his taxpayer-funded lawsuit against his city, it is worth noting that a) Aurora municipal offices are non-partisan, and b) the Council members supporting the campaign finance ordinance that passed 7-3 in November include those whose affiliations are Republican, Democratic, and Unaffiliated.

Dale Nichols
Dale Nichols
6 months ago

Here are some of Coffman’s 2019 contributors. These are the people he really serves, not the people of Aurora. These are the kind of contributions prohibited by the ordinance he wants to overturn.
$40,000 total from RIDA Realty Investments Group, of Houston, and from four individuals associated with it. This was the company that developed the Gaylord Rockies hotel.
$25,000 from RAL Holdings LLC, one of several companies in Greenwood Village owned by Robert Arthur Lembke. One of those others is RAL Petroleum LLC.
$15,000 from Top Rock LLC of Denver, which “primarily operates in the Loan Agents business/industry within the Nondepository Credit Institutions sector.” The owner is Ralph Nagel, who “started a $100 million investment fund that aims to invest in distressed companies and real estate.”
$10,000 from Allan and Diana Heinle of Centennial, who claim “More than 80 years combined experience in the valuation of oil and gas interests in producing wells and offset undeveloped acreage.”
$10,000 from Philip and Nancy Anschutz of Denver.
$10,000 from Terry Considine of Denver, “a former Republican politician [state senator] and the founder, chairman, and CEO of Aimco [the huge builder and operator of apartments]. He is also a co-founder of and member of the board of directors of Club for Growth, a conservative organization. He is also a member of the board of directors of the Bradley Foundation, a supporter of right-wing causes…”
$10,000 total from Larry Canarelli and Strategic Acquisition Fund, a venture capital operation. He is the founder and CEO of American West Homes.
$10,000 from LaFawn Biddle of Denver, the widow of a prominent oil wildcatter.
$10,000 from Mary Pat Link and John Strohm of LittletonFarrell-Roeh Group, a manufacturer of mobile homes.

FeelingsAreNotFacts
FeelingsAreNotFacts
6 months ago
Reply to  Dale Nichols

While you are uber concerned with how private citizens choose to support candidates based on their values, I bet you are all in on establishing a taxpayer fund to make small donations increase by 10X as Denver has done. In other words, stealing my tax dollars to support candidates that I don’t even want in office.

I’d be very surprised if the socialists/progressives on the council aren’t already working on this.

Karen Smith
Karen Smith
6 months ago

The concern is with fairness and transparency in elections. But surely you’ll keep gaslighting people with the whole “my tax dollars” schtick.

Dale Nichols
Dale Nichols
6 months ago

Citizen-funded elections support both the candidates you don’t want and the ones you do want. That’s why we have elections: the candidates compete for our votes, and hopefully, the best person wins. Contribution limits just level the playing field so that special interests don’t have a big advantage over ordinary people like you and me who want to serve the community and decide to run for office.

Tom Hutcherson
6 months ago

Another Republican just trying to pack the ballot. Idiot.

Maryjane
Maryjane
6 months ago

I didn’t even have a clue this was happening. I’m so glad I started getting The Sentinel

Dale Nichols
Dale Nichols
6 months ago

We just got rid of one monumentally narcissistic politician in Washington, but we’re still burdened with another in Aurora. Mike is convinced that this was all about him, that it was his enemies specifically targeting him.
“Mike Coffman’s political opponents want to shut him up. And they’ve enlisted the government to help them do it… The Mayor’s political opponents are worried that if Mayor Coffman is able to campaign for the candidates and ideas he likes, he might actually convince his fellow citizens to vote for those policies… And so, the Mayor’s political opponents convinced the City of Aurora to pass a law to entrench the current power structures and sideline people, like Mayor Coffman, who want to change the system… Mayor Coffman’s political opponents wish to sideline him in future elections—i.e., they wish to neutralize his name recognition and fundraising ability so that he cannot effectively advocate for his preferred policies and candidates… this sidelining was one of the purposes of passing the ordinance in question.”

vern
vern
6 months ago

Well lets see…elect your friends… and presto we have a culture like NY cuomo, protected from being called out on wrong Doing. I think anyone can support the candidate but it seems reasonable to have to do it at some arms length… blinds for donations so there are no strings. And at last view you couldn’t use your office or do things on City time. Sorry I think your obligation to Aurora is 24/7… not like a dog catcher voting for City council.

Ronald Bruce
Ronald Bruce
6 months ago

Mayor Coffman and The Public Trust Institute – ‘nough said.

Susan
Susan
6 months ago

Quite the ego thinking that campaign finance reform was passed by the majority of city council members just to shut up the mayor, as opposed to this ordinance passing to establish needed reform and transparency in local government . And now tax payers have to fund this nonsense? Will this get rid of dark money?

DICK MOORE
6 months ago

Thank you, Mayor. As you knew, at the time it was passed, that many parts of the Campaign Finance amendment were Unconstitutional. Now we can find out through the courts. Those in the know, know that there are hidden agenda’s within the amendment that help Socialists and left wingers get elected. All the Developers, business men and filthy rich republicans, who the Socialists despise, will rarely give them any cash and now they have stopped them from giving any to anybody. And this is the “legal” part of the amendment. Great strategy, I suppose.
I hope those of you Aurora Citizens that want small Aurora government back remember these Socialist moves next November.