Rocky article omitted Coffman's campaign finance violation as state treasurer

››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

In an article profiling the candidates for Colorado Secretary of State, the Rocky Mountain News reported the race "will be a choice of trust and character" and noted the candidates' positions on campaign finance reform but neglected to mention Republican candidate Mike Coffman was fined for violating state campaign finance law.

An October 23 Rocky Mountain News article profiling Colorado secretary of state candidates Mike Coffman (R-Aurora) and Ken Gordon (D-Denver), reported that "Coffman has not made campaign financing a key part of his run for office" and that "he says well-meaning reform has backfired." However, the article failed to point out that while serving as state treasurer, Coffman was fined for violating a state campaign finance law. As The Denver Post reported in a 2004 article, the Colorado Supreme Court in 2004 found that Coffman "violated the Fair Campaign Practices Act when he issued three press releases in 2000 opposing a statewide ballot measure" at public expense -- a fact the News failed to mention in its October 23 article.

The October 23 profile of Colorado's secretary of state candidates by News reporter Ann Imse noted that "for many voters" in Colorado, the 2006 secretary of state race "will be a choice of trust and character." The same article also reported that both Gordon and Coffman are "billing themselves as men with the records of integrity needed to run Colorado elections." Coffman, as quoted in the News article, claimed to be the candidate who can "stand up" to "partisan influence":

"The key issue in this race is partisan influence," said Coffman. "We have a presidential race coming up in 2008. Colorado is a swing state. Pressures in this office are by the political parties. Who can stand up to that influence? It's going to be tremendous. ... I think I've demonstrated the ability to do that."

The News reported that, unlike Gordon, "Coffman has not made campaign financing a key part of his run for office. But he says well-meaning reform has backfired." The News then quoted Coffman as saying, "Now, more money is spent by independent groups than candidates. Races are defined by outside groups, not candidates. If that's not a broken system, I don't know what is."

However, the News failed to report that in 2004 the Colorado Supreme Court upheld an administrative law judge's ruling that Coffman violated the Colorado Fair Campaign Practices Act. The Post noted in a December 7, 2004, article that "State Treasurer Mike Coffman violated the Fair Campaign Practices Act when he issued three press releases in 2000 opposing a statewide ballot measure and urging voters to defeat it, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled Monday." According to the Colorado Supreme Court's 2004 decision:

The court holds that although the Colorado Constitution and statutes endow the state treasurer, an elected official, with leadership responsibilities that obligate him to monitor the state coffers, his obligations in that regard do not insulate him from the mandates of the FCPA. That Act bars state officials and employees from expending public monies to urge electors to vote for or against any statewide ballot issue pending before the electorate.

According to an August 3, 2001, Post article, during the 2000 election, Coffman used his office's "staff, fax machine, copier and website to issue news releases opposing Amendment 23, an effort to boost school funding that voters ultimately approved."

Voters in 2000 approved Amendment 23, which proposed "an increase in money for public school funding through a new state education fund," according to the December 7, 2004, Post article. The same Post article also noted that Coffman said he used state resources to oppose Amendment 23 because "his constitutional and statutory duties as state treasurer required that he protect the state's economic health and solvency" and that Coffman unsuccessfully argued that "his activities were covered by exemptions found within the act."

A December 6, 2004, Associated Press article about the case quoted Colorado Common Cause executive director Pete Maysmith -- who filed the complaint against Coffman -- as saying, "There is no role for state money and state resources being spent to oppose a ballot initiative and unfairly tilt the playing field against a citizen initiative."

In contrast to its October 23 profile of Coffman and Gordon, the News noted in a September 6, 2005, editorial that Coffman "made it extraordinarily easy for Colorado Common Cause, the complainant, to win; he used staff members to prepare three news releases and part of a Web page expressing opposition to Amendment 23, the school funding initiative on the 2000 ballot." The News editorial added:

Coffman lost all the way up the line. In 2004 the Colorado Supreme Court upheld lower courts that ruled he had obviously spent more than the $50 exemption that the law grants public officials to spend on personal opinions concerning pending ballot issues. Coffman had to cough up a civil penalty of $335.

From the October 23 Rocky Mountain News article by Ann Imse, "Trust, character key in contest for secretary of state":

In the contest for Colorado's next secretary of state, voters have their choice of two men who have managed to retain their reputations over more than a dozen years in public office.

Democratic state Sen. Ken Gordon and Republican State Treasurer Mike Coffman are billing themselves as men with the records of integrity needed to run Colorado elections.

That's key in this race, after accusations of stolen elections in the presidential race, first in the conroversial Florida count in 2000 and then in Ohio in 2004. The concerns have been compounded in Colorado by worries over the vulnerabilty of new computerized voting machines to reprogramming that could alter results.

Coffman and Gordon agree on many issues involving how to run the office. So for many voters, this will be a choice of trust and character.

"The key issue in this race is partisan influence," said Coffman. "We have a presidential race coming up in 2008. Colorado is a swing state. Pressures in this office are by the political parties. Who can stand up to that influence? It's going to be tremendous. ... I think I've demonstrated the ability to do that."

Gordon agrees that even-handedness is critical to the job and points to his record in the legislature.

"I've always been working in the middle to get things done," he said. "Seventy-eight percent of my bills have had a Republican sponsor in the House."

Coffman says he worked both sides of the aisle in pursuing welfare reform. He says he took unpopular stands opposing taxpayer funding of the Broncos stadium and criticizing both Republicans and Democrats for using accounting gimmicks to balance the state budget.

Gordon also is concerned about special-interest money becoming more powerful than the voice of voters. That's the reason U.S. energy policy favors oil and gas over renewable energy, he says.

Since 1992, Gordon says, he's refused to accept donations from special-interest political groups "because I think we need to get money out of politics."

"If people feel money in politics is a problem, voting for me is a way to say we appreciate that a candidate has taken a stand," he said. "Every year, more money is spent (on elections) and fewer people vote. I'm trying to change that."

Coffman has not made campaign financing a key part of his run for office. But he says well-meaning reform has backfired.

"Now, more money is spent by independent groups than candidates. Races are defined by outside groups, not candidates. If that's not a broken system, I don't know what is," he said.

Gordon says that as secretary of state, he would publicize alleged violations of campaign finance rules, and would like to bring such cases to court directly.

Now, the secretary waits for a citizen to complain and bring proof to court. The secretary's office said it is not funded to prosecute allegations and noted that the secretary could be accused of partisanship in picking certain allegations to pursue.

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