Judge: Tea party held to standards of political campaigns
DENVER — A southern Colorado tea party group is providing a lesson to similar organizations in what not to do when it comes to campaign finances.
Don’t contribute money directly to candidates unless you create a political donor committee with the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office. And if you don’t do that, then don’t ignore subpoenas when a complaint is filed against you.
All that happened to the Southern Colorado Tea Party, which now faces up to $18,000 in fines and attorney fees as a result of those multiple failures, said the attorney who filed a campaign-finance complaint two years ago against the group.
“The penalty that is proposed is appropriate here because the message that it sends will be heard by other groups that do this as well,” said Mark Grueskin, attorney for Pueblo resident Dr. Malik Hasan, a well-known political donor for mostly conservative candidates. “My client just wants to make the statement that these groups must comply with the law.”
On Tuesday, Administrative Law Judge Matthew E. Norwood heard testimony on how much in fines and fees he should impose against the Pueblo-based group, which gave money to Republican governor candidate Dan Maes and Colorado treasurer candidate J.J. Ament, actively campaigned for them and helped raise money for the two.
At the time, Ament and now Treasurer Walker Stapleton were seeking the GOP nomination for that seat against Hasan’s son, Ali Hasan, who has since switched to the Democratic Party.
Like many tea party organizations in the state, the Pueblo group endorsed numerous local, state and national candidates. This one, however, went much further, the judge ruled. It acted like a political campaign and therefore is subject to the same reporting requirements as any candidate, according to Norwood’s ruling.
After the complaint was filed, Grueskin subpoenaed two officials with the group, then chairman Sheldon Bloedorn and treasurer Jennifer Lorensen. Both failed to show up at trial, and the judge ruled against them. They told Norwood they didn’t believe they really had to. The two said their group wasn’t a political organization, but more akin to a “bowling league” or a “social club.”
“People should endorse candidates that they believe in, they should support that candidate and elect that candidate,” Bloedorn said. “It’s what you do in a democratic society.”
Not all tea party groups in the state made those mistakes, said Tim Fenwick, who helped form GJResult, a Grand Junction tea party group. In the beginning, Fenwick said, he also thought the group could raise and spend money on candidates without having to create a political committee with the state. He quickly learned that wasn’t the case.
“We decided as a group to register with the state,” Fenwick said. “We were not going to have any donations to any candidate, and we wouldn’t participate in any fundraising activities for them. The Hasan complaint scored with us that we had made the right choices.”