For the first time ever, the Colorado Secretary of State's Office will take a more active role in enforcing campaign finance violations under a new law that went into effect Monday.
The new law under Senate Bill 232 initially was aimed at addressing a federal court opinion last year that ruled as unconstitutional the state's reliance solely on citizen complaints in enforcing campaign finance laws.
In that ruling, filed against then Secretary of State Wayne Williams, U.S. District Judge Raymond Moore said that reliance on citizens has made the complaint process more political than was intended, leading to the stifling of free-speech rights of candidates for office because of fears of expensive and drawn-out legal challenges.
As a result, the Secretary of State's Office under Williams approved a series of new rules that call on the office to review complaints to determine if they are frivolous or vexatious, and not recommend they be heard by the Colorado Office of Administrative Courts, which previously performed that duty.
Current Secretary of State Jena Griswold said the new law does more than just call for a review of citizen complaints. It also allows the office to establish a three-person division that is to review campaign finance reports for errors. That new division, made up of two attorneys and an investigator, is to act independently of any other section of the office, Griswold said.
The new rules still allow the public to file campaign finance complaints against candidates, but the office won't rely solely on them, she said.
"Folks have a way of trying to use systems for political ends, but I do think that the changes that Secretary Williams did, ... making sure that complaints are vetted, and the fact that the public can still bring a complaint, does create a really good balance," she said. "But at the end of the day, we shouldn't be reliant on only the public. We need to make sure that our transparency laws, our campaign finance laws are respected. We want to make sure that there's not the appearance of corruption or real corruption."
In recent years, two separate groups — one left leaning and the other right leaning — have filed numerous campaign finance complaints against elected officials or candidates of the opposing party.
While some of those complaints were valid, some were based on minor technicalities and then used to smear those elected officials.
Former Rep. Dan Thurlow, R-Grand Junction, was one of them.
While Thurlow made some mistakes on several of his campaign finance reports, they were because of technical problems, such as failing to note the occupation of donors. That's a common mistake of many candidates and elected officials, but few see a complaint filed against them as a result.
To address that issue, Thurlow got the Colorado Legislature to pass a new law in 2017 that allowed candidates to cure such errors without having to pay high fines, but only if a administrative law judge, who will continue to review such matters, determines the error was not malicious.
Griswold said the new enforcement division will have its hands full with all the campaign finance reports that are filed annually, particularly in election years.
She said it is to have strict firewalls from other parts of the office to ensure fairness, but added that if the work becomes too great a burden for only three people, she will consider adding more.
"It was our view that the secretary always had the legal ability to review and bring complaints as an office itself, but decided not to," Griswold said.
"I think it's extremely important that we have transparent campaign finance laws and a fair enforcement mechanism to make sure that those who would try to sidestep the laws have a little bit more hesitancy in doing so."