Denver mayoral candidate Lisa Calderón, incumbent City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca and a slate of progressive candidates for other council offices are the targets of newly filed campaign finance complaints, alleging the group shared resources from third-party groups in ways that violate the city’s Fair Election Fund rules and City Code.
The complaints allege Calderón illegally coordinated and took non-monetary support from Emerge Colorado, the organization that Calderón leads, and the Democratic Socialists of America. If true, the unreported support, known as in-kind contributions, could put the campaigns over the limits established for candidates using the Fair Election Fund.
The Fair Election Fund, established after voters approved a major overhaul of campaign finance rules in Denver in 2018, provides public matching dollars for small donations to candidates who agree to abide by lower contribution limits.
Lawyers who have assessed the evidence at the heart of those complaints say that the allegations open up the candidates to legal jeopardy. The Calderón campaign has dismissed the allegations as “false and overblown.”
Kwon Atlas, who is running against CdeBaca in City Council District 9, is one of five people who have brought concerns to the Denver Clerk and Recorder’s office naming Calderón. In a complaint filed on March 22, Atlas wrote that he had suspicion Calderón and CdeBaca shared polling information that was beneficial to their campaigns from a third-party group without recording that polling as an in-kind contribution on campaign finance reports. Further, the complaint raises the question of whether the two colluded with a third-party group to work on campaigns which also could have violated the City Code.
“My complaint is not to create any sort of advantage but I feel like, based on how I am reading the rules, there may be some violation,” Atlas said. “I don’t care if it’s coming from a progressive group or a developer; everything needs to be standardized and have the same process, the same transparency, the same disclosure, the same rules.”
The evidence supporting Atlas’ complaint came to him anonymously, he said. That evidence is also featured on a website that went live around the time Atlas took his concerns to the clerk and recorder’s office, EthicsMatterDenver.com. On that site, there is a 30-minute recording of an undated meeting between people the site identifies as Calderón and a slate of other progressive candidates running for City Council offices in the April 4 election.
The recording opens with Calderón discussing polling data for a yet-to-be-released poll commissioned by Emerge Colorado, the political organization she leads as executive director, and the Working Families Party of Colorado. Calderón notes she is still debating whether or not to run for mayor for a second time.
“I am not giving you any polling information. I’m not giving you the report. I am giving you some top-line items because if you are running technically you’ve got to purchase that information, but it helps to inform me about my decision and also if we were going to have a citywide strategy of a network it requires me working with all of you loosely, unofficially,” she says.
The website also shared a copy of a manual for New Day Denver, a group that, according to the allegations on the site, was formed to support the slate of candidates but has never shown up on any campaign finance filings. It also provides a link to the campaign finance violation complaint form on the city’s website.
The Calderón campaign this week denied that it ever coordinated with the New Day Denver group, which the campaign described in a statement as “defunct.” The campaign further emphasized the recording shared on the site was made a month before Calderón filed her candidate paperwork on Oct. 13 and that the polling data discussed was shared publicly on the Emerge Colorado website.
“These baseless attacks from an anonymous website are an attempt to slow Lisa’s momentum as a lead contender. They also continue an unfortunate trend in which women of color are subject to much higher scrutiny than other candidates in this race,” the campaign said.
Atlas’s complaint cites Section 15.33b of the City Code as a section of law the recording shows may have been broken by the candidates.
That section reads in part, “Any contributions or contributions in-kind received or expenditures made prior to the person becoming a candidate … shall be reported in the first report required under section 15-35.”
Two campaign finance lawyers unaffiliated with any municipal campaign who reviewed the allegations from the EthicsMatterDenver website raised concerns about the allegations, though of varying degrees. One said the recording and purported evidence raises “interesting issues” of what constitutes contributions and coordination. Another called it proof of a possible “conspiracy” to violate law.
John S. Zakhem, an election lawyer in Denver, was stunned by the allegations. If true, it appeared Calderón was “just blatantly breaking the law from what it sounded like on that recording.”
Denver election law, like state and national law, requires campaigns to report anything of value contributed to a campaign — not just money. If an outside group supports a campaign, it must register with the city and cannot coordinate with the campaign.
The city’s new Fair Election Fund sets contribution limits to qualify — $1,000 max for mayoral candidates, $700 for at-large council candidates and $400 for district council candidates. The in-kind contributions described on the site would easily blow past those limits, observers said. All of the candidates named on the site participated in the Fair Election Fund program and received matching taxpayer dollars through it. Calderón has received $195,351 from the fund to fuel her campaign.
Zakhem said in 25 years of campaign finance law, he’s never seen allegations, and purported evidence, showing this level of “callous” violations of the law. Zakhem, who is not involved in any of the municipal campaigns, reviewed the leaked audio and screenshots and concluded “it does appear to be a conspiracy to violate campaign finance rules in Denver.”
Zakhem called it “doubly concerning” that many of the candidates have run for office before or currently serve in elected office. And even though some of the candidates may not have officially declared at the time of the recording, including Calderón, they were still discussing their possible candidacy — making it moot if they had officially declared, he argued.
“I still think it violates the law,” Zakhem said. “Even if it doesn’t violate the letter of the law, it’s a slap in the face to the spirit of the law.”
Chris M. Jackson, the other campaign finance lawyer, was more circumspect. He reviewed the allegations “at a high level” and didn’t have an opinion on the merits. The allegations raise “serious questions” about whether the laws were complied with — but the timing and degree of the communications also impact their legality.
“The specifics always matter in a case. The kind of communicating people do matters, and the subject or topic of the things they’re communicating about matter as well,” Jackson said. “There might well be a good defense that even if everyone was declared to be a candidate, this was not coordination in a way the law prohibits.”
He offered a comparison to prior state and national campaigns for how campaign finance laws can be sidestepped. In 2016, presidential candidate Jeb Bush delayed announcing his candidacy to legally coordinate with a super PAC. Two years later, candidate for Colorado governor Walker Stapleton made a similar move. National strategies have a way of working their way down to local campaigns, he said.
“Whether or not it’s a technical violation, it’s a thing people should think about and worry about if this is how we want our elections to be run,” Jackson said. “Campaigns are an arms race. Everyone is competing with each other, and it’s very hard to say to one candidate you should unilaterally disarm and do more than the law requires when you’re in a competition with others.”
These allegations are among the most serious levied against any candidate during this election cycle and carry recorded evidence to support the alleged wrongdoing. The Denver Post continues to review allegations submitted to the Denver Clerk and Recorder’s office.
The city code lays out specific steps for the Clerk and Recorder’s office to take once a Denver resident files a complaint alleging violations of campaign finance rules. Step 1 is notifying the people accused and giving them 30 days to respond to or cure the alleged violation.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the clerk’s office was in the process of notifying all seven candidates listed in the campaign finance violations complaints, Clerk and Recorder’s office spokeswoman Lucille Wenegieme said.
“If the respondent does not cure the complaint in their response, our office recruits an independent hearing officer for any follow-up or determination that is needed. Our office does not have the authority to investigate campaign finance complaints ourselves,” Wenegieme said.
If the complaints make it to the hearing stage, those hearings must be set within 30 days of the end of the cure period, per the City Code. The hearing officer has subpoena power and the authority to issue rulings and “order any necessary relief.” The rulings are final and subject to review by the county court.
Not every complaint requires a hearing. Earlier this year a group of 10 complaints surrounding anonymous mailers that went out targeting CdeBaca were condensed into one and referred to a hearing officer. In that hearing, the officer noted that she did not have the power to investigate who was behind the anonymous mailers.
“That requires me to engage in what we refer to as ex parte activities, and that’s something I can’t do,” the officer, Suzanne Fasing, said. “It’s so critical that I remain impartial, and you can’t really wear two different hats. And so that’s why I think this charter provision could easily create a misunderstanding.”
CdeBaca told The Denver Post that she has decided not to pursue the matter further through the county court. By the time the process could move forward, the April 4 election would be long over.
CdeBaca has been notified she was named in Atlas’ campaign finance complaint and has provided a point-by-point response on March 25 that she shared with The Denver Post. She called the complaint “baseless claims from a desperate opponent.”
“I have not now nor ever received a private poll from another candidate about my race. I received a private briefing from an organization regarding summary data of a poll that was soon to be public data. I received access to the actual poll results when the public received access. The poll had no relevance or value to my own race and was public therefore had/has no reportable value,” the response she emailed to the clerk’s office reads in part.
Strategy meetings like the one recorded and shared on the EthicsMatterDenver website are common, especially in the early, or exploratory phases of campaigns, CdeBaca said. The only thing setting this one apart was that a disgruntled campaign staffer recorded this meeting and released it near election day as part of a strategy to undermine the Calderón campaign.
She added that the slate of council candidates in the meeting voted not to align with any mayoral campaign during the 2023 cycle and ultimately chose not to pursue a coordinated campaign amongst themselves because it was too complicated and unwieldy.
“I think there was a strategy and a lot of intention here and this is the risk you can expect in campaign work,” CdeBaca said. “It’s unfortunate and it’s disgusting and we built an entire system with the Fair Elections Fund to dismantle this and combat it and you still have people who will try to destroy grassroots candidates at whatever cost.”
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