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Final tally: Clash of big money in Douglas County school board election

December 11, 2017 Updated: December 12, 2017 at 12:14 pm
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photo - Douglas County School District (Photo By John Leyba/The Denver Post)
Douglas County School District (Photo By John Leyba/The Denver Post) 

This story has been updated and corrected. Due to an error in the TRACER reporting system, an expenditure was listed incorrectly with contributions.  The Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids independent expenditure committee did report spending $131,000 on campaign expenses in the weeks leading to the Nov. 8 election.

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Final campaign finance reports for the 2017 school board elections in Denver, Douglas and Jefferson counties show millions of dollars were spent around the issues of charter schools, vouchers and teacher performance.

The most-watched school board race in the country belonged to Douglas County, where candidates and the committees that supported them, either directly or indirectly, spent at least $817,000. That doesn’t include spending by what’s known as 501(c)4 groups like the Independence Institute and Americans for Prosperity. Those two groups spent at least $136,000 to back either the pro-voucher candidates or the district’s controversial voucher program. That brings the total to just shy of the one million dollar-mark.

Groups like AFP-Colorado and the Independence Institute have bemoaned that the unions outspent the pro-voucher slate, but campaign finance records show the spending was likely pretty close between the two sides.

A $300,000 contribution from the American Federation of Teachers, to back an independent expenditure committee that supported the winning CommUNITY slate of Chris Ciancio-Schor, Anthony Graziano, Krista Holtzmann and Kevin Leung, has already been well documented.

Not so well known, however, is the $102,721.66 spent by the Colorado Republican Committee independent expenditure committee, which was spent on mailers in direct support of the four Elevate candidate: Ryan Abresch, Randy Mills, Grant Nelson and Debora Scheffel.

Where that money came from: The IEC had a pretty good three months leading up to the election in contributions, raising more than $350,000 during that time period. Contributors includeD the Anschutz Corporation (which is owned by Gazette and Clarity Media owner Phil Anschutz) at $100,000; another $100,000 from beer magnate Pete Coors, $50,000 from Martin Landis of Platte River Equity; $30,000 from Colorado Independent Action, which is run by the Independence Institute; and $25,000 from Andrea Proctor, who works at Aspect Energy. Aspect’s CEO is Alex Cranberg, who has poured $140,000 into supporting pro-voucher candidates in Douglas County in the past eight years.

Another source of funds that isn’t tracked through the state’s campaign finance system, TRACER, is how much groups like the Independence Institute and Americans for Prosperity spent in support of either the candidates or the voucher program itself. Both are 501(c)4 organizations, an IRS designation that means they can spend no more than 49 percent of their total revenue on political causes and in exchange don’t have to identify their donors. However, AFP-Colorado is known to be backed at least in part by the billionaire conservative brothers Charles and David Koch.

The Independence Institute sent out a fundraising email on Oct. 19 seeking $36,000 “to bolster our campaign to educate voters about the importance of this election.” In September AFP-Colorado announced it would spend “six figures” during the campaign season to remind voters what was at stake for “educational opportunities,” including the controversial voucher program.

So how much was spent overall, that can be tracked?

In DougCo, the four Elevate candidates spent a total of $143,236. The CommUNITY candidates spent a total of $128,024. That included $8,400 to the CommUNITY slate in direct contributions from Douglas County Parents, a political committee, along with more than $30,000 from the committee to the candidates through non-monetary contributions for things like advertising, office supplies and food.

Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, the independent expenditure committee that received the $300,000 from the American Federation of Teachers, spent a total of $546,048. That included contributions from the oddly named dark-group Citizens for Integrity ($100,000) and $15,000 from a political fund controlled by the Colorado Education Association.

Dark money groups are committees that don’t disclose their source of funding. Citizens for Integrity is connected to attorney Mark Grueskin, who often represents Democratic-leaning groups in legal matters.

But contributions to Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids only add up to $415,000, leaving the question of where the committee got the last $131,000 spent in the weeks leading to the Nov. 8 election.

Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids already has run afoul of Colorado’s campaign finance system, with two complaints filed by Campaign Integrity Watchdog, the Matt Arnold-run watchdog organization, for failing to accurately report contributions. Those complaints will be heard in January, with Grueskin as its legal representative, according to Arnold.

The committee filed a 48-hour notice of independent expenditure with TRACER on Oct. 30, showing payments of $131,000, mostly to a San Francisco-based direct mail company that works with political campaigns. Those expenditures, five at around $26,000 each, were never included in the committee’s Dec. 7 campaign finance report. Another $1,850, to NP Consulting for Internet ads, also wasn’t included in that December report.

The committee also shows no contributions that would cover those payments. Its registered agent, Ronda Scholting, would not comment on behalf of the committee; a request that the committee return a call for comment was not returned by press time.

Arnold told Colorado Politics that recent legislation that allows more time to cure violations of campaign finance rules will lead to sloppy reporting by committees and candidates. Campaign finance reporting becomes a “do-over” that ties the hands of the administrative law judges who rule on violations, he said.

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