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EDITORIAL: Magazine documents bad Colorado election law

By: Gazette editorial board
February 2, 2017 Updated: February 3, 2017 at 1:30 pm
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The current issue of Reason, a nationwide libertarian journal, identified Colorado's Matt Arnold as the poster symbol of our state's flawed campaign finance law. Arnold, who identifies as a conservative, has filed more Colorado campaign finance complaints than anyone else, all against Republicans or right-of-center organizations.

As Reason documented, Amendment 27 is so ill-conceived it has become a welcome mat for predatory lawsuits that threaten the ability of Coloradans to participate in political discourse.

In addition to describing the nature of Arnold's predatory suits, the magazine told of a rural Colorado school mom who was sued by school board members. They filed in retaliation after she bought an innocuous newspaper ad that criticized them for not having children enrolled in the district.

The magazine explained how low-income defendants are doomed, because even an hour of pro-bono legal assistance exceeds Amendment 27's limit of $400 donations, per donor, during a given election cycle.

"Campaign finance attorneys regularly charge hundreds of dollars per hour for their services," Reason stated. Because the cases are civil, a defendant has no right to a state-appointed attorney.

During his 2012 run for a statewide seat on the Colorado Board of Education, Arnold falsely claimed completing a master's degree at Johns Hopkins. When exposed, he insulted those with postgraduate degrees as "a bunch of people who hang letters after their names, but they have no useful skills."

The grass-roots group Coloradans for a Better Future ran an ad calling Arnold's campaign "an embarrassing distraction." Arnold retaliated with campaign finance complaints that bankrupted the group. One complaint said the organization's pro-bono attorney represented an illegal campaign contribution.

In another case: "Arnold filed a complaint demanding the state impose a $36,000 fine because two $3 contributions weren't properly reported," Reason explained. "Later that month, Arnold sought over $10,000 in penalties against a first-time school board candidate who failed to register a candidate committee. But the candidate properly registered in October, two hours after he learned he made a mistake, and months before Arnold sued him. No wonder an administrative law judge once admonished Arnold for filing claims that were 'nothing more than a game of 'Gotcha.' " highlighted an email Arnold sent to the Colorado GOP after filing against the organization. The email had been exposed by the Colorado Independent's Corey Hutchins last February. In the email, Arnold offers to drop a campaign finance complaint if the party would pay him $10,000 to conduct an audit.

"I'm willing to offer this generous deal in the interest of avoiding disruption to what is, after all, MY party — albeit a party that has proven less than faithful in fulfilling its obligations to me and mine — in a critical election year. But, Bygones... IF we can reach an agreement. Alternatively, 'the beatings will continue until morale improves.' "

Party officials called it an attempted shakedown.

Amendment 27 requires the secretary of state to forward any complaint about a campaign finance violation to the Office of Administrative Courts within three days. The secretary has no authority to vet complaints before they trigger full-blown litigation.

Coloradans need to rethink Amendment 27 and consider revisions at the ballot box. As Reason concluded: "The sheer pettiness of so many complaints reveals that, in fact, the law invites intimidation and reprisals against those who try to exercise their First Amendment rights. The resulting burden falls hardest on the very people that campaign finance laws purport to protect: ordinary citizens, grassroots activists, and small groups."

The Gazette editorial board

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