DENVER — Tammy Holland says she just wanted to get her rural Colorado neighbors to read up on a school board election when she took out newspaper ads last September that listed the candidates and criticized some of the board's votes.
But that swept Holland into Colorado's unusual system for investigating campaign spending violations. Unlike most states, where campaign finance regulators decide whether to prosecute alleged violations, Colorado's constitution requires every complaint to be referred to an administrative law judge, who can then convene a trial-like process.
So when a school board member complained that Holland's ads violated prohibitions against undisclosed campaign spending, the rules triggered a formal case against her, which has cost her $3,500 in legal expenses.
"I was not only surprised, I was terrified, I was humbled," said Holland, a farmer and mother of a grade school-aged son.
With the help of a conservative-leaning legal advocacy group, Holland filed a lawsuit in federal court saying the rules violate her free speech rights and asking a judge to throw them out.
"Basically what they've done is outsourced the enforcement of campaign finance laws to any politico with a grudge," said Paul Sherman, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, which is representing Holland at no charge in the lawsuit.
It's a system that everyone seems to hate — even one of the people who filed a complaint against Holland with the Secretary of State's Office," Byers School District board member Tom Thompson.
"It is a misleading and a convoluted process," Thompson said. It "puts a private person like myself trying to interpret and enforce statutes."
Holland's problems started in September when she paid about $975 to place two ads in the I-70 Scout and Eastern Colorado News, sister newspapers that cover a handful of small towns strung along a 45-mile stretch of Interstate 70 on the High Plains east of Denver.
Holland, a former preschool teacher, didn't like the mandatory tests her son was facing in the Byers School District, about 45 miles east of downtown Denver, or the way school officials handled her concerns. Her newspaper ads didn't specifically advocate for or against any candidates in the upcoming Byers School Board election, but they criticized some actions by the current board.
"I ran the ads to inform the public they had choices and give them time to get informed and get ready," she said in an interview.
Neither ad disclosed who paid for it, which troubled Byers School Superintendent Tom Turrell.
"I don't think that's right," said Turrell, adding that some people thought the school district itself had paid for the ads.
Turrell filed the initial complaint but then withdrew it, thinking that he as superintendent shouldn't be the one to take on the process. Thompson then filed his complaint on Oct. 18.
The administrative law judge who was assigned the complaint hasn't yet ruled.
Despite his misgivings about the way the system is handling his complaint, Thompson defended his actions. He argues that the ads were designed to sway voters, and because they cost more than the $200 threshold for reporting campaign expenses under state law, Holland should have registered with the secretary of state and identified herself in the ads.
Holland's federal lawsuit was filed Jan. 20. No trial date has been set.
The system isn't likely to change soon. No bills or amendments have been proposed in the current session of the Legislature that would alter the way complaints are handled.
Secretary of State Wayne Williams, a Republican named as the defendant in Holland's federal lawsuit, didn't comment specifically on the suit but said he has his own objections to the state's system — especially previous court decisions that left confusion about what spending limits the state can enforce.
That confusion discourages people from getting involved, he said.
"The core protection of the First Amendment is political speech," he said. "That's more than any other kind of speech what the founders were concerned about when they drafted the First Amendment."