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Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez speaks to a crowd of voters during a forum at Venue 21c library in the Pikes Peak Library District on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2014. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett)

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A nonprofit organized by former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez should have registered as a political action committee and must disclose the donors who funded attacks on Republican candidates in the 2016 primary elections, the Colorado Court of Appeals has ruled.

In a decision handed down May 30, the three-judge panel also upheld the $17,735 penalty imposed in 2017 on Beauprez’s nonprofit, Colorado Pioneer Action, by an administrative law judge.

That judge found the group qualified as a political action committee under state campaign finance law even though it didn’t coordinate its spending with the candidates it supported.

“The wheels of justice grind slowly, but they do grind — and have ground CPA’s groundless appeal to dust,” said Matt Arnold, whose Campaign Integrity Watchdog filed the complaint in 2016.

Beauprez, a Republican, said he is reviewing the decision with attorneys.

“In 2015, Colorado Pioneer Action set out to make the point that conservative principles are the heart and soul of the Western spirit, and not the domain of brash, divisive politicians,” he said in a statement. “We believed, and still believe, that our actions complied with both the letter and spirit of the law. But as we all know, Colorado’s campaign finance laws can sometimes be convoluted and at times even conflicting.”

The group was organized as a tax-exempt 501c(4) “social welfare” nonprofit, which doesn’t have to disclose its donors as long as its “major purpose” isn’t to support or oppose candidates.

But the appeals court agreed with the lower court judge that supporting some candidates and opposing others was the group’s major purpose, making it subject to the same registration and disclosure requirements faced by other state political committees.

Colorado Pioneer Action spent about $420,000 of the $660,000 it raised during the 2016 election cycle for and against candidates, including spending heavily in a few GOP legislative primaries.

The group spent about $120,000 on TV ads supporting Republican Heidi Ganahl’s winning campaign for University of Colorado at-large regent. But it also aimed a barrage of attack mailers and digital ads at GOP legislative candidates whom Beauprez characterized as “better known for grandstanding than for effecting conservative change.”

Its targets included then-state Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt, R-Colorado Springs, who was defeated in a primary for El Paso County’s state Senate District 12 seat by Bob Gardner.

“They broke the law, and they did it with brazen attitude, and they want the courts to look the other way,” Klingenschmitt said after the appeals court ruled.

“This is vindication of how their team cheated and helped win two of the elections they got involved in. When they and other groups spend $250,000 in my race running false, nasty anonymous postcards, it literally cost me the election.”

As the 2016 primary approached, Klingenschmitt and Douglas County Republican Jess Loban, another legislative candidate hit with negative mailers by the Beauprez group, filed criminal complaints alleging the ads included inaccurate statements.

Then-state Rep. Janak Joshi, R-Colorado Springs, also was targeted by the group with attack ads and lost his re-election bid to Republican Larry Liston.

In the wake of the appeals court ruling, Arnold called on Beauprez to “quickly and fully comply with the orders,” to register as a political committee with the Secretary of State’s Office, file required financial disclosures and pay the penalty.

Beauprez said he relied on “experienced election legal counsel,” and then-Secretary of State Wayne Williams filed court documents supporting his committee’s position.

“Nonetheless, the Court of Appeals disagreed in this instance as courts continue to define the scope and meaning of the campaign finance provisions. While disappointing, we are evaluating what action to take in response to the Court’s decision,” Beauprez wrote.

A spokeswoman for Secretary of State Jena Griswold, the Democrat who defeated Williams in November, said her office hasn’t decided whether to continue supporting the Beauprez group’s position.

Colorado Pioneer Action has until mid-July to appeal the ruling to the Colorado Supreme Court.

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