A recently formed nonprofit with Republican Party ties gave $128,000 this spring to campaign efforts that backed three Colorado Springs City Council candidates.
Newly elected city councilmen Dave Donelson and Randy Helms, and candidate Mary Elizabeth Fabian, who ran in the central Colorado Springs district, all benefited from Colorado Dawn's spending, a nonprofit that paid for advertising and other campaign services but does not have to disclose its donors.
Similar groups have spent about $1 billion on political advertising nationally since 2010 without disclosing their donors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. When the source of the funds is not disclosed it is called "dark money" in politics, according to the center.
While it may be common to see dark money spending in big national races, it is concerning to see it trickle down to city council races that are supposed to be nonpartisan, said Shelly Roehrs, president of the League of Women Voters of the Pikes Peak Region. Voters want to see transparency in their local elections, but rules would need to change on a federal level for real reform to happen, she said.
"We have gotten to a very dark place with dark money," she said.
Republican Daniel Cole ran the campaigns on behalf of the three candidates and never interviewed any of them as part of a selection process for support, he said.
Rather the three candidates were selected based on their public statements and resumes, Cole said, because legally the group that received the donations from Colorado Dawn, the Springs Opportunity Fund, cannot coordinate with candidates. Cole said he has never met Donelson or Helms.
All politicians are exposed to the spending of outside groups unaffiliated with a particular candidate, he said.
Cole's company, Cole Communications, was paid by Springs Opportunity Fund for the campaign work. The Springs Opportunity Fund received all its money from Colorado Dawn, whose donors are unknown.
"We wanted candidates that understood the plight of local business in the pandemic and the importance of reopening business," Cole said. The fund was also interested in candidates that would be accessible and open to new ideas, he said. He described the fund as nonpartisan.
The Springs Opportunity Fund, Colorado Dawn and Republican Senate Majority Fund all share the same address. Cole also heads the senate fund and has been active in previous council races.
Donelson, Helms and Fabian all ran on ideas associated with the Republican Party, such as support for small business and law enforcement. But so did some of their opponents.
Donelson, who represents District 1, said he didn't find out about the spending until he was alerted by a friend who received a flyer or a text message that his campaign didn't send out. The work of the outside group would have bothered him if they had represented something he didn't agree with. But they were just amplifying his message, he said.
"I don’t think it decided the election," he said.
Donelson did not accept any direct money from political action groups or developers, he said.
District 2 Councilman Helms said he discovered the Springs Opportunity Fund was backing him while researching news coverage of his campaign. He searched for his name online, and a website promoting him that he had not paid for popped up. His campaign manager advised him not to try to contact the group. Independent expenditure committees, such as the Springs Opportunity Fund, and candidates are not allowed to coordinate efforts.
Helms said he believed the efforts helped him defeat Councilman David Geislinger, the incumbent in the race for District 2, northern Colorado Springs. But such committees could be damaging if they misrepresented a candidate, he said.
Cole said all of the information his campaign efforts provided was accurate.
"An outside effort like ours is a magnifying glass. It makes candidates more visible, but it doesn’t make bad candidates into good ones," he said. "… All that we’re doing is providing voters with more information so they can make better decisions."
The outside funding in this case outpaced the spending of the three individual candidates. Donelson spent the most of three candidates on his campaign at about $33,000.
Colorado Dawn and the Springs Opportunity Fund's investment did not fall in line with the interests of some development groups such as the Housing and Building Association of Colorado Springs and Nor'wood Development who backed Geislinger in the District 2 race, and Jim Mason, in the District 1 race, for northwest Colorado Springs.
As for Colorado Dawn, formed in January by Cole, it will be educating citizens on important issues in the future, he said. The primary purpose of the nonprofit cannot be politics.
Councilman Bill Murray said the city needs to do better when it comes to regulating spending on campaigns to gain public trust. But he doesn't think the council has the political will to change the rules, particularly when some have benefited from the current rules.
"The problem is it is going to get worse because there is so much money being pumped into the economy right now," Murray said.