DENVER —Secretary of State Jena Griswold’s office will investigate two separate campaign finance complaints against out-of-state, dark money organizations that played a large role in funding progressive causes in Colorado’s 2020 election.
The complaints — one against the Sixteen Thirty Fund and one against the North Fund — were both filed after the complainants learned of penalties assessed against a conservative group for failing to register as an issues committee for donations made during the 2021 Colorado election.
Both left-wing funds are registered as a 501 (c)(4), a type of tax-exempt nonprofit that is allowed keep its donors anonymous while still engaging in political activities, so long as their participation is not a “substantial part of their expenses.” Because of this, unlike a 501 (c)(3), donations to a 501 (c)(4) are not tax deductible.
Unite for Colorado, a right-of-center 501 (c)(4) that supported several ballot measures during the 2021 Colorado elections, was fined $40,000 by an administrative law judge and ordered to name its donors.
Once the decision to fine Unite was made in August 2021, the former policy director for the Colorado State Senate Republicans, Charles Heatherly, filed a campaign finance complaint against the North Fund claiming the same issues as those made against Unite.
Complete Colorado was the first to report on Heatherly’s complaint, a story which was subsequently read by Sterling resident Cory Gaines.
In the Complete Colorado report, Sixteen Thirty Fund was also named for its heavy political spending in Colorado and failure to file as an IEC or an issues committee. That prompted Gaines to file against the Sixteen Thirty Fund.
Both complaints had an uphill battle to meet with a statute of limitations law that says a complaint must be filed no later than “one hundred eighty days after the date on which the complainant either knew or should have known, by the exercise of reasonable diligence, of the alleged violation.”
Both Heatherly and Gaines made arguments that their filing were within the law based on previous decisions by Griswold.
Heatherly pointed out he only learned of the North Fund’s activities in December 2021.
“I was inspired to examine patterns of anonymous political spending in Colorado after the (administrative law judge’s ALJ) decision in Unite (for Colorado). The type of spending being addressed in this complaint would not have deemed a complaint until the ALJ rendered his decision … on Aug. 18, 2021,” Heatherly said in his complaint.
Gaines cited the Complete Colorado story as being when he learned of the possible violations, saying he was “unaware of even the idea that other groups could meet (the standard analyzed in Unite) until reading a Complete Colorado article detailing same on December 16th, 2021.”
For both complaints, Griswold’s office said the 180-day threshold was met.
Both complaints also allege that the two non-profits pumped millions into several of Colorado’s 2020 ballot issues without registering in the state as either an Independent Expenditure Committee (IEC) or an issues committee.
To that, Griswold’s office said in its initial findings:
- In the case of the Sixteen Thirty Fund: “The Division initially determines that the Complaint alleges facts which, if proven, could support a finding that Respondent violated Colorado campaign finance laws.”
- In the case of the North Fund: “The Division initially determines that Complainant alleges sufficient facts to support a factual and legal basis for the Complaint. In the present case, Complainant alleges that Respondent failed to register as an issue committee.”
Therefore, Griswold’s office has determined that a full investigation is warranted into both the Sixteen Thirty Fund and the North Fund.
Gaines told Complete Colorado he was happy to see Griswold’s office taking an equal look at all complaints, regardless of political ideology
“There are still plenty of steps before an actual decision on charging gets made, but I am pleasantly surprised, given our Secretary of State’s past behavior and decisions, that it made it past step one,” Gaines said. “I hope that the investigation continues. Regardless of your political leanings, we all have an interest in this state in knowing who is funding what.”
Complete Colorado has been reporting on the dark-money influence in Colorado’s elections since 2018 when Griswold and Attorney General Phil Weiser both made campaign promises to crack down on them. Until now, however, Griswold, a Democrat, had turned a blind-eye to heavy political spending by both Sixteen Thirty and the North Fund.
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