Suzanne Staiert, a former deputy Secretary of State and a Republican candidate for Senate District 27, has been fined $1,000 for violating state campaign finance law.
The Oct. 6 ruling by Administrative Law Judge Matthew Norwood wasn’t publicly disclosed by the Secretary of State’s office for more than three weeks. The Secretary of State’s office posted the ruling on the TRACER campaign finance system on Oct. 30 after Colorado Politics asked about the status of the case.
The Secretary of State’s office issued a procedural order, which included Norwood's ruling, on Oct. 12.
While Norwood made his ruling on Oct. 6, the decision does not become final until the Deputy Secretary of State issues what's known as a final agency decision. Both parties have an opportunity to comment while that decision is pending.
A campaign finance complaint was filed by Dorota Wright-O’Neill on May 6, 2020, alleging that Staiert had failed to file a required personal financial disclosure (PFD) statement when she became a candidate for the state Senate in August 2019. That statement is required within 10 days of filing a candidate affidavit. However, Staiert filed her 2018 tax return instead of the form from the Secretary of State’s office, which asks for sources of income, assets and liabilities. She claimed she was allowed to file tax returns instead of the actual form under a state law that says incumbents can file tax returns in lieu of the PFD. However, both Norwood and the Secretary of State's office, in their review of the complaint, pointed out that the exemption applies only to members of the General Assembly, not those who are candidates for it.
One of the issues raised in the complaint was whether Wright-O’Neill had filed the complaint in a timely manner. State law requires complaints to be filed within 180 days, but the law also includes a caveat: whether someone “either knew or should have known, by the exercise of reasonable diligence, of the alleged violation.” Wright-O’Neill asked for a copy of Staiert’s PFD on March 17 at the behest of Christy Powell, a board member of ProgressNow Colorado, a Democratic advocacy organization.
Norwood, in his ruling, said Wright-O’Neill had little knowledge of Colorado’s campaign finance laws and she could have asked for the PFD anytime between Aug. 7, 2019, and March 17. “She did not know about the issues in this case,” Norwood wrote, “and they were not on her radar until Ms. Powell asked her if she would be willing” to look into the issue. Wright-O’Neill lives in Denver and is not a resident of Senate District 27, which is in Centennial.
Deputy Secretary of State Ian Rayder stated in a remand order filed July 27 that April 27, 2020, was the date that Wright-O’Neill learned of the violation. She was not asked during a Sept. 30 hearing when she first learned of the violation and did not volunteer it, Norwood wrote.
Staiert argued that once her non-compliance with the law was “discoverable” on the internet (although PFDs are not posted on the Secretary of State’s candidate information on the Internet) that the 180 day-clock should begin to run.
However, Norwood said that argument ignores the second part of the law, on whether Wright-O’Neill should have known about the violation at the time it was made, in August 2019.
“It is unreasonable to expect citizens unfamiliar with Colorado campaign law to troll the Secretary of State’s website to see if candidates for the General Assembly have filed approved forms in compliance” with the law,” Norwood wrote. “It would require very specialized knowledge to know that the Respondent’s submission was not in compliance,” and Wright-O’Neill had no reason to know about the violation until she spoke with Powell.
Norwood decided the complaint had been filed in a timely manner, but noted that the complaint was clearly written by someone with a sophisticated knowledge of campaign finance law “and were almost certainly not authored” by Wright-O’Neill. However, it was her name on the complaint, Norwood wrote.
After the May 6 complaint was filed, Staiert was given a 10-day opportunity to “cure,” or fix her PFD. Staiert did not dispute the violation and submitted the proper PFD form May 24, .
Failing to file a PFD carries a penalty of $50 per day, and Norwood said that could be as much as 96 days, a total fine of $4,800. However, he believed that fine to be excessive and reduced it to $1,000.
But Norwood wasn’t done. “There are aggravating factors in terms of a fine,” he wrote. Staiert has neither expressed any acknowledgment of her error nor expressed any contrition for it, Norwood wrote.
“As a former Deputy Secretary of State, she is sophisticated in Colorado campaign law. She should be expected, more than most, to comply with it,” and when given the opportunity to fix the error, she didn’t do it within the time period provided, he wrote.
Staiert did not respond to an email asking if she would appeal.
Staiert also has been named in a lawsuit filed against the Public Trust Institute, for which she is a director, alleging “malicious prosecution” in the complaints she filed against former Democratic state Rep. Joe Salazar.
Staiert filed a complaint with the Secretary of State and the state’s ethics commission, alleging Salazar had illegally lobbied on behalf of Colorado Rising. The ethics complaint claimed he lobbied in violation of Amendment 41, which requires a two-year timeout between when a lawmaker is out of office and when that person can lobby. The complaint with the Secretary of State alleged Salazar failed to register as a lobbyist. Both were filed the same day.
Both complaints were dismissed, both on the grounds that Salazar was an attorney, advocating on behalf of his organization, and that he did not lobby lawmakers. The dismissal by the Secretary of State’s office also stated that the allegations raised “serious questions” that PTI and Staiert were attempting to violate Salazar’s freedom of speech.
Salazar claimed Staiert issued a press release after filing the complaints, claiming Salazar and Colorado Rising would “be held accountable for this unethical conduct.” Staiert and PTI’s intent was to “spread the news about these administrative complaints against Plaintiff Salazar as widely as possible, to humiliate Plaintiff Salazar, and to call into question Plaintiff Salazar’s reputation.”
9News and Colorado Politics both reported on the complaints.
Salazar claimed in the lawsuit that both PTI and Staiert, as a political candidate, take donations from the oil and gas industry, which Colorado Rising opposes.
The lawsuit was filed on Oct. 30 in Denver District Court and seeks punitive and economic damages, and a jury trial.
Unofficial results show Staiert lost her bid for the Senate District 27 race to Democrat Sen.-elect Chris Kolker by 10 percentage points.
This article has been updated to clarify the process by which the Secretary of State's office handles rulings from the Office of Administrative Courts.