Denver City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca’s campaign violated election finance laws last year when vying for District 9, a seat she won in a runoff election against the well-funded, two-term incumbent Albus Brooks.
According to campaign finance records, the contributions of more than a dozen individual donors — including her candidate committee treasurer and her wife — exceeded $1,000, the allowable donation limit at the time.
CdeBaca’s campaign also allegedly failed to report contributions of $500 or more, a process the city charter mandates must be followed at least six days before the election and no later than 48 hours after receipt.
The infractions were detailed in a campaign finance complaint filed by Allan Kroll to the Denver Clerk and Recorder’s Office over the Labor Day weekend, Clerk and Recorder Paul López told Colorado Politics.
The complaint alleges that it is "likely" CdeBaca would have lost the election had voters been notified of the violations and suggests judicial action be taken to remove her from office.
The complaint will not result in penalties, however, as it comes more than a year after the campaign donations were received.
“Under current Denver ordinance, a complaint must be filed within 30 days of the violation being discoverable and we did not receive a complaint about the contributions in question within that time period,” he said in an email to Colorado Politics. “When a candidate and treasurer create a candidate committee, they both must affirm that they understand Denver’s campaign finance regulations and that it is their responsibility to comply with these regulations.”
Nevertheless, López said, his office is already in the process of enhancing oversight of campaign finances, including contracting with a vendor that is building a new reporting application “to automatically catch violations like this.”
López also hired a full-time campaign finance administrator, who he tasked with building a team to audit and investigate reports, and is working on legislation to increase penalties for any rule-breaking, intentional or not.
CdeBaca, who has long been a proponent of campaign finance reform, told Colorado Politics she was "shocked to learn of this anonymous complaint" and would comply with any recommendations from the Clerk and Recorder’s Office. She also stressed that she has “never hidden” her support and “always transparently reported every dollar” she took in during the campaign.
“I had over 1,000 individual donors, second only to the mayor, and many were first-time and recurring donors,” she said in a statement Tuesday. “In initially reviewing the allegations, one of these overages was only $3 over the donation limit. Another may have been erroneously attributed to one donor rather than multiple contributors.”
Of the 20 donors in question, most gave an excess of a few hundred dollars. The largest overage came from Zeppelin Development, Inc., which exceeded the contribution limit by $1,000.
To characterize the violations as “massive” or malicious, as the filed complaint did, is “misleading and a gross mischaracterization of the campaign I ran,” CdeBaca said.
"If this scrutiny is being applied to small-dollar donors for a grassroots candidate," she added, "I certainly hope that the same level of scrutiny is being applied to the big-money, special interest donors that funded other candidates in Denver’s 2019 municipal election."
Lisa Calderón, CdeBaca’s chief of staff and a former Denver mayoral candidate, said the revelation of a few thousand dollars in donation overages detracts from the hundreds of mostly small-dollar progressive donors who helped CdeBaca raise about $145,000 compared to the nearly $400,000 secured by Brooks.
“It also seeks to delegitimize Councilwoman CdeBaca’s historic win and to distract from the reforms that she is putting forward for city government,” Calderón argued.
CdeBaca was an organizer of the “Democracy for the People” initiative, a measure referred to the ballot and passed by voters in 2018 that aims to dampen money’s influence on politics by banning corporations, businesses and labor unions from donating directly to political campaigns for city offices.
The measure, which went into effect this year, also created a new citizen-funded election program and lowered individual contribution limits, meaning mayoral candidates can’t take more than $1,000 per donor, down from $3,000. Individual donations for at-large council members were also shrunk from $2,000 to $700, and district candidates’ contributions were capped at $400, a cut from $1,000.
CdeBaca, a self-described Democratic Socialist who is passionate about people-power, said she is also the "only [c]ouncil member actively participating in the Clerk’s efforts to find a new software system for reporting donations so that clerical errors and donation overages can be caught and rectified much sooner."
Denver Councilman Chris Hinds challenged her assertion, however, pointing to the fact that he has "been in regular communication with the Clerk's office about ways to strengthen campaign finance laws and systems," both as a candidate and a council member.
"The public demands transparency, and we should all strive to meet those demands because we want a transparent government, not just because we're trying to meet some software logic," he told Colorado Politics on Wednesday. "All candidates should take personal responsibility for ensuring they comply with applicable laws, and I look forward to helping the Clerk's office create more processes for those candidates who choose not to comply with the letter and spirit of our laws."
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include the comments of Denver City Councilman Chris Hinds, who represents District 10.