A campaign finance complaint filed earlier this year against Colorado Republican state Senate District 27 candidate Suzanne Staiert is on track for a Sept. 30 judicial hearing.
The complaint focuses on a Personal Financial Disclosure document required by state law for new candidates, as well as the issue of the state's 180-day statute of limitations for filing those complaints.
State law requires a candidate to file a PFD within 10 days of filing as a candidate. Staiert didn't use the four-page form required by the Secretary of State, which lists assets, liabilities, property owned by the candidate and sources of income.
Staiert, who filed for her candidacy on Aug. 7, 2019, filed her 2018 income tax documents as her PFD two days later. The complaint alleged that this is not satisfactory; that income tax filings are allowed in lieu of the PFD only for incumbent candidates under state law.
On May 6, Dorota Wright-O'Neill filed a campaign finance complaint, alleging that Staiert had not fully disclosed the information required on the PFD.
Wright-O'Neill, who lives in the Denver area, appears to have no leadership ties to the Democratic Party, either at the city or state level.
The Elections Division of the Secretary of State's office gave Staiert time to "cure," allowing her to correct the record without penalty, and she filed the PFD on May 24. The Secretary of State's office has not yet released the PFD, citing the ongoing complaint.
In a May 11 response, Staiert said the complaint was frivolous. "The complaint was obviously filed not because anyone was interested in information they already knew, but rather to use in a negative electioneering ad or well-placed 'friendly' web-based media story in the future. Of note Ms. Wright-O’Neill was also the complainant against Unite Colorado in 2018 in [a] complaint drafted by attorney Mark Grueskin," Staiert wrote.
The Elections Division moved to dismiss the complaint based on a timeline issue. Complaints are to be filed within 180 days of the date that the complainant is aware of the possible violation. Wright-O'Neill filed on May 6, well past the 180-day deadline. Initially, the Elections Division found the complaint filing was done in a timely manner, but in its final decision agreed that the 180-day limitation was not met.
The motion to dismiss went to the Secretary of State in June. Deputy Secretary of State Ian Ryder denied that motion on July 27, stating that the "record cannot support [the Elections Division's] final assessment of the alleged violation," and sent the complaint on for a hearing.
Tuesday's hearing, held by Administrative Law Judge Matthew Norwood, focused on a request by Staiert to delay the formal hearing until after the election, and to address requests for subpoenas, including for Wright-O'Neill.
"I don’t think she [Wright-O'Neill] wrote this complaint," Staiert said. "I think this was handed to her by a special interest group, who knew or should have known I filed the tax return last August." Staiert said Wright-O'Neill has now asked that the complaint be dismissed, which Staiert said showed she was "supposedly satisfied" with how Staiert had handled the matter.
"This is about setting up negative ads," Staiert claimed.
Norwood, in addressing the timeline for the hearing, said there is a public interest in knowing the outcome of the complaint prior to the election.
Staiert responded that the "other side" has used the complaint "in a series of very expensive negative ads," and that resolving the complaint will not change anyone's mind. "I don't think I will be helped or hurt, or the public hurt in any way" because she had already filed the PFD.
Staiert also questioned why Wright-O'Neill is interested in the senate race. According to the complaint, Wright-O'Neill does not live in the district.
"Who did she confer with, was she told to file [the complaint] by an attorney representing a party or special interest group? Those are questions I fully intend to get into," Staiert said.
Staiert told the judge that she had been trying to get the complaint into a hearing since May. but by the time it was referred to the Office of Administrative Courts on July 27, "we're right in the middle of election season," she said. "I don’t have an attorney, and this has become a major distraction to stop and deal with this issue ... now is just not a good time for me to do this."
While both Staiert and the Secretary of State's office had no objection to a delay beyond Nov. 3, Norwood said he couldn't find any compelling reason to delay it that long, and a hearing date of Sept. 30 was set.
Staiert, in addition to running for the state Senate, is an attorney who prosecuted the ethics complaint against former Gov. and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate John Hickenlooper on behalf of the Public Trust Institute.
During that process, Hickenlooper attorney Mark Grueskin sought a subpoena for Staiert and former Republican Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, to find out who was really behind the ethics complaint.
America Rising, which does opposition research on Democratic candidates, was found to be connected to the ethics complaint through open records requests filed with the governor's office. Those open records requests were filed in March 2018; the first ethics complaint filed by McNulty's Public Trust Institute was the following October.
The Independent Ethics Commission denied Grueskin's request, and on June 5 determined that Hickenlooper had violated the state's ethics law in two out of six instances. He was fined $2,750.
Since then, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has booked $13.6 million in negative ads targeting Hickenlooper; in June, July and August those ads were focused primarily on his ethics issues. A separate group, Unite for Colorado, booked $2.2 million of ads, also largely on Hickenlooper's ethics violations, and also asked people to sign an online petition to advocate for changing the statute of limitations on ethics complaints from one year to eight years. While McNulty filed a ballot measure seeking the same thing, he never turned in any signatures and the online petition cannot be used to satisfy petition requirements.