In a startling turn in Colorado’s race for governor, Republican candidate Walker Stapleton said Tuesday he is withdrawing petitions that won him a spot on the June 26 primary ballot, accusing the firm that gathered signatures on his behalf of engaging in “fraudulent conduct” and lying about it to Stapleton’s campaign and state officials.
The Colorado secretary of state’s office certified April 6 that Stapleton’s campaign had gathered more than the 10,500 valid signatures needed to make the ballot.
But Tuesday, in a hastily called press conference, Stapleton told reporters he was backing away from the petitions submitted on his behalf and instead would try to qualify for the ballot by seeking support from GOP delegates at Saturday’s state party assembly in Boulder.
Stapleton, the state treasurer and presumed GOP front-runner in the governor’s race, will likely face seven other Republicans at the assembly, where it will take support from at least 30 percent of delegates to get on the ballot.
Two other GOP candidates, Doug Robinson and Victor Mitchell, have submitted petitions, which are still under review by election officials.
There was no immediate response to Stapleton’s accusations Tuesday from Dan Kennedy, who runs Colorado Springs-based Kennedy Enterprises, the company hired by Stapleton to conduct his petition drive.
Previously, Kennedy denied that his circulators did anything improper or against the law, telling Colorado Politics in an email: “[T]o the best of my knowledge, ALL of the petition circulators are Colorado residents. And ALL the signatures were gathered legally.”
It’s the latest chapter in a controversy over signature gathering on behalf on candidates in Colorado races — and whether the gatherers in some cases were legally qualified to circulate petitions.
Before Tuesday’s announcement, Stapleton had asked to intervene in a lawsuit filed last week seeking to remove U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn from the 5th Congressional District’s GOP primary ballot — a suit that alleges some signatures on Lamborn’s petitions placing him on the ballot were gathered improperly.
Lamborn and Stapleton both employed Kennedy Enterprises to gather signatures, potentially putting Stapleton’s petition at risk if a judge agreed with the lawsuit against Lamborn.
Five Republican voters had sued Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams, alleging that several paid circulators hired by Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, didn’t satisfy legal residency requirements. That lawsuit was being heard Tuesday in Denver District Court.
But Stapleton’s attorneys switched course and withdrew their motion to get involved in the Lamborn lawsuit, just hours before the candidate made the announcement about his petitions.
In a strongly worded letter delivered to Williams asking that his petitions be rejected, Stapleton said his campaign learned Monday that allegations leveled last month by the Robinson campaign raising questions about a Stapleton circulator had merit.
Robinson and the head of a firm he hired to gather his petition signatures — Republican consultant Dustin Olson — charged that at least some of Stapleton’s signatures had been gathered by a Miami resident named Daniel Alejandro Velasquez, who admitted in a phone call recorded by Olson that he collected signatures without meeting legal requirements.
Until Stapleton’s announcement Tuesday, his campaign maintained there was nothing to the complaints about Velasquez, noting that Kennedy roundly denied anything improper had taken place and that Williams had said his office had found no evidence to back up the claims. But Stapleton switched course Tuesday, alleging Kennedy repeatedly lied about Velasquez’ involvement in the petition drive.
“Last night, my campaign learned that Kennedy Enterprises, LLC, the signature gathering firm we retained to conduct and manage our petition gathering process, engaged in fraudulent conduct when gathering signatures in support of my candidacy for Governor,” Stapleton wrote. “Specifically, Kennedy Enterprises employed a ‘trainee circulator’ by the name of Daniel Velasquez and allowed this individual to circulate petitions which were then executed by another circulator as though that circulator — and not Mr. Velasquez — had circulated them.”
“Kennedy Enterprises repeatedly lied to my campaign when we asked them about news reports alleging this conduct weeks ago. Until last night, Dan Kennedy and those working for him insisted that no such individual had ever worked for Kennedy Enterprises. Worse than lying to my campaign, they lied to your office when your office specifically asked about these news reports.”
In a statement to Colorado Politics, Robinson cheered Stapleton’s move but didn’t let him off the hook.
“I applaud Walker for doing the right thing and for withdrawing his petitions,” Robinson said.
He added: “However, this does not change the fact that this fraud was perpetrated right under Walker’s nose. This fraud was so egregious that my team uncovered it as part of the due diligence of our own operation. It strains credulity to believe that no one on Walker’s team was aware of these abuses before last night.”
Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, a gubernatorial candidate likely competing for delegate support with Stapleton at Saturday’s assembly, argued that Stapleton’s announcement demonstrates “he can’t be trusted to play by the rules.” She also swung at Kennedy and suggested Williams and the state GOP should refuse to allow Stapleton to shift course.
“Once again Walker Stapleton has shown his true colors,” Coffman said in a statement. “He’s proven to Colorado voters that he can’t be trusted to play by the rules. The truth is, Walker tried to avoid addressing Republican delegates and got tripped up in the execution of his own political strategy.
“A candidate shouldn’t be rewarded because he couldn’t buy his way onto the ballot. Walker is stuck with the consequences of his decisions and the Colorado State Party and the Secretary of State should not be in the business of picking winners and losers by manipulating the caucus and assembly process after the fact. We all knew the rules and presumably we all abided by them. If they allow Walker Stapleton to go through the Assembly now, they are violating their obligation to the delegates to have a fair and neutral process.”
Coffman continued: “Walker chose to hire a group of shady petitions gatherers with a notorious and sordid past. Now, in the 11th hour, he once again shows no respect for the rules, the party or Republican delegates. Now, it will be up to the delegates to decide who they trust to represent their interests in the primary elections.”
Another candidate going through the GOP assembly, Colorado Springs businessman Barry Farah, said he looked forward to asking delegates for their votes. “What I have to share with the delegates at the assembly on Saturday will not change,” Farah said in a statement. “And, I imagine that more than one candidate will borrow my heartfelt conservative talking points. But delegates can see through that, and are aware that my executive leadership experience and commitment to founding principles are the real deal.”
Farah’s campaign manager, Jefferson Thomas, took a shot at Stapleton’s petition problems.
“I see no logical reason to withdraw from a petition process that has been certified by the Secretary of State unless some very serious issue is in play,” Thomas said. “Barry would never spend $250,000 of anybody’s money without personally ensuring the process was managed professionally and handled legally.”
Colorado Democrats, meanwhile, described the situation as “an epic disaster for Stapleton” in a statement after his announcement.
“Walker Stapleton has been running a sleazy campaign since day one, and now we can add petition fraud to the list,” Eric Walker, Colorado Democratic Party spokesperson, said in the statement. “This is an embarrassing belly flop into the heart of campaign season. Stapleton knows he doesn’t have the support of the Republican base, and was terrified to go through the state assembly. Now he has no choice.”
For a congressional candidate, it takes 1,000 valid signatures from fellow party members to get on the ballot; for statewide candidates, including governor, it takes 10,500 — 1,500 from each of the state’s seven congressional districts.
According to the Colorado secretary of state’s office, Lamborn submitted 1,269 signatures that passed muster, while Stapleton submitted 11,325 valid signatures.
Michael Francisco, the Colorado Springs attorney representing the Republicans suing Lamborn, said investigators have determined that nearly 700 of Lamborn’s signatures were gathered by paid circulators who registered to vote in Colorado but “lack any real connection to Colorado” and don’t qualify as legal residents.
Using the same criteria, Francisco is alleging that more than 8,000 of Stapleton’s signatures were gathered by circulators whose claims of residency “don’t pass the smell test.”
In a statement issued last week, Lamborn said he was certain the lawsuit challenging his petitions lacked merit.
“This lawsuit will be dismissed soon. I have spoken to the company that gathered signatures and have been assured that all applicable laws and regulations have been followed. I look forward to continuing this spirited campaign,” he said.
The dispute revolves around a longstanding practice employed by petition-gathering firms of hiring temporary workers, many of whom travel from state to state working petition drives.