Drama over oil and gas ballot measure: Claims of stolen petitions, harassment


UPDATE, 7/27: Sponsors of a proposal to limit oil and gas drilling in Colorado say they’ve recovered thousands of voter petitions supporting the measure that were taken out of state by an Oregon signature gathering firm. CLICK HERE for more.

Proponents of a ballot measure to keep drilling operations 2,500 feet from homes and businesses laid out new allegations of stolen petitions and harassment against petition-gatherers Thursday.

Colorado Rising said earlier in the week that Direct Action Partners, an Oregon-based company it hired to collect signatures to get Initiative 97 on the ballot, skipped town.

On Thursday, state Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, who is representing Colorado Rising in the matter, said Direct Action Partners is holding “hostage” between 15,000 and 20,000 petitions with signatures as leverage to avoid a lawsuit.

Direct Action Partners shut down its Colorado operation unexpectedly and emptied out its offices last week, leaving many of the temporary employees it hired to collect signatures unpaid.

The Denver District Attorney’s Office is trying to help mediate the return of the petitions, Salazar said, but no charges have been filed.

Colorado Rising has only until Aug. 6 to collect 98,492 valid signatures to get on the November ballot. They wouldn’t say how many they have now.

Colorado Politics was the first to report on the matter Wednesday.

> RELATED: Signature gatherer for oil and gas ballot measure has left Colorado

Besides the petitions, Colorado Rising is accusing Direct Action Partners of keeping part of Colorado Rising’s deposit — about $20,000 of the $75,000 in upfront money the organization says it paid. The company claimed it was using that money to pay employees who also were collecting signatures for Amendment 146, a ballot measure to make health care billing more transparent, Salazar said. Supporters of that initiative ended the effort last week, Salazar said.

Initiative 97 would expand setbacks for new oil and gas operations from the current 500 feet for homes and 1,000 feet for schools.

About 85 percent of non-federal land in Colorado would be unavailable for future oil and gas operations if the measure is adopted, according to an analysis by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

Salazar and Suzanne Spiegel, the volunteer leader of the Initiative 97 effort, said the setback does not mean the effort to get on the ballot is imperiled.

Spiegel said the campaign has brought on two other signature-gathering firms, and volunteers and new donors are pitching in to make up the potential loss of the petitions Direct Action Partners collected in Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins, Colorado Springs and Pueblo.

“We still are on track,” she said.

Michael Selvaggio, the president of Direct Action Partners (DAP), communicated with Colorado Politics via email Tuesday night. Selvaggio said in a statement that said Colorado Rising “did not provide assurances that DAP would be paid for its continued work and had numerous discussions with Colorado Rising to try to resolve the matter.”

He said his lawyer has urged him not to speak further.

Colorado Rising provided Colorado Politics with a recording of a conversation with Selvaggio about the problems, in which he accepted responsibility and urged the organization to sue him so his insurance would repay their money.

Spiegel on Thursday accused Selvaggio of “stealing” the petitions. In order to get them back, however, Initiative 97 supporters would have to sign an agreement relieving him of all liability, Spiegel said.

Thursday’s press conference pivoted to allegations of harassment of Initiative 97 petition gatherers by the oil-and-gas industry. Staff and volunteers said young people are allegedly paid by the industry to show up and harass those trying to gather signatures. In some cases, petition gatherers have called law enforcement

Jon Anderson, who was the chief counsel to former Republican Gov. Bill Owens, told Colorado Politics Thursday that he’s advising several groups “running voter education efforts” against liberal ballot efforts such as Initiative 97. They have the same constitutional rights to be there as petition-gatherers, he said.

Anderson said counter-protesters have collected video of petition-gatherers misleading people to get signatures.

“There’s been a systematic attempt by these out-of-state petition firms and their funders to leverage law enforcement to silence the many groups getting word out about a half a dozen really bad initiatives,” Anderson said. “But these complaints have all been dismissed, usually on the spot, but always within a couple days. This is not a close call —  the First Amendment applies to Coloradans trying to stop bad-for-business initiatives as much as it does to out of state petition firms trying to kill jobs and wipe out entire industries.”

Vital for Colorado, a statewide business coalition that supports the oil and gas industry, recalled that two years ago, a proposed setback initiative and another to give local governments more regulatory authority came up about 20,000 signatures short. The Secretary of State’s Office said the group turned in scores of empty or nearly empty boxes.

“Two years ago it was empty petition boxes, (and) today it’s allegedly stolen petition boxes,” said Simon Lomax, a research fellow for Vital for Colorado. “The tactics of anti-oil and gas groups in Colorado just get more desperate and misleading with time.”

The Colorado Oil & Gas Association, the trade group for the industry, called the anti-industry group’s efforts a “soap opera.”

Dan Haley, COGA’s president and CEO, and the problems “should tell Coloradans all they need to know about this bad idea campaign against Colorado’s energy industry.”

Meanwhile, regardless of who’s to blame, petition-gatherers say the lost wages are a tough burden to bear.

Michael Bass, who said he’s been homeless in the past and now barely scrapes by in a rental unit in Colorado Springs, said he was ecstatic to get hired four weeks ago as a petition circulator for Direct Action Partners.

Soliciting voters’ signatures for ballot proposals for tighter oil and gas regulations and health care billing transparency was hot and tiring work, he said, but worth it: “They paid $14.50 an hour.”

But Bass and other petition canvassers working for Direct Action Partners are now out their paychecks and future contract work, as the Portland, Oregon-based company abruptly closed its offices in Colorado Springs, Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins last week and left the state.

Bass was counting on the nearly $400 Direct Action Partners owed him, as well as future earnings. “I had to borrow money to pay my phone bill,” he said.

And if his landlord wasn’t so understanding, Bass said he’d probably be out on the streets again. “A lot of people ended up not being able to pay their rent,” he said.

Direct Action Partners employed hundreds of temporary petition circulators in Colorado, who are in the same situation. Some of the Colorado Springs workers are on parole and were depending on the money, said Patrick McClanahan, who said he’s out nearly $1,000.

“It really made a lot of people who were depending on that money fall apart because of their life situations,” he said.

Employees were told different stories about what was going on, he said, anything from the checks got stolen to the checks were in the mail.

“I’d like to see the situation remedied and get my money and people face charges for what they’ve done,” McClanahan said. “I’ve done petition work before in Colorado and North Carolina and never had any issues.”

Former employees have filed demand for payment of wages forms with the state.

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