Casper Stockham, a Republican candidate in three different Colorado congressional districts over the last six years, has paid nearly a quarter of the money he's raised since 2015 to a company he owns, campaign finance documents show.
In the last year, in addition to paying $8,350 from his campaign to UBG Online LLC, a Colorado company Stockham owns, the ride-share driver and motivational consultant has spent $1,900 from campaign funds at Walmart, nearly $1,300 for E-470 tolls, just over $1,000 for car repairs, $872 with Amazon and $339 with Comcast — a spending pattern that drew the attention of Garry Kirkland, a financial planner and longtime Arapahoe County GOP activist.
Stockham, an Air Force veteran and Aurora resident, ran in 2016 and 2018 against entrenched incumbent U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, a Denver Democrat, in the heavily Democratic 1st Congressional District. He lost to Degette by 40 percentage points the first time and 50 percentage points in his second try.
This cycle, Stockham was one of several Republicans running in the battleground 6th Congressional District held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Jason Crow, but in March he switched to challenge U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, an Arvada Democrat, in the more Democratic-leaning 7th Congressional District.
According to his campaign finance reports, Stockham, the decided underdog in each of the races he's run, has raised $28,048 for his 2020 campaign since launching last June, and spent $31,264 through March 31, the most recent reporting deadline, leaving a deficit of $3,216. He raised $61,218 and spent $60,692 in 2016, his first race against DeGette. In 2018, he raised $35,230 and spent $35,566.
In an interview with Colorado Politics and in recent emails to supporters, Stockham freely acknowledged he's been paying himself from his campaign account, though it wasn't until Kirkland and other Republicans started raising questions that Stockham made the disclosure.
"The campaign can pay me up to $4,500 (a month), which is what I would normally make if I wasn't campaigning, if I was working full-time," Stockham told Colorado Politics.
"The campaign has never been able to pay me anything close to that. It's been like $1,500 or whatever. So there's really no issue, other than they don't like the way my campaign has been taking off."
Kirkland told Colorado Politics he was alerted to concerns about Stockham's campaign spending earlier this year at a longstanding meeting of GOP activists. After examining reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, Kirkland said he was alarmed that Stockham appeared to be violating a cardinal rule of campaign finance that prohibits spending donors' money on personal expenses without disclosing in FEC reports that it's a salary.
A financial adviser for more than three decades who manages upwards of $40 million for several hundred clients — "I've been dealing with financial statements all my life," he said — Kirkland said he first scrutinized the campaign's regular payments to the outfit called UBG Online.
A quick trip to the Colorado Secretary of State's website revealed that the payments to UBG — through March, totaling $27,911 across three campaign cycles — went to a company owned and operated by Stockham, something the candidate's donors wouldn't realize without some sleuthing, Kirkland said.
In addition to state business records linking Stockham to the company, Stockham’s campaign and UBG Online share an address that turns out to be a strip-mall pack-and-ship store that rents mailboxes in the 6800 block of South Dayton Street in Greenwood Village.
"You begin to put the pieces of the puzzle together and you realize he is paying money from his campaign to a company he owns," Kirkland said. "The net result is there is zero transparency in this campaign what he is paying himself."
Federal Election Commission rules allow candidates to pay themselves a salary while they’re running for Congress or the presidency, though they're required to limit the compensation to the lesser of what they made before running or what they would make if elected — $174,000 annually for members of Congress, or $14,500 a month. Candidates also have to explicitly pay themselves a salary, with appropriate withholdings, and disclosure in FEC reports.
When they adopted the rule in 2002, FEC commissioners said it was to make it easier for people who aren’t wealthy to run for federal office.
While the practice is rare, two Colorado congressional candidates paid themselves salaries last cycle — Democrat Mark Williams, who ran against Joe Neguse, the eventual winner in the 2nd Congressional District, and Republican Darryl Glenn, who mounted an unsuccessful primary challenge to U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn in the 5th Congressional District.
In a rule a former FEC staffer told Colorado Politics was designed to discourage candidates from turning their campaigns into a career, candidates can't compensate themselves each cycle until after the filing deadline for their office has passed. In Colorado, for a federal candidate like Stockham going through the caucus and assembly process — rather than petitioning onto the ballot — that was April 18 this year, the day of the state assembly, according to the Secretary of State's Office.
The rules strictly forbid covering living or household expenses — food that isn't used for a campaign event, clothing or utilities, including cable and internet — even for candidates who run their campaigns out of their homes, a former FEC attorney told Colorado Politics.
"I agree he's entitled to a salary," Kirkland said. "He's not taking a salary. There is no line item that defines a salary, and there are no federal or state or FICA tax withholdings."
Added Kirkland: "It's on a small scale. He hasn't cost anyone their life's savings. But what he's doing is, he has learned over three election cycles how to milk the system."
"At this level of candidacy, it’s not uncommon to see people who are operating a campaign for reasons other than actually seeking the office," Adav Noti, senior director and chief of staff at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit devoted to what it terms "strong enforcement" of campaign finance laws, told Colorado Politics.
"The rules do allow a campaign to pay its candidate a salary, but the amounts are pretty strictly regulated, and the idea there is that being a serious congressional candidate is a full-time job, so people wouldn’t be dissuaded from running by having to take a leave of absence from their current job so they can replace that income," Noti said after giving Stockham's FEC filings a cursory review.
"None of these expenditures are listed as salary payment to the candidate, so if that is what he’s doing, that is not the legal way to disclose those payments."
Stockham said he rebuffed Kirkland's accusations when confronted by Kirkland this spring.
"He accused me of having a shell company," Stockham told Colorado Politics. "I'm like, 'Dude, it's $20,000, what are you talking about?'"
Stockham blasted his critics — including Kirkland — in a Feb. 15 fundraising email, sent when he was still running the 6th CD primary.
"My opponent's friends (anonymously of course) claimed that I am using campaign money for personal use," Stockham wrote. "This is blatantly false and very subjective BUT the people of CD6 will have to make the final decision. They have even launched a smear campaign calling my supporters. What I can tell you is I do run my entire campaign from my home and I have literally put everything I have on the line to win this race."
"I told him when I met with him face to face, these are groceries, these are living expenses, this is money from a political campaign fund to pay expenses that are a sole and separate business enterprise that has nothing to do with his campaign," Kirkland said. "And he didn't deny it. The words out of his mouth were, 'I can take a salary.' But there's no salary being reported, there's no taxes being taken out of it."
Kirkland, who said he's always liked Stockham but hasn't contributed any money to his campaigns, said the topic of the candidate's campaign finances came up at a February meeting of the Arapahoe County Tea Party but the conservatives in attendance didn't appear to want to hear anything about it.
"Casper took questions. I asked, 'Do you think that the people in this room who have donated to your campaign deserve to know that 60% of the dollars that have been donated to your campaign have gone to your personal living expenses?' He immediately starts deflecting. It astounded me that none of those people there seemed to care that he is using their money to run an Uber business off of, paying for his groceries and his cable bill. I was astounded at how they put their head in the sand. It was like, 'We're not interested. We don't want to hear it.'"
Following the discussion, Stockham won a straw poll of Tea Party members who lived in the 6th CD by a landslide, with 26 votes to six votes received by eventual nominee Steve House, a former chairman of the state Republican Party.
"This is not a minor issue that's going to be swept away," Kirkland said. "Most people, if they want to look at this, they don't know how to look, they don't know where to look. You have to really get schooled up on this stuff to understand what's going on — my experience as a financial advisor, as a commercial loan officer, and having the good sense to reach out to attorneys and accountants who understand this stuff."
Stockham itemizes contributions from 22 individual donors to his 2020 campaign — including those who have given at least $200 total since last June when the campaign launched. All but one of those donors lists a Colorado address, and 14 of the 22 list their occupation as “retired.”
Greg Lopez, a 2018 GOP candidate for governor, gave Stockham $1,000 in November, and Republican Roger Edwards, who mounted a 2018 primary challenge against then-U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, gave Stockham $750 last summer in two donations.
Stockham also received $5,000 from Elbert Guillory’s America, an Alexandria, Virginia-based political action committee, split over three donations last year, though the funds are classified as individual contributions rather than as contributions from a political committee.
Kirkland, who won election in April as a delegate to the Republican National Convention, said it bothers him that conservative Republicans haven't been more upset about what he uncovered.
"Transparency is one of the pillars of the Tea Party," he said. "They've always screamed for transparency, and I tell you, Casper's campaign finance reports are the most non-transparent financial documents I've ever picked up."
He added: "We get affiliated with these political candidates. We give them our money, they slap our backs, they kiss our babies, and we start thinking these people are awesome, and we get to believing they can't do anything wrong. It's ridiculous."
Stockham told Colorado Politics it was the persistent skepticism about his campaign spending that got under his collar.
"All of it is ridiculous, but it was something they could use to shine a disparaging light on my campaign," he said. "But it was funny, because my little $20,000 campaign was kicking their butt until all this coronavirus hit. They were worried, and they should have been worried, because I was doing pretty well in CD6."