The Colorado Supreme Court on Monday overturned an appeals court decision on a campaign finance complaint filed against the Alliance for a Safe and Independent Woodmen Hills.
The 2014 complaint was filed by Campaign Integrity Watchdog (CIW) and its director, Matt Arnold, the state's most prolific filer of campaign finance complaints. CIW filed about half of the 184 complaints lodged with the Secretary of State's Office since 2014. CIW has filed three complaints against the Alliance, including one less than a month ago.
The Woodmen Hills Metropolitan District, a homeowners' association, held an election in 2015 to fill a vacant position on its board. One candidate was Ron Pace. The Alliance was formed to educate residents on district issues, and to oppose his candidacy.*
When Pace ran for the board, the Alliance advocated for his defeat, and he lost. Pace and CIW filed the campaign finance complaint, alleging that the Alliance failed to register as a political committee and to report campaign donations. An administrative law judge ruled in favor of CIW and Pace, saying the Alliance had spent more than $200 on the campaign, the threshold in state law for reporting donations. The judge also ordered the Alliance to register as a political committee and fined the Alliance $9,650 for those violations.
The Alliance registered as a political committee in October 2014. It is still an active political committee, and in 2014 it raised about $18,000 for its political activities. More than $200,000 has been contributed in the form of insurance payments and attorneys' fees, though, including those provided by attorney and state Sen. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs.
The Alliance appealed the decision to the Colorado Court of Appeals.
Meanwhile, a veritable tennis match of complaints and counter-charges commenced in September 2015:
• CIW filed a complaint in 4th Judicial District Court in El Paso County in order to compel the Alliance to pay the fine.
• The Alliance filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, saying it wasn't filed within the one-year deadline to do so.The court ruled in favor of the Alliance and awarded it attorneys' fees and costs.
• CIW disputed that decision, claiming the Alliance had continued to commit campaign finance violations, so the clock was still ticking.
The Alliance also filed a foreclosure action against Pace in October 2015 to recoup attorneys' costs tied to a failed 2012 defamation lawsuit filed by Pace against the Alliance and Gardner, the Alliance's registered agent. (A registered agent is to ensure compliance with campaign finance laws.)
The appeals court ruled in favor of CIW in 2017, ruling that the dates of the violation, as determined by the administrative law judge, were "merely instructive and not binding for the purposes of the statute of limitations." The appeals court also dismissed the awarding of attorneys' fees to the Alliance.
Then it was off to the state's highest court.
The state Supreme Court's ruling Monday looked at the plain language of Amendment 27, the voter-approved campaign finance law passed in 2002. The high court ruled that since CIW had filed its motion in El Paso County more than a year after the administrative law judge's decision, the motion was outside the statute of limitations. The justices reinstated the requirement that CIW pay attorneys' fees and costs.
Gardner told Colorado Politics that the Alliance intends to go after those attorneys' fees, against CIW and potentially against Arnold in his personal capacity. "I couldn't be more pleased with the decision," Gardner said. "It's been disappointing to me that after [4th Judicial Court] entered a correct decision that it was overturned at the Colorado Court of Appeals."
"This particular horse was dead a very long time ago, but Mr. Arnold continues to beat it," said Ryan Call, former head of the Colorado GOP and the registered agent for the Alliance. "If chilling political speech and discouraging activity in connection with a small local district election was his goal, he certainly accomplished that. I stopped trying to figure out what motivates him, but I expect it's akin to why an arsonist sets fire to abandoned buildings."
Arnold told Colorado Politics: "The Supremes got it wrong again." With regard to the statute of limitations, Arnold said, he could not file an enforcement action before he had an action to enforce, so the ruling is an "absurd result."
He said Justice Richard Gabriel, who wrote the court's opinion, ignored prior case law, including from the Colorado Supreme Court. The ruling "incentivizes lawbreakers to drag things out, to play stupid lawyer tricks, and even when the judgment is against them, it cannot be enforced."
He said the Supreme Court has created a "no-way-out Catch 22, in which a lawbreaker can run out the clock and thumb their nose at any judgment." The court "has eviscerated what's left of enforcement of campaign finance law in Colorado. At this point, violators can say, 'So what? You caught me, and you can't enforce it.'"
Correction: A previous version misidentified Ron Pace and his relation to the Alliance.