A Denver District Court judge on Friday ruled that the signature-gathering firm hired last year by Republican gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton must return the money the Stapleton campaign paid the firm because it firm didn't do enough to determine whether some of its signatures were gathered illegally.
Hoffman ordered the firm to pay back the $235,821 — amounting to $11 per signature — it had charged Stapleton to collect the signatures to get on last year's Republican primary ballot for governor. In addition, Kennedy will have to pay interest on the amount.
But the judge ruled the firm didn't commit civil theft, which could have upped the damages considerably.
The verdict caps a tumultuous stretch that rocked last year's gubernatorial primary when Stapleton, then the Colorado state treasurer, first qualified for the ballot by petition but then withdrew the petitions, on April 10, 2018, accusing Kennedy's firm of engaging in “fraudulent conduct” and "repeatedly" lying about it to Stapleton’s campaign and state officials.
Instead, Stapleton qualified for the primary four days later at the GOP state assembly, where he won top-line designation with 44% of delegate votes. He went on to win a four-way primary but lost the general election by 11 percentage points to Democrat Jared Polis.
"I'm very pleased for Walker and his family. It was absolutely the right verdict," said Stan Garnett, the former Boulder County district attorney, who represented the Stapleton campaign.
"It was a very, very difficult situation that this defendant put him in," Garnett said in an interview after the verdict was announced. "Part of what was really satisfying was that the judge went out of his way to vindicate the decision Walker made."
In its lawsuit, the Stapleton campaign charged that Kennedy had employed "shadow petition circulators whom Kennedy knew were unqualified to circulate petitions under Colorado law," an allegation roundly rejected by Daniel Kennedy, founder of the firm, which has circulated petitions for Republican candidates in Colorado for more than 20 years.
Under Colorado law, candidates for statewide office can qualify for the ballot by gathering 10,500 valid signatures from registered voters — 1,500 from each of the state's congressional districts — or by winning the support of at least 30% of the delegates to party assemblies.
Until this year, signature gatherers for candidate petitions had to be state residents and registered to vote with the same party as the candidate, though the legislature has since removed the residency requirement.
The allegations against Kennedy first came to light when a petition firm working for a rival GOP gubernatorial campaign secretly recorded a phone call with a man named Daniel Velasquez, who said he was working with a crew of "felons" to gather signatures for Stapleton.
For weeks, the Stapleton campaign denied the veracity of the statements made in the recording, which was first reported by Denver TV station KMGH-Denver7. But on the morning of another trial involving allegations that Kennedy had employed unqualified signature-gatherers, Stapleton said in a hastily called press conference that he had uncovered new evidence supporting the claims.
Kennedy's attorney, Susan Klopman, said after the judge ruled Friday that his decision turned on a "technical provision" in the contract, adding that the court "found that Mr. Kennedy could have asked more questions of more individuals.”
Kennedy declared the the court had "vindicated my integrity and truthfulness" by ruling in his favor on Stapleton's claim he had committed civil theft.
"I conducted myself honestly throughout the campaign in 2018 and hold that core belief in my life and work," Kennedy told Colorado Politics in a statement.
"While I am disappointed in the financial outcome for my firm, I recognize that the court found no fault with my firm’s work or integrity in gathering signatures, instead affirming that we made good faith efforts to determine the validity of every single signature submitted to the secretary of state.”
Klopman said they haven't decided yet whether to appeal the ruling.
Garnett, who was the Democratic nominee for attorney general in 2010, said the case illustrates the problems with Colorado's petition system and called on state lawmakers to address the issue.
"I think the legislature should convene a special committee to look generally at the whole issue of ballot access," he said. "We need a process that is fair to people, maintains the integrity of the system and makes it so all kinds of people can get on the ballot."
Garnett continued: "This case shows the petition-gathering process has become very complicated and very expensive. The more expensive it is, the more risk there is of corruption or other problems with the process."
UPDATE: This story was updated on Aug. 12 to include comments from Dan Kennedy and Susan Klopman, his attorney.