Jimmy Sengenberger

Colorado Democrats claim the mantle as the champions of transparency in campaign finance and thwarters of “dark money.” Secretary of State Jena Griswold has always marketed herself as the lead champion for both.

“The problem with dark money in politics is that it adds barriers to keep everyday people from leading and participating in our democracy,” Griswold told 5280 Magazine in April 2019. “You shouldn’t have to be rich to serve people and to serve in government.”

Who could disagree with that? Yet state and federal campaign finance records — from Griswold’s race to county clerks’ — reveal how dark money and other nontransparent donations have become the name of the game for Democrats running to oversee Colorado’s elections.

You might call 2022 the Year of Colorado’s “Dark Money Democrats.”

As I detailed in Sunday’s Denver Gazette, Griswold became chairwoman of the national Democratic Association of Secretaries of State (DASS) in January 2021.

“Documents, campaign finance records and multiple sources show that DASS has failed to live up to the transparency principle she pledged to follow,” I wrote. “Under Griswold’s leadership, DASS has become less transparent. The organization’s bylaws were changed, empowering Griswold to more directly supervise day-to-day operations, how money gets spent and who is informed on expenditures.”

Curiously, Griswold’s direct influence in operations appears to have begun earlier. According to DASS’s 2021 finance reports, the organization paid Hilltop Public Solutions $5,000 two months after she took the reins. The firm was subsequently paid $5,500 four times in April, July and August of 2021.

Griswold’s brother, Chris Griswold, is a partner at Hilltop. The direct payments to the firm appear to have ended shortly after Kim Rogers was hired as executive director. Rogers’ first payment is dated July 15, 2021.

Last week I emailed Griswold and her campaign, inquiring about these payments and whether DASS’s association with Hilltop had completely ended. Griswold’s office referred me to DASS. I still haven’t heard from either DASS or Griswold.

The fact that a national, partisan organization chaired by Griswold quietly hired her brother’s firm is questionable. But it’s par for the course: DASS works closely with a national group called End Citizens United (ECU) to fund campaigns around the country. Among them, ECU funneled $300,000 to the Colorado-based Defend Democracy Fund (DDF), which was established to reelect Griswold.

DDF has spent more than $1 million to oppose Griswold’s opponent, Pam Anderson. This includes the widely panned TV spot that CBS4’s Shaun Boyd labeled a “completely baseless… shameless smear tactic.”

Secretary of state isn’t the only race where candidates seeking to oversee elections are supported by nontransparent and dark-money donations.

According to campaign finance reports, an independent expenditure committee called Colorado Open Democracy (COD) spent nearly $780,000 backing Democrats for clerk and recorder and opposing Republicans. Such spending is historically unheard of in county clerk races.

“To see that amount of money spent, it’s unusual,” said Chuck Broerman, the outgoing, longtime El Paso County clerk. “I’ve never seen anything of that magnitude in clerk and recorder races, to the best of my knowledge.”

Every dollar spent by COD went to Berlin Rosen, a prominent New York City-based PR firm (its only other Colorado client this cycle appears to be the reelection campaign for Attorney General Phil Weiser).

The clerk campaigns supported by COD include Arapahoe County Clerk Joan Lopez ($154.2K), Amanda Gonzalez in Jefferson County ($185.9K) and Josh Zygielbaum in Adams County ($138.1K). COD has spent $126.2K against Vicki Pyne, the Republican candidate in Jefferson County32.

The group has also funded mailers supporting Candelaria Rivera (Pueblo), Bobbie Jo Gross (Mesa) and Abigail Loberg (Grand), as well as opposing Republicans Nathan Baxter (Pueblo) and Sheri Davis (Douglas).

COD is not a Colorado-based organization. The committee was registered with the secretary of state’s office on Aug. 26 by the national Open Democracy PAC. According to campaign filings, COD has received only two donations: $82.7K on Oct. 5 and $694.4K on Oct. 7. Both came from Open Democracy PAC.

“Shifting money around between these ‘dark money’ groups is routine especially when they want to obfuscate the real source of funding,” experienced politico Dick Wadhams wrote Monday.

According to federal campaign finance records, Open Democracy PAC appears to be largely funded by the Sixteen Thirty Fund, which has contributed almost $4 million to Open Democracy PAC this year.

As Complete Colorado’s Sherrie Peif reported, Sixteen Thirty Fund has “pump(ed) millions in Colorado elections with no restrictions from Griswold’s office.” The fund isn’t required to disclose its donors, making it officially a “dark money” group.

Influence Watch additionally reports that Sixteen Thirty Fund has been criticized by “left-leaning news outlets, including The New York Times, for serving as a way for left-wing groups to anonymously funnel money.”

In addition, Denverite mega-donor Merle Chambers donated $100,000 total to Open Democracy PAC — noteworthy given that Chambers has contributed $150,000 to DASS and $100,000 to DDF, alongside a $37,848 in-kind donation.

Finally, on its national website, Open Democracy PAC lists Griswold as an endorsed candidate, offering visitors a way to donate.

These days, elections are already as partisan and political as ever. Now, an unprecedented amount of Democrat dark money is infesting not only Colorado’s secretary of state race, but local county clerk and recorder campaigns. As a self-proclaimed champion of transparency, do all Democrat dark money roads lead to Jena Griswold?

Jimmy Sengenberger is host of “The Jimmy Sengenberger Show” Saturdays from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. on News/Talk 710 KNUS. He also hosts “Jimmy at the Crossroads,” a webshow and podcast in partnership with The Washington Examiner.

Jimmy Sengenberger is host of “The Jimmy Sengenberger Show” Saturdays from 6-9am on News/Talk 710 KNUS. He also hosts “Jimmy at the Crossroads,” a webshow and podcast in partnership with The Washington Examiner.

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