A national group devoted to campaign finance reform filed a complaint this week with the Senate Ethics Committee against U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, alleging the Republican improperly used footage from a Senate committee hearing in a campaign ad.
Tiffany Muller, president of End Citizens United, also charged that Gardner used government resources to tweet the ad's theme from his official Senate account the night before it began airing.
A Gardner campaign spokesman rejected both claims as groundless.
Last month, End Citizens United and its sister organization, Let America Vote, endorsed former Gov. John Hickenlooper, the front-runner in a June 30 primary with former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff to pick Gardner's Democratic challenger.
The ethics complaints are starting to pile up in what could be one of the most hotly contested Senate races in the country.
Hickenlooper is facing a complaint in Colorado, where a GOP-aligned group has charged that he accepted transportation on private airplanes when he was governor, in violation of state ethics law. On Thursday, Hickenlooper learned he could be subpoenaed to appear at a hearing of the state's Independent Ethics Commission after he refused earlier this week to participate in an online hearing set for June 5.
A Democratic state legislator last month filed a complaint with the Senate Ethics Committee alleging Gardner violated a gift ban when he attended a lavish dinner party sponsored by the makers of expensive French champagne at a Palm Beach mansion, but a Gardner spokesman has said the senator reimbursed the company for the bash weeks before the complaint was filed.
The Gardner campaign ad targeted in this week's complaint, which began airing across Colorado on May 15, pitches the Republican's accomplishments securing protective equipment and tests during the coronavirus outbreak. It ends with Gardner saying, "We'll get through this together" in a clip from a newscast.
The Gardner campaign edited the ad last week after an executive with AAA Colorado asked that the motorists' organization's distinctive logo that appears in news footage used in the ad be removed, insisting that AAA doesn't get involved in anything political.
Muller's complaint points to a clip from a news program that flashes on screen for a fraction of a second, depicting Gardner chairing a 2015 hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy.
It also cites a May 14 tweet from Gardner's Senate account that pictures a rainbow breaking through the clouds over a farm and says: "Reminders all around Colorado: We will get through this. Together."
They amount to violations of Senate rules that forbid using images of Senate proceedings and lawmakers' official internet accounts for political purposes, the complaint says.
“Senator Gardner should spend less time being President Trump’s ‘yes man’ and more time reading up on ethics rules,” Muller said in a statement.
“Senator Gardner completely disregarded these ethics rules because he’s facing the toughest election of his career and he’s desperate. We’re calling on Senator Gardner to immediately take down the ad, and the Senate Ethics Committee should investigate and hold him accountable for these violations.”
Jerrod Dobkin, the Gardner campaign's communications director, told Colorado Politics in an email that the complaint misses the mark.
"The image is not an official photo or official footage subject to the regulation," he said, noting that the image appeared in a local news segment about Gardner's relationships with foreign leaders.
As for the tweet, Dobkin said, "The phrase 'we'll get through this together' is something Senator Gardner has been saying over and over for months. He said it in one of the news stories in the ad so that is why the ad is titled that."
A spokesman for End Citizens United scoffed at Dobkin's explanations.
"Gardner also said there was no personhood amendment," Bawadden Sayed, the PAC's deputy communications director, said in an email. "We’d rather have the ethics committee weigh in than take his word for it."
Muller offered a preemptory argument against one of the Gardner campaign's defenses in the complaint.
"Whether Senator Gardner obtained the footage directly from CSPAN or from another media outlet’s re-airing or reporting on the CSPAN coverage is irrelevant," she wrote. "The clip is a 'duplication of . . . television coverage of the proceedings of a Senate' and its use for political purposes is prohibited."
The tweet, she added, "does not appear to be connected to his official representational duties, which is the only permissible use of the account. Rather, the purpose of the tweet seems to be to reinforce Senator Gardner’s campaign messaging and bolster the soon- to-be-released ad."
Similar complaints in recent years have resulted in senators from both parties pulling videos that depicted them at work in the Senate.
In 2015, Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky removed a video from his nascent presidential campaign's YouTube page after the Republican-led Senate Rules Committee advised Paul it violated the rules.
"Use of any duplication of television coverage of the proceedings of the Senate for campaign purposes is strictly prohibited," Brian Hart, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the committee's chairman, R-Missouri, said.
The Paul campaign however, continued to use Senate footage in an earlier video because the segment from a Fox News report fell in a "gray area ethically," since the channel's logo and a news ticker were "clearly visible" in the clip, Politico reported. A Gardner campaign spokeswoman told Colorado Politics the footage Gardner used meets the same test, even though the news station's logo and a chyron are blurred beyond recognition in the ad.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin in 2017 removed a Twitter video of her speaking during a committee hearing after a local group raised the possibility it violated the rules.
UPDATED: This story has been updated to include reference to a 2015 Rand Paul ad that incorporated news footage of Senate proceedings, putting it in an "ethically gray area" that didn't run afoul of Senate rules.