From the Cheap Seats: Transparency for Some

August 12, 2012

Ethics Watch is often the first to leap on campaign-filing missteps, as long as they’re committed by conservatives

Colorado Ethics Watch chalked up a win Friday in its ongoing battle to keep Colorado campaign-finance laws as complicated as possible.

Denver District Court Judge J. Eric Elliff invalidated some of Secretary of State Scott Gessler’s changes to state campaign-finance law, including a limit on penalties for some campaign-finance violations and an effort to ease the reporting requirements on groups that spend less than 30% of their funding on ballot measures.

At the same time, the judge upheld Gessler’s definition of what constitutes “electioneering communications.”

At the heart of the debate is whether disclosure rules designed to increase transparency are also decreasing political participation. Gessler has argued that finance reporting rules have become so elaborate that they discourage small, grassroots efforts unable to afford specialized campaign experts and attorneys.

Those that do proceed with campaigns can be hit with game-ending fines for relatively minor mistakes.

“Small community groups face heavy fines and ambush lawsuits, while big-money groups can afford attorneys and accountants to navigate the difficult campaign finance laws,” said Gessler in a statement Friday.

Meanwhile, Colorado Ethics Watch and Colorado Common Cause continue to advocate in favor of more stringent reporting requirements, arguing that they give the voters maximum information about donors and donations. What they don’t mention is that the stricter rules also help keep them in business.

Given that Colorado Ethics Watch is often the first to leap on campaign-filing missteps, as long as they’re committed by conservatives, it’s not surprising that the group would want to keep the process as complex as possible.

The irony, of course, is that nobody knows who’s paying for Colorado Ethics Watch, given that non-profits are not required to disclose their contributors or contributions.

“This case isn’t about transparency,” said Gessler. “When these partisan attack groups start revealing who pays for their activities, then I’ll believe they care about an equal playing field.”

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