Who doesn’t, right? Well, pay attention and you, lucky Aspen resident, might just qualify to win. Bear with me though, as this is another hydro column. I know, I know you are sick unto death on the subject but it will be my last so if you want to pick up some easy bucks, read on.
During the campaign on the advisory vote on the Castle Creek hydroelectric project, three groups formed political issue committees. “Backyard Energy” spent around $5,000 and advocated for the hydro project and “Citizens for Responsible Projects” argued against it and spent about $10,000. These two groups, which were made up of local citizens with differing views on the project, followed the law and disclosed their expenditures and donors.
But the third group, Aspen Citizens Committee, is attempting to pose as a “social welfare organization” instead of a political advocacy group. Why? Well, by disguising its true nature, the people behind it can hide and keep secret the identity of their donors and the source of their very considerable funding. Though they raised more and spent more than they want you and the IRS to believe, they supposedly weren’t advocating for you to vote a particular way.
But Aspen Citizens Committee made a serious mistake for a social welfare organization and used the word “vote” in its first mailer. That’s a big no-no for groups wishing to keep their secret contributions secret. And now the group is in a pickle. It’s run afoul of our local campaign disclosure laws by not registering and run afoul of the Internal Revenue Service by violating its tax status.
The Aspen Citizens Committee was required by our laws to register as an issue committee within 10 days of receiving or spending more than $200. The city clerk advised its backers of this and notified them to register and report their spending by Oct. 1. They’ve refused.
How much did they spend? Who knows. But mailing multiple full-color brochures (there were at least seven) isn’t cheap. One ran to four pages! Outside consultants and lawyers, even when they give bad advice as in this case, are very expensive. Even a low-ball estimate of their expenditures on consultants, postage, brochure design and production as well as radio ads would be at least $100,000 and more likely $250,000. It’s impossible to tell how much cash might have been donated and not spent.
The local groups complied with our laws so why can’t the Aspen Citizens Committee? Perhaps there were just too few actual Aspen citizens on the Aspen Citizens Committee and they want to hide that fact from the voters.
So why is this important, you say? Why can’t we just leave our poor billionaires alone?
We have campaign disclosure laws for a reason. It’s long been recognized (since Tricky Dick Nixon got in so much trouble) that large political contributions from special interest groups like Aspen Citizens Committee have a disproportionate effect on our political process, create the appearance of, if not actual, corruption in government, and that the public’s best interest is served by full disclosure.
But now we have a political interest group in Aspen, most likely comprised of only one or two big outside-money donors, wishing to have a voice in our elections but unwilling to follow the law and be honest with the public. Locals who had valid concerns about the project expressed them civilly and followed the law. The Aspen Citizens Committee has no such high-minded rationale but instead is, I think, composed of interests that stand to benefit financially by convincing the voters in Aspen to abandon their water rights.
So who is behind the group advocating for you to, in effect, give up your water rights and abandon a voter-approved project you’ve already spent $6 million on? You don’t know and that ignorance is precisely the point. And you won’t ever know if your city government doesn’t act to enforce our laws.
As elected officials, council’s business is to write, interpret and enforce the laws — all of them, not just the laws that don’t ruffle feathers. But how can any of the four — Skadron, Torre, Frisch or Johnson — who hope to be mayor of Aspen (as reported in this paper on Wednesday) meet the minimum qualifications for office if they don’t act to compel the Aspen Citizens Committee to comply with the law?
And if compelling secret special interest groups to follow the law for its own sake is insufficient impetus to act then perhaps they might consider their own political careers. If this special interest group is allowed to ignore our election laws then why wouldn’t the same group or others advocate for or against one of these fellows running for mayor in May and expect to get away with it?
Regardless of your position on the merits of the hydro project itself you should be concerned about this scofflaw behavior by the Aspen Citizens Committee.
So what’s in it for you gentle reader? Well, if you are an Aspen resident, you can initiate a civil action against Aspen Citizens Committee. As I understand the law, you can initiate the action on your own or request that the city attorney initiate an action on your behalf.
If the action is successful, and I think it would be as the violations are so blatant, you, personally, would be entitled to one half of the amount the judge sets as a penalty. The penalty cannot be more than the amount not properly reported, but with expenditures of at least $100,000 and God only knows how much more in unreported thousands, the potential amount of winnings would surely be worth the time it would take to phone City Attorney Jim True at 920-5059 or, better yet, email him at email@example.com .
This column is dedicated to a lively discussion/forum regarding issues of public policy in Aspen and Pitkin County. If you have any questions about a particular matter of policy that you’d like see discussed or suggestions about topics/ issues, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org . I’ll respond to all responsible and serious queries and emails.