Gessler fingered in mail attack on Coffman

Right to Work attorney takes heat

By Chris Bragg
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

GOP election lawyer Scott Gessler, who represents Wil Armstrong’s campaign in the heated four-way 6th Congressional District Republican primary, was the “conduit” behind a mass mailing attacking Armstrong opponent Mike Coffman, members of the Coffman campaign assert.

And, according to the source from the Coffman camp, Gessler’s involvement has landed him in hot water.

Gessler was almost fired as the attorney for the Amendment 47 or “Right to Work” campaign on Aug. 4.

However, leaders of the group promoting Amendment 47 determined that Gessler was so deeply involved in litigating a slew of complaints filed by opponents of the Right to Work campaign that they couldn’t afford to let him go, the Coffman source contended, basing their assertions on information from an acknowledged funder of Right to Work who was at the meeting.

Members of the Right to Work campaign reportedly were upset with Gessler because he apparently coordinated the effort to use Protect Colorado Jobs, a shell organization that has funded Right to Work’s signature gathering efforts, for a mailing attacking Coffman in the Republican primary race — a task far afield of the organization’s stated cause, the
source said.

However, a source close to Protect Colorado Jobs disputed some elements of that story. Instead, that source said, the effort to get Gessler fired came from Coffman, who threatened members of the group with political payback. According to that second source, in a series of phone calls, Coffman threatened to hinder the Amendment 47 campaign unless Gessler was fired.

Protect Colorado Jobs, represented by its registered agent John Berry, stated when the story first broke July 31 that Curt Cerveny, from the political mailing firm Politically Direct, was solely responsible for the anti-Coffman mailing. Berry has publicly apologized to Coffman, stating that the mailing was inaccurate and that Cerveny did not have the authority to produce it.

Cerveny resigned from the committee July 31 after a morning meeting with disaffected financial backers of the Right to Work campaign, some of whom support Coffman. Cerveny reportedly was paid $3,000 to $4,000 for producing the mailing.

According to the source close to the Coffman campaign, however, Cerveny was simply the “fall guy” for the mailing, since he was not closely aligned to Wil Armstrong’s campaign. Gessler, however, was closely connected as the campaign’s legal counsel.

Cerveny, however, has his own ax to grind; Coffman fired him as his campaign manager during the 2006 run for secretary of state.

Berry did not return phone calls. Gessler also declined to comment, saying he did not have authority to speak on behalf of Protect Colorado Jobs.

The funding source for the mailing remains unclear. That lack of clarity has frustrated the Coffman campaign, considering that Protect Colorado Jobs had promised to root out the rogue funders. And that led Coffman to file a complaint with the Federal Election Commission on Aug. 7 charging that Protect Colorado Jobs has violated campaign finance law.

According to the source close to Coffman, at least $15,000 was funneled into the Protect Colorado Jobs committee under the direction of Gessler, who knew the inner workings of Protect Colorado Jobs because he represents the Right to Work campaign.

The two donors who gave money to Protect Colorado jobs in order to use its name were purported to have close ties to Armstrong, the source close to Coffman charged. The two also reportedly had had no previous involvement with the Right to Work campaign, the source alleged, and donated the money into Protect Colorado Jobs solely so they could use the organization to shield their identities.

In a press release concerning the FEC complaint, the Coffman campaign stated that the mailing had been an effort to “launder campaign funds through a nonprofit corporation in order to evade contribution limits.”

“The complaint will enable the Federal Election Commission to subpoena the bank records of ‘Protect Colorado Jobs’ to see where the money came from to pay for the mailing against Coffman,” the release states.

Coffman campaign manager Dustin Zvonek said in the press release:

“‘Protect Colorado Jobs’ has not come clean on who prepared the mailing, how it was paid for, and on whose behalf it was sent out. Until they do, this mailing is their responsibility and they should bear whatever penalties are associated with having violated federal campaign finance laws.”

Of course, the FEC won’t be able to respond to the complaint in time for the primary, Aug. 12. And one source speculated that Protect Colorado Jobs has delayed in releasing the names of its rogue members to kill time until the
primary is over.

It’s unclear whether a 501(C) 4 committee can be forced to disclose who its donors are, however. In fact, Protect Colorado Jobs has previously been the subject of a campaign finance complaint to Coffman’s own secretary of state’s office, filed by opponents of the Right to Work campaign, who said the group lacked transparency.

The complaint was filed precisely because the source behind $288,000 funneled into that campaign’s signature gathering campaign through Protect Colorado Jobs was unclear.

Coffman’s office, however, said it’s unable to force the group to reveal the identity of the members of Protect Colorado Jobs.

“It’s federally regulated by the IRS, and they (groups) are able to move within and around campaign finance laws,” Rich Coolidge, a spokesman for the Department of State, told the Rocky Mountain News in early May.

“Certainly, the secretary is committed to and supports transparency in elections…[but]…as long as they’re falling within the laws ... state enforcement agencies’ hands are tied.”

Apparently, Coffman believes the FEC can unveil the group’s donors although his office could not.

The anti-Coffman mailing sent en masse to GOP voters around CD 6 tells them to, “Call Mike Coffman and ask him to stop increasing his office’s budget,” to stop “compromising” on the state’s immigration laws, and to adopt strict policies at the secretary of state’s office to “prevent political influence.” The mailer states that 20 years in political office have turned Coffman into a “big government professional politician” and contends that during his eight years as treasurer, that office’s budget increased by 33 percent, while during his two years as secretary of state, the budget increased by 29 percent.

It appears the negative campaign may be having some effect. In an unreleased poll taken by the Coffman campaign in late July, the gap between Coffman and Armstrong apparently closed substantially. It showed a “good lead” among “people who had already voted.” But apparently Armstrong was picking up a lot of ground among voters who had not voted — which is why the Coffman campaign didn’t release
the poll.

That would seem to at least partly confirm the results of an internal poll recently released by the Armstrong campaign that showed Coffman and Armstrong in a statistical dead heat. Armstrong’s resurgence also may be attributed to the TV ads he’s plastering around CD 6, including one that attacks Coffman’s performance as Colorado’s secretary of state and treasurer.

But they came with a price: $526,000 of Armstrong’s personal money, according to the latest FEC report. Coffman, meanwhile, has taken out a $100,000 loan for his campaign.

The Right to Work campaign is facing several complaints from opponents of its business-backed initiative. The pro-labor group Protect Colorado’s Future has alleged gross violations during the signature gathering process for Amendment 47 and several other business-backed initiatives. Gessler has been the attorney responsible for responding to those complaints.

On Aug. 7, the Right to Work campaign sent out an e-mail announcing that certain claims against the Right to Work campaign had been dismissed, and that Gessler had filed new motions to dismiss remaining claims — leaving no doubt that Gessler remains employed by the campaign, despite any internal friction.