By Ashley Dean and Esteban L. Hernandez
With the announcement that he’s requesting signatures collected through the petitioning process be tossed after learning of an issue with the company that helped collect them, State Treasurer Walker Stapleton has changed the game for the Republican State Assembly.
In a press conference outside the Colorado Secretary of State’s office Tuesday morning, Stapleton said he’ll now be looking to secure a spot on his party’s ballot through Saturday’s assembly — a step that suddenly adds even more pressure to candidates who had banked on this process for their spot on the primary.
Political consultant and former Colorado Republican party chairman Dick Wadhams said Tuesday that Stapleton’s announcement is unprecedented for a candidate just days away from the assembly.
“Now it turns into, literally, a free-for-all,” Wadhams said. He added: “That convention Saturday is going to be one hell of a show.”
Walker told the press Tuesday that his campaign was “defrauded” by signature gathering firm Kennedy Enterprises. He said there was “misconduct” in the way the signatures were collected, that the company lied to him and that he would be filing a lawsuit.
Stapleton said there are more important things in life than winning an election, including the integrity of the state’s election process. He said it’s why he decided to hand-deliver a letter to Secretary of State’s office requesting his office reject all signatures submitted by his campaign.
Stapleton said Kennedy Enterprises president Dan Kennedy lied to his campaign, the media and to the Secretary of State’s office.
“I am here today to do the right thing, because at the end of the day, as a statewide elected official for now, going on eight years, I have tried each day in office to comport myself with honesty and integrity, and today is no different,” Stapleton said.
“In good conscience, I cannot be put on the ballot in this manner and I will not,” Stapleton added.
The change in strategy seemed to lend credence to earlier news reports about the campaign’s signature gathering operation.
In late March, a man told Denver7 that he illegally gathered signatures for nomination petitions. The Stapleton campaign’s request to withdraw the signatures confirms that story.
The request also expresses the campaign’s hope that the Secretary of State’s office will investigate Kennedy Enterprises and offers its assistance.
In a statement to press on Tuesday, Kennedy said his firm has operated in Colorado for 24 years, “serving dozens of clients with the utmost integrity, while doing our very best to assure each and every one of our independent contractors collect signatures according to all the laws. Most of the folks on both side of the political isle (sic) can attest to this fact!”
Kennedy said he didn’t lie to any of his clients and said signatures collected for Stapleton’s campaign were lawfully collected. He said he had been contacted by Stapleton’s campaign about a month ago about a “situation” that led Kennedy to ask one of his subcontractors to look into it.
“Last night (April 9, 2018) when presented with some new information from the Stapleton campaign I inquired again to the subcontractor who, again looked into this matter and reported to me that I had previously been misled,” Kennedy said in his statement. “I immediately reported this new information to the Stapleton campaign.”
This should throw a wrench in Stapleton’s plans to help Congressman Doug Lamborn, who is being sued by voters claiming that some of his signatures are invalid. A hearing for that lawsuit was scheduled for 9 a.m. today.
Stapleton had filed paperwork in the court case to intervene and have the case against Lamborn dismissed, because he hired some of the same signature collectors being challenged in the Lamborn case. Stapleton said it was during questioning done in preparation for a similar challenge like the one against Lamborn, his campaign learned the “extreme disturbing” information.
Once he learned last night that Kennedy was telling different stories, Stapleton said he decided to pull the plug on his petitions. It centered around a person who wasn’t allowed to be circulating petitions but was still doing so (it was the man identified by 7 last month).
Stapleton said there wasn’t anything wrong with the petitions, which is why the Secretary of State’s office announced that he made on the ballot on April 6. He submitted 19,214 signatures, 11,325 of which were deemed valid at the time. The number of valid signatures needed to qualify for the ballot is 10,500.
The issue was that there was misconduct in how they were collected, Stapleton said.
“There is an individual, who Mr. Kennedy represented, did not exist that in actuality, not only exists but was employed by Kennedy Enterprises, that is not legally able … and shouldn’t have been able to collect petition signatures,” Stapleton said.
Stapleton alleges Kennedy Enterprise told them repeatedly the man in question didn’t exist — and it turned out the guy did exist, Stapleton said.
So, as predicted, Saturday’s Republican State Assembly will get weird.
Because Republican delegates aren’t committed to the candidate they supported at county assemblies, other candidates can make surprise surges on the floor at the state assembly. It happened two years ago with Darryl Glenn.
“Not anything can happen, but it could be interesting,” Republican Party State Chairman Jeff Hays told Denverite earlier. “You could have somebody who totally out of the blue gets nominated and they get a chance to speak.”
Stapleton’s entry into the assembly will be a big challenge to the other Republican candidates — particularly Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, the highest profile candidate relying exclusively on an assembly result.
In an early-March poll, Stapleton was leading among Republican candidates with 26 percent of support, giving him a 13-point lead over Coffman, who polled at 13 percent.
Stapleton said his campaign will take his message of economic opportunity and policy directly to voters.
“We intend to win there,” Stapleton said, before adding later: “We have a strong grassroots effort. We’ve won straw polls form Weld County to Mesa County, all across the state of Colorado…I feel good about our grassroots efforts and I feel good about going to assembly.”
Wadhams said he’s not sure any of the three top-tier candidates including Walker, Coffman and Farah, have “worked” the delegates enough, so it’s unclear who among them has an advantage. He said he could see a scenario where two of these candidates earn a spot, but three seems highly unlikely. There’s also second-tier candidates who have been making the rounds in political circles who may end up taking delegates as well.
“If you’re a political junkie, it doesn’t get any better than this,” Wadhams said.
Colorado Republican Party spokesperson Daniel Cole said since candidates can be nominated on the floor during the assembly, Stapleton’s Tuesday announcement “doesn’t present problems.”
“Everything continues to proceed according to plan,” Cole said.
Colorado Democratic Party Spokesman Eric Walker issued a statement to Denverite about Stapleton’s campaign.
“He’s been running a sleazy campaign since day one, and the signature gathering operation is no different,” Walker said. “You look at what the campaign’s been about — before he was even in the race, he was coordinating with a super PAC, then he’s running ads on television, using not-campaign money, using public money to boost his name ID in the middle of a primary, and now you have this petition-gathering operation, the growing scandal with (History Colorado).”
For his part, Stapleton is planning on suing Kennedy.
Stapleton said he will be filing a lawsuit against Kennedy. He encouraged others who was “wronged” to do the same and said he wants to him to be held accountable.
“I am unfortunately a victim of this misconduct and there may be other victims too,” Stapleton said.
His campaign’s attorney, Chris Murray, said Stapleton’s campaign paid more than $200,000 to gather signatures. The contract between the two stipulated Colorado laws had to be followed.
“And also, that they just be honest with us and allow us to oversee their efforts,” Murray said. “And they weren’t. So the first thing we can do is get that money back.”
Murray said the lawsuit could also give them a chance to learn more about Kennedy’s practices and how he conducts his business.
“I have a feeling that we’re not the first people that this game has been played with,” Murray said.
Stapleton added that he has not been contacted by law enforcement in relation to the allegations. Murray said he would look forward to a call from law enforcement.
Cole said Murray has worked as the Colorado Republican Party’s general counsel, but he will be recusing himself from that post for now since his client is now participating in the assembly process.
There’s one other Stapleton-related bit of drama playing out right now.
On the same day his petition was approved, the Stapleton family foundation was accused in the Colorado Times Recorder of increasing its donations to History Colorado in order to have former Denver Mayor Benjamin F. Stapleton’s name removed from displays about Colorado’s history with the Ku Klux Klan.
History Colorado communications manager Brooke Gladstone sent a statement over the allegations.
“History Colorado has never shied away from talking about Mayor Benjamin Stapleton’s involvement with the Ku Klux Klan, and in fact talked about this in an interview on 9News on August 15, 2017,” Gladstone said in the statement.
“We have talked about his role with the KKK in publications, exhibitions and media, and to suggest that we deliberately omitted any mention of his involvement because of a donation is patently incorrect. History Colorado takes its responsibility to present the stories of Colorado’s past — the good and the bad — very seriously and we do so with the utmost integrity.”
To attend the Republican State Assembly:
You don’t need to be a registered Republican, but you do have to pay a fee to attend as a guest. Colorado Republican Party spokesperson Daniel Cole said this costs $60. There are deals for younger folks: It’s $20 for someone 35 or younger and $15 for people 16 and younger. These prices are for young adult guest badges, and Cole said the prices are lowered to encourage young Republicans to participate.
Andrew Kenney contributed to this report.