Election

Shadows surround the people, money and cats trying to influence Denver’s 2019 race for mayor

Loopholes and violations leave the public in the dark.

A campaign mailer paid for by Friends of Denver's Future.

A campaign mailer paid for by Friends of Denver's Future.

staff photos

It’s a stretch to call the cartoon mailed to Denver voters this month a comic strip because it’s not exactly funny and it’s also sort of confusing.

The clip-arty mailer paints a world in which feline lobbyists — fat cats — get cozy with a human mayor in Colorado. Presumably the cartoon politician is meant to be Michael Hancock, though he is never named and the artist depicts him as a balding white guy.

“What’s funny about $1.3 billion pay to play?” the card reads. Presumably the ungrammatical sentence is a reference to Colorado Public Radio’s report that clients of Denver’s big three lobbying firms have received more than $1 billion in city contracts since Hancock took office.

The group behind the mailer, “Friends of Denver’s Future,” is not registered in the City and County of Denver, which may be against the law. Any committee that raises or spends at least $500 to influence a city election must register with Denver Elections Division.

It could also be an independent electioneering group — sort of rogue political actors, at least officially. They promote or deride political candidates but are not technically tied to anyone’s campaign. These organizations must file reports once they spend $1,000.

It’s unclear what type of group Friends of Denver’s Future is, or how much it has spent, because it has not filed reports with the city. One Denverite filed a complaint about the group on April 19 alleging as much. Friends of Denver’s Future gets 30 days to respond to a letter from Denver Elections, and the case could end up in district court.

Denver Elections addressed the letter to a new political organization that did register with the Colorado Secretary of State under a slightly different name — “Friends for Denver’s Future.” Personal injury lawyer Dana Petersen and Robert Jon Hernandez are the custodians. Petersen once ran to represent Arapahoe County in the statehouse. Neither are talking.

“I’m not gonna give any information,” Petersen said when reached by phone. He registered the group for his client, he said. Hernandez did not respond to email or phone calls.

A campaign mailer paid for by Friends of Denver's Future.

A campaign mailer paid for by Friends of Denver's Future.

The cartoon’s obscure nod to Hancock could be deliberate. Mailers must “unambiguously” refer to candidates to be considered electioneering, the law states.

Anonymously influencing elections is contrary to good political discourse, says Amanda Gonzalez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, which advocates for electoral transparency.

“Colorado voters need to understand who is influencing their vote, and we know there is an undue influence of money in elections,” Gonzalez said. “The best way to know whether or not if we can trust those sources is if we know who they are.”

Buried deep in the Colorado Secretary of State’s website where the average voter is unlikely to go, there is proof that an Aurora resident oversees the Committee for a Great Denver, another shady electioneering group.

Selena Dunham, owner of Classique, a “private client service company” according to its website, heads Committee for a Great Denver, which is actually a business registered with the state. This one promotes Hancock and scorns his challenger, Jamie Giellis.

The organization has spent more than $50,000 campaigning for Hancock, yet the person who started the group is not in the city’s public records.

Committee for a Great Denver is registered with Denver Elections, but listing the founder’s name is not a legal requirement, according to Denver Elections spokesman Joe Szuszwalak. (Documents do contain a legible signature.) He called it a “loophole,” but the level of candor is better than it once was.

“Previously this wasn’t even a requirement at all,” Szuszwalak said. “We probably want to look at expanding this requirement beyond what it currently is.”

Committee for a Great Denver slapped together an ominous-looking website that goes after Jamie Giellis, Hancock’s opponent:

Who is Jamie Giellis?

The website before and after Denver Elections sent a cease and desist letter.

The group used the Denver Elections logo, which was illegal. The public office sent a cease and desist letter to the group, which removed the image.

Facebook ads and candidate cards promoting Hancock were other big-ticket items.

This is who has funded the electioneering:

  • Dick Monfort, Rockies owner
  • Christine Benero, President and CEO of the Mile High United Way
  • Samuel Gary, Gary Investments
  • David Younggren, Gary Community Investments
  • Rob Cohen, Chairman and CEO of IMA Financial
  • Patrick Grant, National Western Stock Show
  • Ron Williams, National Western Stock Show
  • Stanton Dodge, DraftKings attorney
  • Rose Andom, ROSMIK Inc
  • International Association of Firefighters
  • Russ Heise, retired
  • Debra Nickels-Zandi, unemployed

Don’t be surprised if you see more political stunts in the next two weeks before Election Day. According to the cat cartoon, the pay-to-play “comic” was just episode one.

Want some more? Explore other Election stories.

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