Colorado state Capitol building

(Photo:CPR/Pat Mack)

The Colorado Secretary of State is moving ahead with a campaign finance complaint against Unite America, a group trying to elect unaffiliated candidates to the state legislature. The Attorney General’s office will represent the state and make its case before an administrative law judge.

The complaint alleges Unite America illegally coordinated with unaffiliated statehouse candidates. Originally filed on behalf of four Democratic voters, the complaint also says Unite America Inc., and its sister organizations, Unite Colorado and the Unite America Election Fund, are not being transparent about their donors, and are not following the state’s contribution limits for political committees.

​Melissa Polk, an operations manager in the election’s division at the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office, said the key factor  is the level of coordination the groups have with candidates. That determines whether the organizations have to register as political committees or independent expenditure committees under the law.

The allegation is that Unite groups are expressly advocating for the election of candidates, using phrases like ‘Support For Candidate X,’, or ‘Vote For Candidate X.’ Under Colorado law, that language triggers reporting and registration requirements as a political committee, but they weren’t registered that way.  

“At the political committee level you do have contribution limits,” she said. “You do get to contribute directly to the candidates, but there are more restrictions on that type of activity because of quid pro quo and corruption concerns.”

Other political groups get around reporting requirements by not having politics as their primary purpose and by avoiding language that directly advocates either for or against candidates, letting them operate as independent expenditure committees, with looser reporting requirements and in some cases the ability to raise unlimited sums of money.

“While there remains no determination of the validity of the complaint, we welcome a full and formal hearing of the facts to put these questions to rest,” said a spokesman for Unite America. “We are confident that this misinformed complaint, originally filed by a partisan lawyer as a political tactic to stifle new competition from independent candidates, will be dismissed.”

The Secretary of State’s office is also reviewing several other complaints against Unite America and its affiliates that could potentially move forward. One complaint alleges illegal coordination between unaffiliated candidate Paul Jones of Gunnison and the Unite Colorado Election Fund. Jones is in a tight, two-way race to unseat Democratic Rep. Barbara McLachlan of Durango.  If Jones wins, he would be the first unaffiliated state house candidate elected in Colorado in more than 100 years.

None of the complaints are on pace to be resolved before next week’s election.