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Brown, O’Donnell discuss campaign finance issue

With less than two weeks before the mid term elections, campaign finance issues have come to the forefront during the past month as organizations with a 501(c)(4) status have taken advantage of the Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission ruling written by the Supreme Court of the United States last January.

Almost anyone receiving mail in Archuleta County has been affected by that ruling, whether they know it or not, as campaign flyers clutter up mail boxes. Many of those mailers, regarding the race for Colorado State Representative House District 59 between Republican J. Paul Brown and Democrat Brian O’Donnell (mostly by Brown), have been sent out by so-called 527s — groups formed under section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code to raise money for political activities (“Swift Boat Veterans” being the most infamous example).

However, in this election cycle (and with the January SCOTUS ruling) another form of tax-exempt group has entered into the fray, raising questions about how elections are funded in America, as corporations with 501(c)(4) were deemed to hold the same status as individual U.S. citizens, with the right to free speech.

Within the last several weeks, issues have been raised about how 501(c)(4)s are funded. While 527s must list contributors, nonprofit 501(c)(4)s are not required to reveal who has made donations and that stipulation of anonymity has created a stir amongst the electorate, as money from foreign countries has funded 501(c)(4) groups, with that money bankrolling campaign ads for candidates throughout the country.

Two weeks ago, it was revealed that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (a nonprofit 501(c)(4) corporation and not a federal agency) had accepted money from foreign corporations — several set up to outsource American jobs, others to advocate for or against U.S. policy — as donations for its general fund, with that money going towards ads for specific issues or candidates.

While it is unknown how much foreign money has directly funded ads in Colorado, there is no doubt that the 2010 midterm elections are unprecedented as far as the piles of cash being shoveled into various campaigns throughout the country and the state.

Those issues have not escaped the candidates for Colorado State Representative House District 59. When interviewed last week in The SUN’s staff office, neither the Democrat nor the Republican expressed support for the status quo in 2010.

While Democratic candidate O’Donnell expressed frustration at the amount of “soft money” (through 527s and 501(c)(4)s) being spent in opposition to his campaign), he acknowledged that Brown has not been responsible for mailers sent out to defeat him (with a 7-1 disadvantage).

“Why are out-of-state, multinational corporations so concerned about me?,” he asked last week in an interview with SUN staff. “Because they know I’ll hold them accountable and not allow them to ship jobs overseas.”

“It’s those 527s,” Brown responded to O’Donnell’s charges. “I don’t know who did it.”

“I don’t like ‘em,” Brown said, answering O’Donnell’s charge of out-of-state interests. “They lie, for the most part. I don’t like negativity and I think it’s important that people know where the money comes from.”

When asked why he allows outside groups to campaign for him and why he doesn’t ask those groups to quit sending out mailers that are (to some extent) patently false, Brown answered, “I can’t. O’Donnell can’t contact those people, I can’t contact those people. I’ve tried and I don’t know where they’re at.”

Brown conceded that a recent mailer, accusing O’Donnell of being “a high-paid Washington, D.C. lobbyist” was, in Brown’s words, “completely false.”

“He was advocating for the environment, not a lobbyist for anything, and he was certainly not making much money,” Brown said.

In fact, O’Donnell said that, during his tenure in Washington, D.C., he worked on behalf of the Alaska Wilderness League, 501(c)(3) — a charitable organization forbidden by the IRS to advocate for political issues — and was paid only $20,000 a year — a claim supported by Brown during last week’s interview.

Still, Brown stated, “I’m the true environmentalist in this campaign ... I’m a rancher, after all. Sustainability is the name of the game.”

Likewise, Brown accused the O’Donnell campaign of accepting money from outside the district he hopes to represent.

“I know that Brian O’Donnell is getting 40 percent of his money from outside the state,” Brown said.

For his part, O’Donnell said that Brown’s claims were exaggerated and that money from outside the state amounted to donations from friends and family.

“It’s all right there on the Secretary of State’s website. If anyone has a question, all they need to do is call.”

O’Donnell responded to Brown’s charges by challenging that all interested citizens needed to do was to look at the SoS website to see where donations for two primary groups backing Brown (The Colorado Leadership Fund and Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government) had originated — and what little transparency existed for those groups.

Whether cavil or concrete, charges of campaign financing from both sides appear to be the only issue where Brown and O’Donnell agree. While O’Donnell claims to be a moderate and a fiscal conservative (calling for “pay/go” spending at the state level, when appropriate, and caution regarding federally mandated health insurance), by Archuleta County standards, “Liberal Democrat” certainly seems appropriate (though not perjorative).

Conversely, Brown has taken stances far outside the mainstream of conservative Republican politics (as reported in The SUN last April), accusing the current administration of attempting to quash Second Amendment rights along with establishing a “private army” to enforce a wholesale annulment of civil rights.

Certainly, the contrasts between Brown and O’Donnell could not be clearer. Nonetheless, the two candidates have arrived at an agreement when it comes to transparency regarding campaign financing.

To both their credit, Brown and O’Donnell have as much stated that both the 527 and 501(c)(4) groups polluting mailboxes county-wide (and running unsolicited ads on behalf of both parties) would be better off crawling back under the rocks from where they emerged.

jim@pagosasun.com