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Nonprofit that gave big to successful Jeffco school board recall effort broke state law, judge finds

Recall supporter Cecelia Lange waved signs at 52nd and Wadsworth Tuesday morning.
Recall supporter Cecelia Lange waved signs at 52nd and Wadsworth Tuesday morning.
Nicholas Garcia

A nonprofit that launched in May broke state law when it made a large donation to the successful recall effort of three Jefferson County school board members and did not disclose its donors, a Colorado administrative judge decided Thursday.

As part of the decision, the nonprofit Jeffco United was fined $1,000 and ordered to register with the secretary of state as a political committee and disclose its donors within 10 days.

Under the administrative judge’s ruling, it’s unclear whether Jeffco United would be required to disclose its past donors or only those in future election cycles. The group could appeal the decision.

“Our legal team has the decision and is reviewing it,” said Lynea Hansen, spokeswoman for Jeffco United. She declined to comment further.

Nonprofits that are involved in political activities such as Jeffco United typically are not required to disclose donors.

However, Administrative Court Judge Robert N. Spencer said he found enough evidence to conclude that Jeffco United’s “major purpose” was to support the recall.

An El Paso County-based watchdog group Colorado Government Watch filed the complaints against Jeffco United and another nonprofit that supported the recall, Support Jeffco Kids. Spencer’s decision only applies to the pro-recall force Jeffco United.

In his decision, Spencer found Support Jeffco Kids did not violate state law because of the group’s work on other campaign issues and education work.

In July, Jeffco United donated $90,000 to a related political committee, which is required to disclose its donors, known as Jeffco United for Action. A third branch of the recall effort, Jeffco United Forward, also was created to support a slate of five candidates to reconfigure the entire school board of the state’s second largest school district.

“The disclosure by [Jeffco United For Action] that United was one of its major contributors provided little information to the electorate about who was actually funding the recall and defeated the transparency that is a primary goal of the fair campaign practice laws,” Spencer wrote in his decision.

Another group with the same tax-exempt status as Jeffco United operated similarly, but was not part of the complaint. Colorado Independent Action, run by the Independence institute, was created in January and its only donations were to the political committee Kids First Jeffco, which opposed the recall.

The transparency watchdog organization Colorado Ethics Watch earlier this month called on lawmakers to revisit the state’s campaign finance laws that govern school board races.

Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert said Spencer’s decision was a cautionary tale for future political committees.

“The groups that form just ahead of an election are going to have to be cautious about their formation and whether or not they’re going to meet the major purpose question,” she said. “… You can’t set up an organization solely to hide your donors.”

Judge Robert N. Spencer’s decision

Correction: An earlier version of this article labeled the organization Colorado Government Watch as having a conservative leaning. This is not the case, the director of the organization says.

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