Even in its purest form, political opposition research is by its nature a fishing expedition. Researchers scour public records for evidence of lawbreaking or wrongdoing by their target. Any evidence found can then be used for legal action, media pitches or paid advertising.
When a political goal is prioritized over factual accuracy, however, then the endeavor is less about catching fish and more about slinging mud. How much mud depends on how much those paying for it can afford.
In the case of former Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-CO), a trio of conservative attack groups sprung into existence to turn what might have been a standard political hit based on public records into a red herring about September 11th.
The groups have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into amplifying a single misleading news headline that created a false impression that an obscure line item in the governor’s budget has something to do with the terrorist attacks of 2001.
That misnomer about 9/11 has not been repeated by the mainstream media since first appearing in print last fall, but that has not stopped the groups from airing that attack for weeks.
The catalyst for these relentless ads? A political research project that started over two years ago.
In spring of 2018, more than a year before then-Gov. Hickenlooper would declare his candidacy for the presidency, national GOP opposition research firm America Rising requested records of all his out-of-state travel expenses while in office. He wasn’t the only target; the Republican firm was looking for dirt on all the Democratic contenders. Furthermore, his name was already in the mix as a potential challenger to Sen. Cory Gardner. As a former Governor, Hickenlooper traveled extensively to promote Colorado’s interests across the nation and overseas. Within a week, the state produced 161 pages of records.
Seven months later, Republican lawyer and former Speaker of the Colorado statehouse Frank McNulty, who had already been working with the same public records of travel documents obtained by America Rising, filed paperwork for a nonprofit organization, the Public Trust Institute (PTI).
As previously reported by the Colorado Times Recorder, McNulty has acknowledged in a radio interview that PTI was formed as a result of a Hickenlooper opposition research effort: “As we were going through this investigation [of Hickenlooper] it became clear that there was a need for an entity to call balls and strikes, to simply let the public know about these things.”
Two days after its founding, PTI submitted its first complaint to Colorado’s Independent Ethics Commission and issued its first press release, decrying the alleged illegal activity of former governor and potential Senate candidate Hickenlooper.
Yet if PTI is really intended to be a robust ethics watchdog, it hasn’t acted like one. According to its own website, in the sixteen months since its launch, it has only taken two actions aside from the Hickenlooper complaint: a complaint against former legislator Joe Salazar alleging various violations of lobbying rules, and suing the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing over a public records request.
PTI has been quiet on social media as well, having just tweeted 35 times since it launched its account–not coincidentally on the day it filed the Hickenlooper complaint. After tweeting 18 times about the complaint and its subsequent press coverage in October and November of 2018, the account went dormant for nearly ten months, before starting up again last September. Not even the hiring of a new director, conservative attorney Suzanne Staiert, warranted a public statement. Staiert, who served as Deputy Secretary of State under Secretaries Gessler and Williams, joined PTI sometime before the end of last July.
Reached by phone via a contact number from a PTI press release, Staiert declined to comment, saying only that she isn’t the spokesperson for PTI before hanging up.
PTI’s complaint alleged that while serving as Governor, Hickenlooper accepted illegal gifts in the form of free travel on private jets and in limousines to and from events. It listed nearly 100 flights, claiming that they violated or “may have violated” Colorado’s campaign finance law. It included rumors that turned out to be flat-out false, such as the claim that “Hickenlooper traveled by private aircraft to tour a Tesla facility located in Nevada.”
Public Trust Institute complaint cites 9/11 conspiracist
In order to support another allegation, that Hickenlooper accepted travel expenses for the Bilderberg conference in Italy, PTI cited an interview conducted by a 9/11 truther, Luke Rudkowksi of “We Are Change.” In a subsequent radio interview with Peter Boyles, McNulty praised Rudkowski as a “young entrepreneurial journalist.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center identifies Rudkowski’s We are Change group as part of the extremist antigovernment “Patriot” movement:
“Rudkowski has harnessed the energy of 9/11 ‘truthers’ to form an army of activists seeking to expose ‘the lies of the government and corporate elite who remain suspect in this crime’… He now seems particularly worried about the alleged role in the supposedly imminent “New World Order” of organizations such as the Bilderberg group and the Trilateral Commission. These institutions have been targeted for decades as major global evildoers by Patriot groups and other far-right organizations, including several that are racist and virulently anti-Semitic.” –Southern Poverty Law Center
The ethics complaint itself hardly made a splash.
“If former House Speaker Frank McNulty and state Sen. John Cooke aren’t embarrassed by the thorough debunking of the ethics complaints they filed against Gov. John Hickenlooper, they should be,” The Denver Post editorial board wrote just weeks after PTI filed the complaint. That dismissal, combined with the IEC dismissing 95 of the 100 allegations in its 2019 report, revealed the complaint for what it really was–a political attack.
As The Post put it, “at best it represents lazy reporting or perhaps willful disregard of the truth. At its worst, they were politically motivated lies.”
Attempts to reach McNulty by phone and email were unsuccessful.
Yet even as the most substantive allegations sank, conservative attack groups were gearing up to make the remaining ripples seem like a tidal wave.
The day after the IEC released its report, and just hours after The Denver Post ed board revisited the complaint, calling it “error-filled” and “not really about ethics,” Republican political operative Katie Kennedy filed documents to create another nonprofit, Unite For Colorado.
Like PTI, Unite is a 501c4 issue advocacy organization, the preferred IRS entity for so-called “dark money” advertising, because such groups aren’t required to disclose their donors. The entity is led by Dustin Zvonek, a longtime Republican operative who spent most of the last decade working for the Koch-funded political advocacy group, Americans for Prosperity.
A third new group, lying dormant for months as nothing more than a business name, has also joined the attack. In early April of 2018, longtime Republican attorney John Zakhem re-registered a defunct nonprofit name: Colorado Ethics Watch, which was the name of a former ethics watchdog organization led by attorney Luis Toro. The group was nonpartisan but more often than not took issue with Republican officials. It had shuttered months earlier in December of 2017, citing budget woes. Just days after the previous group’s rights to its name expired, it was snapped up by Zakhem. Now unnamed clients of an establishment Republican lawyer own the Ethics Watch name.
Reached for comment, Zakhem says he doesn’t have any concern that using the same name as a decade-old nonprofit may cause confusion. Asked if the clients he represents wanted to use “Colorado Ethics Watch” because of its existing name recognition, Zakem answered, “I don’t have any idea. I think they’re interested in watching ethics in Colorado. It’s a good name.”
All of this political infrastructure costs money. Attorneys like Kennedy, Zakhem, McNulty and Staiert don’t come cheap; nor do the web design firms, video production companies or social media consultants required to build and promote professional-looking brands. All of those costs, however, are hidden.
Since their launch at various times over the past year, this trio of groups, Public Trust Institute, Unite For Colorado, and the conservative clone of Colorado Ethics Watch have focused almost entirely on pushing the Hickenlooper ethics attack.
Hickenlooper had long since ended his long-shot presidential campaign, but having then entered the most competitive U.S. Senate race in the country, he became a far more significant target for Republicans.
The ethics claims themselves haven’t really stuck. While there is still a formal hearing scheduled, the IEC has reduced the initial allegations to a handful of nitpicky technical questions about the scope of Colorado’s notoriously strict gift restrictions for elected officials.
The insignificance of the remaining allegations is reflected in the minimal news coverage and dismissive editorials referenced earlier. Other than a few local news headlines covering the complaint process, the narrative wasn’t catching on; national outlets, outside of a single article in the Anschutz-owned Washington Times, haven’t bothered to cover the story.
So given the relative lack of substance to the initial complaint, what kept this issue alive, to the tune of over $700,000 worth of attack ads filling up our various screens and airwaves?
Revisionist accounting: decades-old federal grant money rebranded as “9/11 Recovery Fund”
The answer lies behind a second round of public records and another partisan spin on the results. Since the complaint was filed against Hickenlooper in his capacity as governor of Colorado, the state paid for his legal counsel, as is standard practice. The money to pay his attorney came from a nearly two-decades old fund of federal dollars within the Governor’s office.
The fund was created in 2003 as part of the second of President Bush’s two massive tax cuts. The Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act. The federal bill slashed taxes on investors and corporations, which collectively cost the states billions of dollars of their own expected tax revenue. This fund was a payment from the federal government to Colorado to compensate for that loss.
As reported recently by The Post, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican, spent the lion’s share of the fund during his last three years in office. Owens’ spending included on a new airplane for state travel, a decision he was criticized for at the time, though without any mention of the funds being related to 9/11. The Pueblo Chieftain reported that Attorney General Ken Salazar defended Owens, saying, “‘It is my opinion that the Temporary Relief funds are custodial in nature and not subject to legislative appropriation,’ Salazar, a Democrat, said, taking the Republican governor’s side.”
Every governor since has used the remaining dollars various expenses, from office salaries to leasing buildings.
As Owens’ budget director Henry Sobanet explained in the same Post article, “‘The recession impacted state finances and so the rules of the grant allowed regular government expenditures to be addressed at the discretion of the governor. And so, over time, that’s what this fund has been used for.’”
The use of the fund for operational state expenses had been standard for so long that anticipating the fund finally running out in 2018, the evenly bipartisan Joint Budget Committee appropriated money to cover the normal operations of the Governor’s office that otherwise would have been covered by the depleted federal fund in previous years:
“The appropriation includes an increase of $562,240 General Fund to meet payroll and operating expenses in the Governor’s Office. In prior fiscal years, these costs were covered by off-budget federal funds from the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003. This source of funds will be exhausted during FY 2018-19. This increase is a one-to-one refinance of federal funds with General Fund and does not increase the total amount of funds available to the Governor’s Office.” –FY 2018-19 JBC Appropriations Report, p.47
And as a further example of how arcane budget-writing can be misinterpreted, The Denver Post incorrectly characterized this appropriation as replenishing the federal fund, when in fact the state was just resuming its role in funding its own operations once the federal dollars were exhausted.
The George Bush administration cited the 2001 recession, which began a full six months prior to the 9/11 attacks, as justification for 2003 federal tax cuts, which, combined with the 2001 cuts, had always been an agenda item for the Republican administration. But within those tax cuts were fiscal stimulus items including the money for the states.
In a 2004 letter to the Senate Budget Committee, the General Accounting Office (GAO) described the state funding component thusly: “These funds were intended to provide anti-recession fiscal stimulus to the national economy and to help close state budget shortfalls due to the recession that began in March 2001.”
The terrorist attacks of September 11th indeed slowed the recovery process, but federal dollars intended to backfill tax revenue lost 17 years ago when Congress slashed the corporate and capital gains tax rates, are a long way from “9/11 Recovery Fund,” which conjures up images of emergency aid for the families of victims. Indeed, in the multiple public statements made in 2003 when Colorado officials received and disbursed the money, no mention of 9/11 was ever made.
Blanketing the Airwaves: Paid Advertising Begins
Nevertheless that one headline was all it took to revitalize a lackluster political attack.
First, in December of last year, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) launched digital-only ads attacking Hickenlooper on ethics and citing the so-called “9/11 recovery fund.”
Then over two days in late January, Zvonek’s Unite For Colorado registered a website and opened a Facebook page. Simultaneously, the rebranded Colorado Ethics Watch did the same, creating its own website and social media presence. The new “Ethics Watch” now sports a new logo and mission, but makes no mention of its former decade-old incarnation.
Last month both groups launched paid ad campaigns hitting Hickenlooper on ethics for accepting free travel on private jets and for paying his attorney out of “Colorado’s 9/11 economic recovery funds.” CEW has spent $6,650 on Facebook ads. Unite For Colorado has spent $176,000 on Facebook ads, with at least $90,000 allocated for various versions of the Hickenlooper attack. But the bulk of the spending came from Unite for Colorado’s half a million dollar TV and radio ad buy, which ran from March 12 – 23.
At the time, the IEC’s public hearing on Public Trust Institute’s complaint was scheduled for March 24, but on March 16, the commission postponed it to April, due to the coronavirus pandemic. The hearing is currently scheduled for April 28.
The hearing will serve as a reunion of sorts for several of the participants, including Hickenlooper, attorney Mark Grueskin, IEC Commissioner Leone, and PTI director Staiert.
Staiert in particular faces an awkward return to the commission. In 2013, while attempting to defend her boss, Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler, Staiert publicly expressed her animosity towards the commission in no uncertain terms.
In a flurry of tweets from her official account, Staiert called the IEC a “kangaroo court,” said it “doesn’t like women with authority.”
She also accused the commission of conducting an unfair hearing, and said that high school students knew more about the law IEC commissioners.
Gessler was ultimately found guilty of ethics violations by the IEC, specifically “having breached the public trust for private gain.” He spent over half a million dollars of public money fruitlessly appealing that ruling all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear it. Staiert deleted all her tweets a week later, but they had already been archived by the media.
Staiert’s tweets in defense of Gessler led attorney Mark Grueskin, who will represent Hickenlooper in his capacity as former governor at the upcoming hearing, to ask Staiert to recuse herself from a 2013 SOS hearing in which she was ruling on another matter involving Gessler’s political activity. Staiert declined and ruled against Grueskin and his clients. The IEC’s current vice chair, William Leone, was first appointed to the commission (by then-Gov. Hickenlooper) two days prior to that hearing and the news coverage of Staiert’s tweets attacking the IEC.
Despite the fact that none of the current members were on the commission when Staiert called it a kangaroo court, one wonders whether, as director of the Public Trust Institute, she will have difficulty making her case to the IEC, after having previously stated publicly that she doesn’t trust the institution itself.