When it comes to the Secretary of State’s office, the appearance of impropriety is a big deal


Let me start by making one thing very clear; the reason that local control and setback Initiatives 75 and 78 failed to make the November ballot is because proponents of the initiatives failed to gather enough valid signatures to safely see them through the process.

But it wasn’t for lack of effort. They failed because they were up against more than $20 million spent against them by a very coordinated collection of oil and gas front groups, pro-business organizations and wealthy individuals who have literally taken control of Colorado’s political system.

Under the circumstances, this grassroots effort by Coloradans trying to protect their families’ health, the environment and their quality of life from unbridled oil and gas extraction near their homes was impressive. And I for one would like to thank them for their efforts to protect my family.

Had 140,000 signatures for each initiative been turned in as was the original target, it wouldn’t have mattered who did the final counting. The initiatives would have stood the test and voters would have finally had the opportunity to combat the oil and gas industry and its backers who have hijacked Colorado’s democracy.

Instead, only about 107,000 signatures were turned in for each measure and the Secretary of State’s office, after purporting to do a random 5 percent sample test, claimed that there were not enough valid signatures to warrant a full count. The Secretary of State estimated that only 77-79,000 signatures would have been validated, leaving the initiatives short of the required 98,492 signatures needed to make the ballot.

Let me make another thing clear. My acknowledgment that supporters of these two initiatives failed to gather enough valid signatures does not mean that I believe that Secretary of State Wayne Williams’ office counted fairly or that his office was in anyway unbiased in its handling of these or other initiatives.

While I have no evidence that the count was improper, I do have plenty of evidence suggesting that the Secretary of State is very tied to the powers opposing these oil and gas initiatives, the same powers who put him into office presumably to handle times just like this should they arise. And therein lies the bigger issue.

Our state government has a very real credibility problem and it doesn’t matter if it is the result of impropriety or simply the appearance of impropriety, because both are equally destructive when it comes to the political process.

If you want to understand the negative impact that the appearance of impropriety has on our democracy, all you have to do is read my emails from this past week.

Many supporters of these initiatives are expressing their absolute belief that the Secretary of State’s office is controlled by the oil and gas industry and others opposed to 75 and 78, and that the signature count was rigged to make the measures fail.

As a result of this belief, I think many of these folks will likely become even further disenfranchised from a political system they no longer trust and many may well feel pushed toward more radical forms of opposition in their effort to protect themselves from the health impacts of oil and gas extraction near their homes. I’m referring to the health impacts that have been confirmed by “radical eco-terrorists” like the researchers at Johns Hopkins University whose three studies this year concerning people living near fracking operations have found that proximity to this highly polluting industrial practice increases the likelihood of premature births, high-risk pregnancies, migraine headaches, asthma and more.

So is this skepticism surrounding the Secretary of State’s office warranted? I’d have to say the answer is yes, but that doesn’t mean that I believe the count was rigged. I don’t think there was any reason to fudge the numbers. As far as I know, no proposed initiative with so few signatures to spare has ever made it to the ballot. But this lack of valid signatures doesn’t mean that Wayne Williams and his band of Republican-activist employees in the Secretary of State’s office are honest brokers when it comes to matters that concern the oil and gas industry.

Let’s review the powers that put Williams into office and what their goals are for Colorado.

Wayne Williams’ story will sound familiar to Boulder Weekly readers. He’s just one more political puppet put in place by the Colorado Concern/Starboard Group machine that we have been writing about for the past year.

As you may recall, the Starboard Group was founded by Republican political operatives Kristin Strohm and Katie Behnke. Starboard has been described as the most powerful Republican fundraising and consulting firm in the Western United States and increasingly the nation.

It is not an exaggeration to say that anyone hoping to get elected at the state level in Colorado has little choice but to seek office byway of the Starboard Group. That’s because Starboard controls a great deal of the money being contributed by the state’s largest campaign donors, including both corporations and individuals. So how does Starboard decide who gets the money and the other benefits of its political connections? As previously reported by BW (see Behind the curtain) Starboard’s donors are the ones who ultimately choose whom the firm works with, gives money to and as a result, who wins.

So who are these “donors” who are determining who gets elected? They are disproportionately represented by the oil and gas industry and large developers and many are members of Colorado Concern, the 118-member, invitation-only “business organization” that lobbies, donates to campaigns and otherwise has come to more or less own Colorado’s political system. But, of course, it’s more complicated than that.

Starboard’s Strohm is married to oil and gas consultant and former state senator Josh Penry. The pair has been called the first couple of fracking because of their oil and gas industry ties and pro-industry political activities.

Starboard rents Strohm out as the executive director of the Common Sense Policy Roundtable (CSPR), the pro-oil organization founded by Strohm with ties to the Koch brothers, and which controls the REMI research program at CU’s Leeds School of Business. The REMI program is the mechanism the oil and gas industry uses to produce shallow pro-oil-industry research reports whose headlines are then distributed via sound-bite advertising or as news by oil-industry-friendly media like the Denver Post.

Strohm is also on the board of Vital for Colorado, a pro-oil-and-gas front group that works closely with CRED (Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development), another industry front group created and funded by Anadarko Petroleum and Noble Energy, both of which are represented by members of Colorado Concern.
Strohm’s husband Josh Penry works for EIS solutions, a consulting firm providing such services as the creation of fake grassroots movements (astroturf groups) that appear to support increased oil and gas extraction in Colorado. It has been described as the industry’s dirty tricks machine.

Long story short, if you want to get elected as a Republican in Colorado, you have to have the support of Colorado Concern and the Starboard Group. And if you want their support and their money, you have to be pro-oil and gas, pro-fracking and anti-direct democracy.

And it’s not just Republicans dancing to Colorado Concern’s tune. The largest funder of Colorado’s Democratic Party, Tim Gill, is also a Colorado Concern member, and supposed Democrats like Governor John Hickenlooper have many connections inside Colorado Concern. And Colorado Concern’s stated goals are pretty simple. Among a few other things, they want oil and gas production to be unimpeded by government and the state constitution and they want to make it nearly impossible for the citizens of Colorado to use direct democracy by way of the initiative process in the future.

That’s right, it’s Colorado Concern members who are the real force behind this year’s Amendment 71, known as the Raise the Bar initiative. This initiative, should voters pass it, has been designed specifically to make it nearly impossible for ordinary citizens to ever use the direct democracy process offered by the current initiative process again. Number 71 would make it many times more expensive and logistically more difficult to get an initiative on the ballot in the future, leaving the process open only to extremely well-funded organizations such as, you guessed it, Colorado Concern, CRED, Vital for Colorado and other industry groups.

So back to our friend Secretary of State Wayne Williams. What can I say about the way he has handled this year’s initiative process? First, I should point out that Williams was indeed chosen by the Starboard Group’s wealthy, pro-oil donors to run for Secretary of State. And I think it’s clear now why they chose him.

Consider this recent incident: When his own hand-picked communications director Lynn Bartels inappropriately tweeted out photos of empty boxes and questioned whether proponents of 75 and 78 had turned in enough signatures to make the ballot, Williams didn’t do the proper thing and fire her on the spot. No, Williams sat silently by as her partisan, industry-influenced tweets were, as I suspect was the plan all along, turned into news headlines questioning whether the whole Initiative 75 and 78 signature turn-in had been nothing more than a publicity stunt.

I should also point out that the only “news” outlets running these headlines derived from Bartels’ tweets were from organizations getting oil-industry ad dollars, but I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.

Then consider the path of another recent Secretary of State spokesperson, Rich Coolidge. This guy left his Secretary of State position in 2015 to work for none other than Josh Penry’s EIS Solutions. And where does Coolidge’s name show up these days? He’s listed as the contact person for the Raise the Bar initiative. Another remarkable coincidence, don’t you think? Seriously, could the Secretary of State’s office get any deeper into bed with the oil and gas industry and its backers?


Now there are questions being raised about alleged campaign finance violations concerning the Raise the Bar initiative, so what is Secretary of State Williams doing about it? Is he launching a thorough investigation into the allegations? No, instead he’s apparently intervening on behalf of Initiative 71, an initiative supported by Colorado Concern and being managed in part by at least one of his former employees who just happens to work with William’s campaign fundraiser and consultant’s husband’s oil-and-gas-funded firm. Can you say inbred?

Maybe Williams’ office could have more thoroughly looked into the alleged violations concerning the Raise the Bar initiative if it hadn’t been so busy scrutinizing all the signatures on Initiatives 75 and 78. But at least that extra scrutiny paid off for Williams’ puppeteers.

Miraculously, Williams’ office was able to turn up three “potentially forged” signatures out of the 214,000 that were submitted for Initiatives 75 and 78. Yes, you read that right; three as in 3 as in III. So what possible purpose, or more accurately put, motive, could Williams have had for putting out a press release about three questionable signatures gathered by some pimple-faced, 18-year-old signature gatherer? The answer would be “none” if not for the Colorado-Concern-influenced Denver Post that treated it with the overblown importance of a Lynn Bartels tweet.

I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried. As most of you know by now, the CEO/Publisher of the Denver Post, Mac Tully, the ad salesman turned exec who has the power to decide who gets laid off and who runs the newsroom at the state’s largest newspaper, is actually a member of Colorado Concern. That’s right, the principle watchdog over the intersection of corporate influence on elected officials is a member of the state’s largest corporate influencer over our elected officials.

I know I use the word “actually” every time I write about this, but I just can’t help it. I’m still dumbfounded that this incredible conflict of interest is allowed to exist and that the newsroom at the Post isn’t telling its readers about it and demanding that it be stopped. It must be an incredible embarrassment for the serious journalists left in that newsroom. And it is a big deal.

As BW reported a few weeks ago (see Behind closed doors), a representative of CRED — the industry front group funded by Anadarko and Noble — was heard on a recording provided by Greenpeace at an industry gathering describing how CRED uses the Denver Post’s editorial board to help it create a “one-two punch” against the anti-fracking movement so it can do things like take over local city councils to make sure nothing gets in the way of fracking.

I don’t have to tell you that when a newspaper being run by an executive tied to a pro-oil and gas lobbying group like Colorado Concern is being used to help the industry “take over” local city councils in order to further the industry’s goals, it makes for a big credibility problem.

It naturally raises the question of what other areas of news coverage, aside from fracking, are being slanted at the Post. How about coverage of K to 12 education “reform” or construction defects laws, two other areas of interest where Tully’s Colorado Concern has been actively attempting to sway the state legislature. Are stories on these subjects getting the same sort of special treatment as the oil and gas industry? We just don’t know, and that’s the problem when a newspaper loses its credibility.

Now we have to question everything it writes.

So in addition to Secretary of State Williams wasting taxpayer dollars to find three potentially forged signatures out of 214,000, he now says he may turn them over to Attorney General Cynthia Coffman for prosecution so we can waste some more taxpayer money. FYI: most attorneys general would laugh off such a request for prosecution but like Williams, Coffman too was funded and chosen for office by the donors of the Starboard Group. So who knows what her marching orders are.

The only logical explanation I can come up with for Williams and Coffman pursuing this silly three-signature retaliation is that it would create more Denver Post headlines to discredit those opposing oil and gas extraction near their homes, and to send a message to any who would dare to attempt to put forward anti-oil and gas initiatives in the future.

I have to admit, it’s a powerful message to tell people who might someday want to volunteer to gather signatures for an initiative not supported by Colorado Concern or its industry pals; that collecting one bad signature could get you prosecuted by the state’s attorney general. It’s both powerful and sad and just another example of what I view as impropriety or at the very least, the appearance of impropriety on the part of the Secretary of State’s office.

Our elected officials may run for office as Republicans or Democrats, but once they take the oath of office they are to serve all of the citizens of Colorado fairly and without bias. I think it’s impossible to look at the treatment of the various initiatives this year by the Secretary of State’s office — treatment that appears to be based upon whether an initiative is supported or opposed by Colorado Concern and the oil and gas industry — and not see it as uneven, unfair and unworthy of Colorado’s democratic process.

So what should we do about it?

First and foremost, we need to be informed voters.
These polluting oil and gas corporations and wealthy individuals can only rule us if we continue to let them. Vote down their Raise the Bar Initiative 71 and thereby preserve our last defense against their ability to buy our public officials and push their self-serving agendas. And then vote against every politician or initiative receiving money from the Starboard Group and/or any member of Colorado Concern, regardless of which party they are in.

Take back your democracy, Colorado. Take it back from the people who have stolen it from you.

It doesn’t matter if you are a Boulder fractivist, a gun-rights proponent from Grand Junction, a religious conservative in Colorado Springs, an environmentalist in Durango or a fifth-generation farmer from the San Luis Valley, as long as the oil and gas industry and its millionaire backers are deciding who gets elected in this state, you lose.

This is bigger than any one issue. This is about whether we are going to choose to restore our democracy or continue to be governed by a handful of the state’s wealthiest individuals and corporations. And it’s our choice not theirs. So follow the money before you check that box on your ballot. It may be the most important thing you’ll do this year.

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