Campaigns on bail bond issue run afoul of finance laws

by Joe Hanel
Herald Denver Bureau
Thursday, September 23, 2010

DENVER - Sponsors of a ballot measure on bail bonds have never filed a campaign-finance report despite a large-scale petition drive to put Proposition 102 on the ballot.

In addition, the secretary of state's office could not confirm that one of the sponsors, Mike Paul Donovan, is a registered Colorado voter, although Donovan's co- sponsor, Matthew Duran, insists they both are Colorado voters.

Opponents of Proposition 102 have not registered an official campaign, either.

The issue exposes the inability of Colorado's election laws to make sure Colorado voters know who is for and against the issues they will see on the November ballot. It is the second time this election that a group has managed to place questions before voters without revealing who paid for the campaign.

"Voters should have the right to weigh the credibility of what's on the ballot based on whose interests are at stake, who's funding it," said Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, who has sponsored several campaign-finance bills.

Proposition 102 would ban judges from releasing repeat or violent offenders into pretrial services programs unless they post a monetary bail. Opponents call it a giveaway to bond companies.

"If you are going to come to Colorado and mess with our system, then you should at least have to comply the with the laws of our state," said Stefanie Clarke, a spokeswoman for groups opposed to Proposition 102.

Duran says his opponents are also playing loose with the law.

"It's ironic because our opponents are throwing this out there, and they haven't even set up a campaign committee yet," Duran said.

Indeed, no campaign has registered to oppose Proposition 102. Clarke said the groups that oppose Proposition 102 have not raised or spent money, and she works for the Pretrial Justice Institute. The nonprofit group has a First Amendment right to weigh in on issues, and its lawyer has made sure the group is following the law, she said.

The anti-102 groups have no plans to raise money or advertise, Clarke said.

Duran said he and Donovan paid for the petition campaign, which turned in 170,000 signatures Aug. 2. The official pro-102 campaign, Safe Streets Colorado, did not registered until 24 days later, and it still has not filed a campaign-finance report to disclose its donors to the public.

Duran blamed troubles with the secretary of state's website for not filing a report. The first report was due Sept. 8. Duran said he was working on the issue Wednesday, and he hoped to file reports within a few days. Meanwhile, the secretary of state's office has been charging fines of $50 per day since Sept. 8 to Safe Streets.

Duran said he is in compliance with the law as far as the petition campaign is concerned. Clarke said the opposition campaign also consulted lawyers and is confident it is following the law.

The law is clear, said Rich Coolidge, spokesman for Secretary of State Bernie Buescher.

"As soon as a group of people receive or spend over $200 to support or oppose an initiative or referendum, they need to disclose that information to our office," Coolidge said.

Testimony in a federal lawsuit this summer revealed that ballot campaigns typically spend $2 or more per signature to professional petition circulators. Duran and Donovan collected 170,000 signatures for Proposition 102 - about 30,000 more signatures than most successful ballot campaigns submit.

A similar case against three other ballot measures - the tax-cutting amendments 60 and 61 and Proposition 101 - is still dragging on. Opponents filed a complaint with the secretary of state in January, claiming the campaign never reported its expenses for petitions.

An administrative law judge in the secretary of state's office fined the three proponents $2,000 each, but they have appealed the fine.

The judge also found that anti-tax activist Douglas Bruce was a guiding force behind the initiatives. Bruce recently beat an attempt to hold him in contempt of court for not testifying in the case, and he continues to try to get his subpoena to testify thrown out.

The penalty for flouting the law is small compared to the amount of money often spent on campaigns.

If the $50-a-day fines continue to pile up, the secretary of state's office can dissolve the committee and send its bill to a collections agency, Coolidge said. A citizen has to file a complaint against a campaign in order to drag it into court.

"It's a fairly meager fine at worst that someone faces," said Carroll, the state senator. "The election can be done and over and society affected before we know who's behind this."

Safe Streets' opponents and Colorado Ethics Watch are considering whether to file a complaint with the secretary of state, but they have not decided yet.

Legally, it makes no difference whether Duran's fellow sponsor, Donovan, is a registered voter, because Colorado law does not require a person to be a state resident or voter to propose a ballot initiative.

Both Duran and Donovan recently worked in Virginia, where they have been active in the political campaigns about bail bonds. Duran is a registered voter in El Paso County, according to the secretary of state's office.

In official correspondence about Proposition 102, both list their address as 2910 North Prowers Blvd. in Colorado Springs. The address is a strip mall.

Donovan is the government affairs director for the Pennsylvania-based Bail USA, which is the largest bail bond underwriter in the country.

Donovan previously was the political director for Virginians for the Preservation of Bail, a lobbying group that tried to convince the Virginia Legislature to adopt a law like Proposition 102. Duran's name also shows up as a contact on the website of Virginians for the Preservation of Bail.

Safe Streets Colorado's spokesman, Conner Morris, also has worked for the Virginia grou