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September 12, 2008 — Rep. Frank McNulty is one of a trio of GOP state lawmakers thought to be behind the Western Skies Coalition — a Virginia corporation raising oil and gas money to target key state senate races.
In an interview with RealVail.com, McNulty (R-Highlands Ranch) declined to discuss the group’s funding sources Tuesday, but he did acknowledge signing its “Energy Leadership Action Plan” pledge.
“I signed the Western Skies pledge on a balanced energy portfolio,” McNulty said. “I think that’s critically important. We need to be looking at traditional sources like coal, and hopefully clean-coal technologies, and natural gas. We also need to look at increasing the use of hydro power. And I think we need to look at nuclear.”
Several sources, both on and off the record, have told Colorado Independent that McNulty, along with Sen. Josh Penry (R-Grand Junction) and Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Yuma), are behind the Western Skies Coalition (WSC), which bills itself as a 501(c)4 nonprofit organization but has not registered as such with the Internal Revenue Service.
In a release late Tuesday, Colorado Ethics Watch officials said they hope to force Sen. John (sic) Penry (R-Grand Junction) [actually Josh], Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Yuma) and Rep. Frank McNulty (R-Highlands Ranch) to turn over “additional relevant documents” after only partially complying through the Office of Legislative Legal Services.
According to the Ethics Watch release, the three lawmakers first objected to the open-records request made under the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) but then did turn over a handful of documents via the OLLS.
“I haven’t heard about Ethics Watch filing a lawsuit, no,” McNulty said in a phone interview late Tuesday. “I am aware that we complied with the Open Records Act request.”
But the OLLS advised Colorado Ethics Watch, according to the release, that Penry, Gardner and McNulty withheld additional documents because when lawmakers discuss a ballot initiative they are not acting as legislators, and therefore the documents aren’t subject to the Open Records Act.
“State lawmakers are using the initiative process as an alternative means of advancing their agenda, and therefore their e-mails to each other should be considered public records under the law, open to public review,” Chantell Taylor, director of Colorado Ethics Watch, said in the release.
“This lawsuit addresses a troubling resistance to transparency in government. We hope the judge will recognize the dangerous precedent being set when lawmakers can claim a large portion of their work is unofficial business, and not open to public scrutiny.”
Without seeing the lawsuit or the press release, McNulty would not comment on the argument that e-mails and other correspondence between lawmakers on ballot initiatives should be subject to the Open Records Act, but he did question the political motivations of Colorado Ethics Watch.
“I don’t know that I can make sense out of what Ethics Watch is doing,” McNulty said. “The best I can tell is that it’s an organization that has the sole interest of going after nearly exclusively Republicans, and that just doesn’t make much sense to me.”
In an e-mail response to McNulty, Colorado Ethics Watch Senior Legal Counsel Luis Toro replied that “this has nothing to do with partisan politics and everything to do with government transparency. The issue is whether legislators who use the initiative process to promote their legislative agenda are entitled to operate in secret, and we look forward to having a judge decide whether the objections filed to our CORA request are valid or not.”
The CEW release cites a 2005 Colorado Supreme Court ruling that e-mails between a county clerk and a staff member he was having an affair with were not public records under CORA because the correspondence didn’t relate to public business.
Now Ethics Watch says that precedent is routinely invoked to keep secret all sorts of records that do qualify as official business, including requests to determine “whether public officials are improperly conducting campaign business using public resources.”
“E-mails among legislators regarding ballot initiatives have a direct link to their official role in the legislature because Colorado legislators are authorized to, and often do, sponsor initiatives as an alternative means to accomplish legislative objectives,” Taylor said in the release.
Penry, Gardner and McNulty back Amendment 52, which voters will decide on the Nov. 4 statewide ballot, as a means of dedicating state oil and gas severance tax revenues to fund road repairs and improvements, with an emphasis on Interstate 70.
Calling it “the only plan on November’s ballot to fund transportation,” McNulty, who last legislative session unsuccessfully tried to push through an I-70 toll to pay for improvements to the state’s critical but congested main east-west highway, says Amendment 52 is a better solution than a toll, which would be unpopular with mountain communities.
“I-70 is important to not only local economies up there but the Denver Chamber has a report that says congestion on I-70 costs the state of Colorado $800 million a year, and that’s in lost wages, lost jobs, lost revenue, and so that’s something that we need to tackle, and we have an opportunity to do it with Amendment 52.”
WSC has a Littleton office, but messages left there have not been returned, and both Penry and Gardner did not return numerous phone calls and e-mails seeking comment.
So-called C4 organizations by law do not have to disclose donors but must engage in promoting social issues, with no more than 49 percent for their contributions spent on political advocacy. Western Skies in recent weeks ran thousands of dollars worth of television ads in support of Republican state senate candidates Shawn Mitchell and Libby Szabo.
The ads have portrayed both Mitchell, an incumbent from Broomfield and Szabo, a businesswoman running for Senate District 19 on the Front Range, as green-energy advocates. In fact, Mitchell has repeatedly voted against increasing the state’s renewable-energy portfolio and Szabo is running on a pro-traditional-energy platform. Neither Mitchell nor Szabo returned messages requesting comment
According to an Aug. 29 story in the Rocky Mountain News, Mitchell also signed the Western Skies pledge, but did so because of its traditional-energy opportunities rather than its nod to pursuing renewable sources, telling the paper, “What I’m not is a clean-energy statist that’s going to force consumers to transition before it makes sense.”
McNulty said he is interested in renewables as part of a menu of energy-production options: “On the hydro front we need to look at pump-back, because it provides the ability to provide a battery for wind and solar, which we also need to look at. Wind and solar make sense, but it doesn’t work all the time and it doesn’t work without having some way to flip the switch and generate electricity when the wind’s not blowing or the sun’s not shining. I don’t think it’s to the detriment of oil and gas.”
McNulty added it’s simply a matter of maintaining the Colorado lifestyle.
“It’s clear that as a state and nation we’re going to have to look at the full broad spectrum of energy resources if we’re going to be able to continue our economic growth and be able to continue something resembling the standard of living to which we as Coloradans have become accustomed,” he said.
Several oil and gas companies with extensive interests in Colorado flatly refused to disclose whether they have contributed to Western Skies, and McNulty wouldn’t go there either. The group lists on its executive committee former Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican who used to work as an oil and gas lobbyist and was behind the infamous Trailhead Group 527 that flooded state airwaves with attack ads in 2006.
Another reportedly targeted race — Senate District 8 in northwest Colorado, which includes parts of gas-rich Garfield County — has yet to see substantial injections of outside money.
“I’ve seen a couple of mailers for me that have come from somebody called Coloradans for Integrity, and I don’t know who that is. I haven’t seen anything against me,” said Rep. Al White (R-Hayden), who’s running to replace term-limited Sen. Jack Taylor in SD 8. “It’s certainly not to the extent that some of those targeted Front Range races are being identified for support, and I don’t know frankly how much more I will get, if anything, by way of outside entities.”
Coloradans for Integrity is a Colorado LLC registered in January to Jennie Willis, a receptionist at Denver-based Axiom Strategies, which on its Web site purports to be a bi-partisan political consulting and lobbying firm. It lists among its clients the Colorado Independent Energy Association, which promotes natural gas production but also renewable energy.
White is running against former Steamboat Springs City Councilman Ken Brenner, a Democrat who’s accused his opponent of being in the pocket of the oil-and-gas industry, which White flatly denies, pointing to two past endorsements from the environmentally-minded Colorado Conservation Voters.
As for a concerted Republican strategy to retake the senate using groups such as Western Skies, White said it’s no secret the state GOP wants to regain the legislative majority standing it enjoyed for decades before being ousted in 2004.
“Yeah, the party’s always interested in having the majority, and although my seat would just be a hold as opposed to a pickup, until we stop losing seats we’re never going to get the majority back,” White said. Democrats hold 20 of the 35 senate seats and Republicans would need to maintain those seats and pick off three from the Dems in the 18 races being contested in November in order to regain a majority.
McNulty declined to discuss the overall Republican strategy for regaining control of the senate, but acknowledged 501(c)4 groups have supplanted 527s (also named for their IRS code) as a useful political tool since the crackdown this year on 527 disclosure.
“It is interesting how 501(c)4’s have become the new 527s, but it’s a campaign finance change,” McNulty said. “Folks are going to figure out how to support the issues that are important to them, so whether that’s through a state party, or a 527, or a contribution to an individual candidate, or whatever vehicle is out there, I suppose smart folks will figure out how to do it.”
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