A campaign finance complaint alleging Denver mayoral candidate Lisa Calderón and incumbent City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca circumvented city law by sharing polling data and other resources without properly documenting it on campaign finance reports was dismissed for lack of evidence.
Hearing officer Macon Cowles found that the complaint filed by Kwon Atlas, CdeBaca’s then-opponent in the race for the City Council District 9 seat, in late March failed to meet standards to demonstrate that the two candidates violated general campaign finance regulations.
Atlas contended that Calderón and CdeBaca using the polling data without recording it was an in-kind contribution to their campaigns and violated election law even if it came before Calderón filed her candidate paperwork. The value of the polling data also may have exceeded campaign contribution limits for candidates participating in the city’s Fair Election Fund program.
Cowles explained his decision to dismiss the complaint in a 9-page ruling. First, the complaint failed to provide facts that showed it was filed within 30 days of Atlas knowing about the alleged violations, the legal timeline for filing a complaint. Second, it failed to provide facts that made the alleged violations plausible.
“The complaint here alleges only suspicions that there have been violations of the (general campaign finance regulations),” Cowles wrote. “It lacks specific facts and circumstances describing who, what, when where and how that make the existence of a violation plausible.”
In a news release from her campaign Tuesday morning, Calderón described Atlas’ complaint as a baseless and retaliatory attack from a former “low-level” staffer of outgoing Mayor Michael Hancock. Calderón has been a frequent vocal critic of the Hancock administration over the years as well as an opponent in court and at the ballot box.
She came in third in the mayor’s race in 2019 when Hancock won his third term. She also finished third in the April 4 primary election that sent Kelly Brough and Mike Johnston to the runoff for the city’s open mayoral seat.
Cowles did not immediately respond to a voicemail seeking comment on his ruling on Tuesday.
In his report, Cowles described the type of specific information Atlas’ complaint failed to provide.
“The Complaint fails to state who performed the poll, who paid for it, how much they paid for it, when it was released and to whom, whether the poll is publicly available or privately commissioned, or whether the poll had any value at all,” Cowles wrote.
After the complaint was dismissed Monday, Calderón blasted media coverage of Atlas’s complaint in the days before the election.
“I’m disappointed that some in the press chose to chase and elevate this sloppy work of fiction disguised as a campaign finance complaint by a political operative with a clear vendetta rather than do their due diligence,” Calderón said.
The Denver Post coverage of Atlas’ complaint included two experienced election lawyers, John S. Zakhem and Chris M. Jackson, who were not affiliated with any campaigns in the April 4 election.
The two lawyers reviewed allegations and evidence shared on an anonymous website, EthicsMatterDenver.com, that also formed the basis for Atlas’s complaint. The website features a 30-minute recording of a meeting between Calderón, CdeBaca and a handful of other progressive City Council candidates during which they discuss polling data from a yet-to-be-released poll commissioned by Emerge Colorado, the political organization Calderón leads as executive director.
While Zakhem saw evidence of a potentially serious violation of the law, Jackson was more reserved in his assessment of if it broke the law. Still, he said the allegations raised questions about the transparency of the campaigns.
“Whether or not it’s a technical violation, it’s a thing people should think about and worry about if this is how we want our elections to be run,” he said at the time. “Campaigns are an arms race. Everyone is competing with each other, and it’s very hard to say to one candidate you should unilaterally disarm and do more than the law requires when you’re in a competition with others.”
CdeBaca described Atlas’ complaint as part of a pattern political opponents have used to attack and attempt to discredit her dating back to her first campaign for council ahead of the 2019 election. She cited an ethics complaint a Denver police officer filed against her in 2020 alleging improper conduct at a homeless encampment sweep as an example. The Denver Board of Ethics dismissed that complaint weeks after it was filed, citing a lack of jurisdiction.
“Every single one has been dismissed,” CdeBaca said of the complaints brought against her. “I hope that people can see in an election how this is used.”
CdeBaca is now facing Darrell Watson in the runoff stage of the race for District 9. She earned 44.2% of the vote in the first round and Watson 42.9%. Atlas came in third in the district race with 12.8% of the vote.
Atlas’s complaint, and media coverage of it, could discourage other women of color from running for political office in the future, Calderón, who is Afro-Latina, said in her statement Tuesday. With primarily white men covering and providing commentary on the city’s mayoral and City Council races, she feels nuance around the unique challenges brought on by racial and gender power dynamics are not being properly understood or covered. She called for more diversity in local newsrooms from management down to political reporters covering races.
“I’m so tired of having the same type of political experts, who know nothing about the challenges we face as women of color candidates, continually weighing in on our races,” she said. “There were times I was rendered invisible as a candidate and other times I was made hypervisible.”
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