united states project

Colorado journalists miss local angle in super PAC case

Missed connection: Localized campaign finance coverage ISO beat reporter
February 17, 2015

COLORADO SPRINGS, CO — Late last week, a story rumbled across the news feeds of people who pay attention to money in politics: For the first time, federal authorities had successfully prosecuted someone for illegal coordination between a super PAC and a political campaign. But here in Colorado, the story didn’t tickle the Richter scale of the mainstream media—even though there was a notable local connection.

The background is pretty straightforward. From The New York Times’ Feb. 12 report:

A Virginia-based Republican political consultant pleaded guilty on Thursday to charges that he illegally coordinated spending between a 2012 congressional campaign and a “super PAC,” federal prosecutors said.

The consultant, Tyler E. Harber, was accused of managing a congressional campaign while helping create and direct a super PAC that spent $325,000 attacking a rival candidate, according to the Justice Department.

Here’s why this matters. In Citizens United and other cases in recent years, the US Supreme Court has relaxed many of the rules surrounding campaign finance, with the result that outside groups like super PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts to help or oppose a candidate. One of the remaining restrictions is that outside groups and official candidate campaigns can’t coordinate their efforts—but politicos have found novel ways to get around that rule. And the Federal Elections Commission, which is in charge of regulating such behavior, is gridlocked along partisan lines and hasn’t been able to agree on how to respond.

So, the fact that federal prosecutors have decided to get involved, and that they actually busted someone, is a fairly big deal.

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At the same time, campaign finance can be arcane stuff, and the congressional campaign in question was in Viriginia. In many states, the news likely didn’t find a spot in the local, or even national, sections of the daily newspaper. 

But in Colorado, it should have. Tyler Harber, the man at the center of this story, was the person tapped last year by the state Republican Party to head up an independent expenditure committee—akin to a super PAC, though the party doesn’t use that term —with ties to the state GOP last year.

And whether the state will even allow political parties to operate these kinds of groups is the subject of an ongoing legal battle—with questions about coordination at the center of the dispute.

The story here started in 2014, when the Colorado Republican Party asked the Secretary of State for guidance about whether the party could form an independent expenditure committee, branded CORE. The Secretary of State, a Republican, indicated the state courts should decide. 

On its website, CORE calls itself “the first of its kind in Colorado and across most of the nation, as the state Republican Party will be utilizing existing state laws to organize and operate a committee that can raise and spend unlimited funds to aid in electing Republican candidates.” The state GOP chairman described the move at the time as a response to rising labor union and interest-group spending on behalf of Democrats.

While state authorities didn’t oppose the Republican plans, the Denver-based nonprofit Colorado Ethics Watch intervened, challenging the move in court. Ethics Watch lost, and has appealed. As the case is pending in the Court of Appeals, CORE, which describes itself as “the Colorado Republican Party’s official independent expenditure arm,” has been soliciting donations.

‪The state GOP has argued that the official party organization and its independent expenditure committee won’t coordinate, while Ethics Watch argues the committee is part of the party, should be subject to contribution limits, and will coordinate.

And here we have Tyler Harber, the man the Republican Party chairman appointed as the director of CORE, pleading guilty to coordinating a super PAC with a candidate campaign in another state.

That should be a newsworthy story for Colorado, but the state’s press corps took a pass, leaving it up to local blogs on the left and the right to point out the connection. The situation also got major play on the conservative talk radio show 560 KLZ The Source with Ken Clark Monday night. 

The absence of such reporting from the state’s mainstream journalists isn’t a surprise to Luis Toro, director of Colorado Ethics Watch, who says there wasn’t much coverage of the lawsuit to begin with. And for his part, Colorado’s Republican Party chairman, Ryan Call, is content with the lack of coverage.

In a phone call, Call said Harber is no longer involved with the state party or its independent expenditure committee–and that anything the consultant did in another state is no more relevant here than if Call was given a traffic ticket while driving through Washington, DC. 

I also pinged a handful of politics editors and reporters in the state to see if they might have thoughts on why the story didn’t merit coverage, or whether this one just slipped by. Some didn’t respond or declined to offer insights (and Denver Post politics editor Chuck Plunkett was out of the office and couldn’t be reached), but Nick Riccardi of The Associated Press shared some thoughts. 

With the legislative session in full swing, he said, the state’s political reporters are completely overwhelmed with what’s happening in the General Assembly. 

“I don’t have that burden but I’m in the middle of some presidential campaign stories and AP already wrote the national story,” Riccardi said. “The longer answer may be that, frankly, people here in general don’t seem very interested in the ins and outs of political maneuvering and machinery as they are in other states.” He called the Harber-Colorado connection “pretty tenuous unless the reporter can advance the story more,” and said it’s a risk reporters might not want to take in the midst of the legislative session.

Jason Salzman, former media critic for the defunct Rocky Mountain News, had a related take—though he thought the story deserved coverage. 

“I think the dwindling number of journalists who’d be likely to cover this would agree that it should have been reported,” Salzman said. “The story falls through the cracks of the sparse ‘beats,’ such as they are, that remain. It’s not the state legislature. It’s not city hall. Not police. Maybe it’s DC? So a story like this is ‘owned’ by maybe just a small number of political reporters or editors. And they missed it.”

Update: Since this post was published, the case has been covered by The Durango Herald (Feb. 17), The Denver Post (Feb. 18), and The Colorado Statesman (Feb. 18).

Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he teaches journalism at Colorado College. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins writes about politics and media for the Colorado Independent and worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity; he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, the Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.