A $40,000 fine. Someone must have done something really bad, right? Think again.
Home to one of the nation’s most complex and rapidly changing campaign finance environments, Colorado’s rules can be overwhelming for even the most seasoned politico. For first-time legislative candidate, Dave Pigott, however, he played by the rules. Utilizing his law degree to obsessively devour each and every rule, he paid close attention when it came to properly reporting contributions on compulsory reports due to the Secretary of State.
For all of his diligence, he is now being attacked. The 33-year-old Republican now faces a possible court battle after a Democratic operative recently filed an ethics complaint wrongly alleging that Pigott misreported a handful of contributions. As punishment, the attorney claims that Pigott should be forced to pay more than $40,000 in fines and compelled to disable his volunteer-created $400 web site.
Under state law, campaigns are required to not only report all monetary contributions, but also “in-kind” contributions. For contributions of $20 or more, or in-kind services similarly valued at or above $20, detailed information about the contributor must be reported. In cases where the contributions are worth less than $20 in either of these categories, campaigns are instructed to aggregate the donations in a separate category under which names of contributors are not disclosed. So this is what Pigott did.
While his campaign paid the minimal costs associated with setting up his site, it was close friends and supporters who assisted him in getting the design completed. Given that these volunteers were never compensated, I asked Pigott how he came up with the $400 value he reported. He had a solid explanation. He based it on the site’s estimated market value. Several people were involved in the process, including volunteers and friends. Not a single person was paid.
There is a strong legal argument that Pigott didn’t need to report the site in the first place. Under Colorado law, “in kind” contributions are defined in a way that inevitably leaves much of the analysis up to the individual campaign. Just a few years ago, Colorado hosted a nationally watched case attacking overly restrictive interpretations of “in kind” contributions as a unconstitutional restraint of free speech.
The argument that Pigott broke the rules by not reporting the names of each and every person who helped on his site free of charge could lead to ridiculous future implications. Imagine if every candidate were forced to report each volunteer’s time walking-door-to-door in support of a campaign? What is the market value of a Saturday afternoon handing out campaign literature?
The claim that Pigott should be fined more than $40,000 is contrary to well established campaign finance rules that limit daily fines to each report containing a violation and not to each individual violation alleged within a single report. Even if Pigott had misreported contributions, the cap in fines would be a mere fraction of the desired tally.
While the complaint’s filing made a small splash in the local media, the attorney at the helm of the attack neglected to show up for a hearing on the complaint set in administrative court earlier this month. Pigott, meanwhile, has been forced to spend dozens of hours developing his defense to the outlandish allegations. His motion to dismiss is now pending before the court.
Perhaps the goal of the complaint was not to win in court, but more cynically to divert Pigott from actively campaigning to earn the support of voters in his Broomfield district. If there is any justice at the end of this reckless charade, it will be that he is able to recoup his legal fees. Mind you, it won’t be $40,000 but maybe it should be. Regardless of partisan affiliation, lobbing meritless bombs against an innocent candidate should not be tolerated.
Jessica K. Peck, Esq. serves as executive director of the Open Government Institute of Colorado. www.OGIColorado.org.