Mystery money powers Colorado ballot questions

Campaign-finance reformers won’t reveal donors

DENVER – This November, Colorado voters will be asked to get big money out of politics.

But it will be mystery money fueling the campaigns for their votes.

Coloradans will see three citizen ballot initiatives this year, to legalize marijuana, support a U.S. Constitutional amendment to limit political spending and to the “personhood” initiative to treat human embryos as people – and therefore outlaw abortion and some forms of birth control.

Except for the personhood initiative, most of the money comes from out of state, and the identity of the donors probably will never be known.

The campaign against money in politics turned in nearly 177,000 petition signatures Monday that it gathered in just a month – an unprecedented pace for Colorado ballot campaigns.

It did so because of $360,000 from Fair Share Alliance. But the money behind Fair Share isn’t known. It’s a nonprofit group known as a 501(c)4, allowing it to spend money on political causes without revealing the identity of its donors.

Brad Martin, executive director of Fair Share Alliance, said his group “complied with the law completely and diligently.”

“We also respect, obviously, the privacy of our donors,” Martin said.

The $360,000 that Fair Share has spent is a paltry sum compared to the flood of corporate election money, Martin said.

“The citizens are always David, and Goliath in this case is a bunch of very well-heeled corporate groups that have very loud agendas,” Martin said.

The use of nonprofits by a campaign on the left amused Jon Caldara, director of the conservative Independence Institute.

“Hello, pot? It’s kettle. You’re black,” Caldara said.

Liberal activists sued Caldara’s group several years ago to get it to reveal its donors when it ran campaigns against Referenda C and D in 2005.

But a judge sided with the Independence Institute, and now any nonprofit can keep its donor list secret while spending on Colorado ballot initiatives – even campaign-finance reformers.

“They themselves are playing by the rules we support, which is organizations should be able to express themselves in the political process,” Caldara said.

Fair Share Alliance appears to be part of a network of progressive groups active in Colorado and Washington, D.C.

The group keeps its headquarters in Denver, although its Web page lists its address as 218 D St. S.E. in Washington, D.C., a building that houses groups such as Environment America and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. Its books are kept by the Boston-based Fund for the Public Interest, according to 2010 tax forms. Fair Share’s registration with the Florida Division of Corporations also directed mail to the Fund for the Public Interest, which also is a nonprofit.

Both sides in the marijuana ballot initiative also rely on 501(c)4s.

The Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project has spent more than $1 million on the Colorado campaign to legalize possessing small amounts of marijuana. And the Florida-based Save Our Society From Drugs has spent about $21,000 to fight it.

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