Douglas County School District to appeal ruling of campaign finance violations

Judge rules public money used illegally

CASTLE ROCK, Colo. - The Douglas County School District is appealing a judge's ruling that it used public money to commission a report and illegally influence the 2013 board election.

But district emails obtained by the CALL7 Investigators seem to support that administrative law judge's decision.

District Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen sent the report, which supported her educational and administrative plan, and which she called a "third party review," to 85,000 residents prior to the election. The "third party" was Frederick M. Hess, an education scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Superintendent Celania-Fagen did not mention that the district paid $35,000 for the report -- half of it public money.

"What we wanted to get was an honest assessment from them," said Kevin Larsen, Douglas County School Board President. "And that's what we felt we had, was an assessment of the programs that we have going on at our district."

But according to the foreword of the Hess Report, "it is not intended as an evaluation …"

Former Douglas County School Board candidate Julie Keim, who lost her campaign, brought the complaint of campaign finance violations before the court.

"I think the judge made it very clear that the report was a biased report and that public funds were used to influence the election," said Keim. "I think that's a big thing to overcome.

"The largest section of the paper was a section entitled 'Electing a Reform Board,'" Keim said. "I don't think you can get much more political than saying that in an independent review of public school reform."

The administrative law judge in the case clearly agrees. Her ruling reads in part, "… the Hess Report was not a third party, unbiased study. To the contrary, the report was an endorsement of the reform agenda and explained the advantage of having a unified Board to fuel that agenda … The Hess Report was purchased with public money to influence the outcome of the Board election."

Larsen told the CALL7 Investigators he doesn't see it that way. He said the report was simply pointing out the obvious.

"The Hess report, again, I can't speculate on what all of the elements that they were pursuing to do," said Larsen. "I think they may have found it interesting that when you have a board that is able to be cohesive, it's amazing what kinds of things you can get done."

But emails between Hess, his staff and Douglas County School District Communications Director Cinamon Watson -- a longtime conservative political operative who ran Republican Jane Norton's unsuccessful campaign for senate in 2010, and served as deputy campaign manager for former Congressman Bob Beauprez’s gubernatorial bid in 2006 -- seem to tell a different story. In one exchange, Hess's research assistant Max Eden asks Watson to reduce the scheduled meetings and interviews required to produce the report, and it seems clear that he and Hess are attempting to write what the district wants written.

"Ideally we would love for you all to help us help you," Eden wrote. "We can touch base as the date draws closer, but we would prefer not to go out there with a blank slate … We would prefer that if you would tell us what you want us to focus on, what is most worth of attention, what you'd like to see written about and what your general angle on it (and the paper) is … We encourage you to tailor our time out there to directed interviews with folks you want to make a particular point of in us meeting and writing about them."

Larsen said Eden's words are open to interpretation.

"I think that again interpreting what the questions were going to be," Larsen said. "I think there's a lot of ways you can interpret an email, and I think that's going to be a central element of the case as it goes to the court."

But Keim said the purpose of the Hess Report is clear.

"It was really a piece of political propaganda," she said. "And they were asking what they needed to do to please the district so that they could get this piece of propaganda out."

Keim did not ask for a fine or any damages from the district. She said she is seeking only the truth.

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