DOUGLAS COUNTY, Colo. - The Douglas County School Board president is disputing allegations that the group broke campaign finance rules.
7NEWS first reported Thursday that an administrative law judge found Douglas County's School District violated Colorado's fair campaign practice laws by paying for a white paper intended to influence the November election.
The ruling followed a complaint filed by Julie Keim, an independent candidate in the board election, who argued the district's violations included hiring a conservative company to write a report that favored the conservative "reform agenda" favored by the sitting board. The judge's "Findings of Fact" indicated that all board members prior to the 2013 election supported that agenda.
However, school board president Kevin Larsen sent 7NEWS a news release that said the judge sided with the district in five of the six claims and that the district will appeal on the sixth claim.
"The Judge seems to have concluded that it is a violation of law anytime the district disseminates positive news involving its education policy agenda if there are also candidates for school board who support that agenda," Larsen wrote. "The district does not agree with that interpretation of law."
-- "Hess report" --
Administrative Law Judge Hollyce Farrell had harsh words for the district in the decision signed on Dec. 24, "The [administrative law judge] finds that the District spent public funds to influence the outcome of the Board election when it commissioned and paid $15,000 for the Hess Report."
Hess is Frederick M. Hess, the director of the American Enterprise Institute. His group was paid $30,000. Half of the payment came from the district and the other half was paid by the Douglas County School District Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit.
In a March 22, 2013 email cited by the judge, the contractor [AEI] wrote to the district's communications director to request guidance for the report.
The email said, in part, "We would prefer it if you would tell us what you want us to focus on, what is most worthy of attention, what you'd like to see written about and what your general angle on it (and the paper) is."
The finalized version of the report was released on Sept. 18 and cited by the district in a weekly newsletter sent to 85,000 subscribers. The final report uses superlatives like, "unusually ambitious," "remarkable," "bold," "illuminating" and "cage-busting leaders," to describe the reform agenda.
-- "Bennett report" --
Farrell's decision also cites a second report by former Secretary of Education Dr. William Bennett, which was funded with $50,000 of the foundation's money.
"Dr. Bennett's report (the "Bennett Report") was an endorsement for the District's reform agenda and was intended to influence the outcome of the Board election," Farrell wrote in her ruling.
She goes on to say that neither report contained independent reviews of the agenda.
-- No fines levied --
Farrell did not impose any fines against the district for these violations, saying that Keim's complaint did not request any. The district, however, plans to request an award for litigation costs on the basis of other allegations the judge overruled.
The ruling was signed on Christmas Eve, but the attached certificate of service indicates it was delivered to lawyers on Dec. 26.
A copy of Farrell's ruling was provided to CALL7 Investigator John Ferrugia Thursday night by Keim, who lost her race against Judith Reynolds by about 4 percent.
Douglas County School District is Colorado's third largest school district, serving over 60,000 students, school board officials said.
-- Entire statement from Board President Kevin Larsen--
"The Administrative Law Judge ruled in the District’s favor on five allegations under the campaign finance act, finding that there was absolutely no basis for those complaints. Because the Judge’s rejection of those allegations was so emphatic, the district intends to ask for an award in its litigation costs.
"In the lone claim in which the Administrative Law Judge found a violation, the district respectfully disagrees and will immediately appeal. The Judge seems to have concluded that it is a violation of law anytime the district disseminates positive news involving its education policy agenda if there are also candidates for school board who support that agenda. The district does not agree with that interpretation of law.
"This Administrative Law Judge’s interpretation is that the district cannot release information about the district if a candidate is running- or may decide to run in the future - and agrees with that information. We do not believe this is what the law states, as it would silence all public entities for months on end. This would effectively muzzle all public bodies in the future."