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DENVER – The Great Colorado Payback is State Treasurer Walker Stapleton’s highest-profile responsibility – reuniting Coloradans with their unclaimed property.
The treasurer’s office touts Stapleton’s impressive successes. Under his leadership, the Unclaimed Property Division has processed more public claims and returned more money to Coloradans than any state treasurer in history, said Rachel George, spokeswoman for the treasurer’s office.
But Stapleton is the Republican candidate for governor, and a new TV attack ad by a Democrat-funded group accuses him of mismanaging the payback program and using publicly funded TV ads to burnish his political image.
The Great Colorado Payback is “a program run by State Treasurer Walker Stapleton that’s supposed to return unclaimed money to widows, surviving children and other rightful owners,” says the ad sponsored by Good Jobs Colorado, an independent expenditure committee funded by groups like the Democratic Governors Association.
“But the program’s been mismanaged so badly some waited years for their money,” the ads narrator says.
During eight years in office, Stapleton has achieved results – good and bad.
Begun in 1989, the payback seeks to return unclaimed property that includes forgotten bank account money, valuables left in safe deposit boxes, unpaid wages, life insurance payouts and tax refunds that were sent but returned because the person moved. The state treasurer currently maintains a list of over 1.7 million names of individuals and businesses for whom property is available.
The treasurer’s office didn’t start using TV ads to encourage residents to claim their misplaced property until Democrat Cary Kennedy was elected treasurer in 2006.
But Stapleton boosted attention for the payback by airing TV ads during the popular March Madness college basketball tournament.
He more than doubled public claims from 53,000 when he took office in 2011 to nearly 140,000 in 2017, according to George. He has returned $197 million to Coloradans through the payback, which is 50 percent of the total $391 million given back since the program began.
But as his TV ads unleashed a flood of new claims, the program’s 14-employee staff didn’t increase, and it was hampered by antiquated paper-claims filing and phone systems.
“The volume of claims was increasing exponentially, and the staff was not,” George said.
The public’s complaints about the program soared.
Dianne Ehalt wrote the program in October 2016, saying that she had been trying for a year and half to claim $10,000. “This money was for my grandkids,” she wrote, ticking off their four names.
She especially wanted to help a granddaughter continue her education.
“She is struggling without assistance,” the grandmother wrote. “You have over $10,000.00 dollars of my money and no one knows where it is...Some ‘Great Colorado Payback” program...I am past frustrated and now pretty angry.”
Denver7 reviewed complaints about the program from 2016, 2017 and 2018.
People wrote that they had been trying for years to reclaim money, enduring requests for documents they’ve already provided and leaving repeated phone messages that weren’t returned.
“We have been battling this claim for a year and 3 months,” Bonnie Saxton wrote in July 2016. “In May, we were told the funds were ready to be released.”
“Our parents passed away years ago,” Saxton said, and now the program was telling her and her siblings “to prove ourselves as heirs.” Documented “proof” they had filed with the program “has been lost by the claims office and now they are asking for it again...The claims office has been very negligent in communication.”
A fed-up woman named Ada wrote that she was willing to accept half the money she was owed if the program will “close this State goose chase spanning years.”
George said the complaints peaked in 2016 as the agency’s leadership recognized its staff and aging phone system were overwhelmed. “Calls were not being answered or not coming through,” George said.
Stapleton acknowledged the payback program’s problems in response to a 2017 CBS4 investigation of public complaints.
“That is a problem that we absolutely have to fix; it is a big problem,” Stapleton told CBS4. “...Our complaints have absolutely spiked. We should not have a system that makes people feel frustrated. If someone is waiting a year to get paid that is way too long and we need to fix that. It’s unacceptable, absolutely unacceptable.”
“Would I have in retrospect wished that I could have proactively dealt with this a couple years ago? Sure, absolutely. But I wasn’t aware of the problem of the antiquated systems quite frankly. Now I am,” Stapleton added.
George said Stapleton began modernizing the system in 2016 – a year before the investigative stories hit. The paper complaint process was converted to a digital system, so people could file supporting documents electronically. A new phone system was installed. The treasurer’s office also hired a company to verify the identity of people whose claims are $100 or less. (A state law requirement that adds to the time it takes to process claims).
Yet, George said the state’s strict employee protections prevented Stapleton from quickly replacing the director of the payback program, who voluntarily retired earlier this year. Instead a former treasury manager was brought back from retirement in 2017 to help implement improvements.
Stapleton also has said the state legislature has “no appetite” for increasing the payback’s staff, his spokeswoman confirmed.
While George says the complaints are decreasing, they haven’t completely stopped and neither has the bad press.
The Denver Post recently ran an editorial headlined, “Walker Stapleton's Great Colorado Payback problem” along with an in-depth story on the troubled program and how it was stoking Democratic criticism during the governor’s race.
The editorial gave Stapleton credit for boosting property claims, and for ultimately owning up to the problems and taking strides to fix them.
Yet, the Post also wondered what took so long.
“But as demand for the program increased why did it take six years for Stapleton to realize there were problems...,” the editorial said. “...And if demand is outstripping a business' ability to supply its product, wouldn't it be wise to cut back on advertising efforts until the problem was resolved. Instead Stapleton continued to advertise each year, drumming up customers for an office that was understaffed and antiquated.”
Meanwhile, the state auditor is planning an audit of the management of the Great Colorado Payback, but it’s not expected to be completed until July or August of 2019 – long after the November election.
George said, “The treasurer’s office totally welcomes the audit. We want to show the results [of program improvements] because we know it’s going to make us look good.”
“It’s not a perfect program, but there’s a lot of success there,” she added.
The attack ad also criticizes Stapleton’s use of the TV ads to educate the public about the payback, saying it’s free publicity for him and his run for the governor’s office.
“Meanwhile, Walker Stapleton spent a million dollars in public funds on ads to promote himself,” the ad narrator says.
One ad shows Stapleton flipping a football on the Broncos’ Mile High stadium field, with his face displayed on giant stadium TV screens.
The ads are paid for with public funds -- interest the state collects from unclaimed funds and property. But no taxpayer money is used.
During the Republican gubernatorial primary election in March, opponents complained that Stapleton was getting free airtime with public money.
"I mean it's clearly a political ad -- they are using public funds," Victor Mitchell, then a Republican candidate for governor, told FOX31.
Stapleton campaign spokesman Jerrod Dobkin called the ad’s claim that he used public money on ads to promote himself is “flat out false, since running television ads was something started by his Democrat predecessor.”
George, the treasurer’s office spokeswoman, said the ads are essential to the treasurer’s mission of helping Coloradans reclaim their lost valuables. “The whole job of the treasurer is to return this money. And how can you do that if people aren’t claiming the money?” she said.
The Good Jobs Colorado ad says, the Great Colorado Payback has been “mismanaged so badly some waited years for their money.”
Stapleton has admitted that the program was a “big problem” and it was “absolutely unacceptable” for anyone to wait a year to reclaim their money or property. He also admitted, “I wasn’t aware of the problem” for years.
But the ad ignores the full context. Overall, Stapleton has processed more public claims and returned more money -- $197 million -- to Coloradans than any other state treasurer.
We rate this claim Half True.
The ad also says, “Walker Stapleton spent a million dollars in public funds on ads to promote himself.” Stapleton does appear in TV ads to encourage Coloradans to come claim their forgotten money and property. Republican opponents complained about Stapleton getting free airtime in his race for governor. And the treasurer’s office doesn’t challenge the ad sponsor’s evidence that about $1.3 million – money from interest on unclaimed money and property -- has been spent on airing the ads during Stapleton’s eight years as treasurer.
But Stapleton’s spokespeople correctly point out that using TV ads was started by his Democratic predecessor; and the ads are a proven tool for motivating the public to reclaim misplaced valuables – a key responsibility of the treasurer. It’s hard to argue that Stapleton’s investing $1.3 million to return $197 million to Coloradans is not money well-spent for the public.
We rate this claim Misleading.
Editor's Note: This fact-check will air Tuesday on Denver7 News at 10.